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Belgium's Claim to Fame

By Edited Jan 4, 2016 4 8

After seven years in the UK, my accent is no longer as strong as it used to be. People no longer automatically assume I'm foreign and in fact, most people think I'm from elsewhere in the UK. Occasionally, someone does ask "Where are you from". A question usually closely followed with the statement : “Nobody famous ever came from Belgium”. For a long time, the only person I could think of was Jean-Claude Van Damme.  A response usually met with a lot of laughter. So after some research, I’ve come up with this list of 10 famous Belgians which will once and for all confirm Belgium’s claim to fame. (Hint: There's a big surprise at number 1)

10. Gerardus Mercator

Gerardus Mercator
Gerardus Mercator was born Gerard de Kremer in the village of Rupelmonde on 5th March 1512. He adopted the name Mercator (Latin for merchant) as a young man. Mercator gained fame during the Renaissance as a cartographer and invented the map projection which bears his name in 1569. The Mercator projection became the standard for nautical purposes. His first map was a wall map of the world consisting of 18 separate sheets. He first used the word atlas to describe a collection of maps, was the first to use the term North America on his maps and the first to depict America stretching the southern and northern hemisphere. Mercator published the first book on Italic Script in Northern Europe. This script was the most suitable for copper engraving of maps. He devised a technique using papier-mâché and gesso to create globes of which 22 have survived till today. Mercator died in 1594 in the german city of Duisburg.

9. Andreas Vesalius

Andreas Vesalius
Andreas van Wesel (1514-1564), better known as Andreas Vesalius, was a world-famous anatomist and physician and is often called the founder of modern human anatomy. After his graduation, he was offered the chair of Surgery and Anatomy at the university of Padua. Vesalius was the first to carry out dissections as a primary teaching tool. He kept detailed drawings of his work on six large tables which he published in 1538. In 1539, a Paduan judge made bodies of executed criminals available to Vesalius for dissection. This allowed Vesalius to produce the first set of accurate and detailed anatomical diagrams. Previously, anatomical diagrams were based on ape dissections.

In 1543, Vesalius carried out the public dissection on the notorious felon Jakob Karrer von Gebweiler. The skeleton stands as the oldest anatomical preparation, currently displayed at the Anatomical museum of the University of Basel. Later in 1543, he published his groundbreaking work on human anatomy 'De humani corporis fabrica' (On the fabric of the human body) which he dedicated to Charles V. This led to Vesalius taking up a post as physician at the court of Charles V, a post which he kept till his retirement.

In 1564, Vesalius commenced a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. On his way back, his ship crashed on the Greek island Zakynthos where he died at the age of 50.

8. Rene Magritte

Rene Magritte was a Belgian surrealist painter born in Lessines in 1898. Magritte's earlier paintings, from about 1915, were Impressionistic in style. Between 1918 and 1924, his paintings became heavily influenced by Futurism and Cubism. His work then were female nudes. After jobs in the infantry, draughtsman in a wallpaper factory and poster and advertisement designer, Magritte was offered a contract at the Galerie Le Centaure in Brussels which allowed him to become a full-time painter. In 1926, Magritte produced his first surrealist painting " Le jockey perdu" (The lost jockey) and he held his first exhibition in Brussels in 1927. A few years later, Magritte returned to work in advertising after the galerie closed. Following his Renoir period (1943-1944) and his Vache period (1947-1948), Magritte returned to his original surrealistic style.

Magritte died of pancreatic cancer in 1967 and was interred in Brussels. His most famous paintings include:

The treachery of images
  • The treachery of images, better known as "Ceci n'est pas une pipe." ( picture)
  • The son of man
  • The human condition
  • Golconda
  • The mysteries of the horizon
  • The key to dreams

7. Jean-Claude Van Damme

Jean-Claude Van Damme
Jean-Claude Van Damme is probably the most well-known Belgian. Van Damme (official name Jean-Claude Camille Francois Van Varenbergh) was born in 1960. This martial artist and actor studied martial arts from the age of 10. He eventually earned his black belt in karate, later winning the European Professional Karate Association's middleweight championship. He also started lifting weights to improve his physique, which eventually led to a Mr. Belgium bodybuilding title. His physique and Belgian background led to the nickname "Muscles from Brussels".

Surprisingly enough, Van Damme took up ballet at the age of 16. A sport which he practised for 5 years and considered to be one of the most difficult sports.

Van Damme is well-known for his martial arts and action movies. His most successful films are  Timecop, Universal Soldier and Double Impact. He also lent his voice to Master Croc in the animation Kung Fu Panda.

6. Raymond Ceulemans

Raymond Ceulemans
Born in Nijlen on 12th July 1937, Raymond Ceulemans is often considered the best billiard player of all time. Ceulemans first learned to play billiard in his fathers pub at the age of seven. Originally trained as a diamond cutter, Ceulemans started his professional billiard career in 1961 when he won his first three-cushion title. Ceulemans won his first European title in 1962 and his first world title in 1963. Ceulemans got nicknamed Mr 100 after he won his hundredth title. Ceulemans has in the meantime won more than 140 titles among which are 35 world championship titles, 48 European titles and 61 National titles. In October 2003 King Albert II of Belgium honoured Raymond Ceulemans by awarding him a knighthood in recognition of his lifetime achievements.

5. Peter Paul Rubens

The Flemish baroque painter was born in Germany in 1577 to Belgian parents who fled Antwerp in 1568 after increased religious turmoil. In 1589, Rubens and his mother (his father had died 2 years earlier) returned to Antwerp  where Rubens spent his youth. Rubens started an artistic apprenticeship at the age of 14 during which he studied under the city's leading painters at the time. At completion of his education in 1598, Rubens entered the Guild of St Luke as an independent master. In 1600, Rubens travelled to Italy where he spent several years  and where

Peter Paul Rubens
he received his most important commission for his painting "The Virgin and Child adored by Angels" for the High Altar of the Santa Maria in Vallicella.

Rubens returned to Antwerp in 1608 after hearing of his mother's illness. Appointed as court painter by Albert VII, Rubens based his workshop in Antwerp. In 1609, Rubens married Isabella Brant and they settled into a house and studio which he had designed (now the Rubenshuis Museum). During this time, his studio employed many students and assistants. At this time, Rubens increased his fame throughout Europe through the production of prints and book-title pages for Balthasar Moretus, owner of the Plantin-Moretus publishing house.

Between 1621 and 1630, Rubens was active as a diplomat. He was knighted by Prince Philip of Spain in 1624, was awarded a Honorary Master of Arts degree from Cambridge University and was knighted again by Charles I of England in 1930. It was at this time that Rubens married his second wife, 16-year-old Helene Fourment, after his first wife died 4 years earlier. Helene was the inspiration for the voluptuous figures in many of his later paintings. Rubens bought the well-known castle "Het Steen" in 1635 and died of gout 4 years later.

4. The Dewaele Brothers

The brothers David and Stephen Dewaele are best known as Soulwax, but are also known as 2manydjs, The Flying Dewaele Brothers, Samantha Fu and Kawazaki. They have however admitted to putting out material under other pseudonyms and aliases.

The Dewaele Brothers
David and Stephen originate from Ghent and were first noticed after the release of their second album Much Against Everyone's Advice (2000). Their third album Any Minute Now (2004) produced the popular single E Talking which reached 27 in the UK charts. The video was controversial and was only allowed to be broadcast after the watershed. Their fourth album Nite Versions followed in 2005 and consisted of a remixes of their album Any Minute Now. Their albums This is Radio Soulwax (2006) and Part of NYE Never Dies (2008) were covermount into Mixmag.

Soulwax has become increasingly popular for their remixes. Their remix of You Can't Always Get What You Want by the Rolling Stones became the soundtrack to the film 21. Their remixes include:

  • Hey Boy Hey Girl - The Chemical Brothers
  • Can't get you out of my head - Kylie Minogue
  • Muscle Museum - Muse
  • Round Round - Sugababes
  • Daft Punk Is Playing At My House - LCD Soundsystem
  • Robot Rock - Daft Punk
  • Lovelight - Robbie Williams

3. Kim Clijsters

Kim Clijsters (born in 1983) has been playing tennis competitions since the age of 6. At 11, she achieved her first major victory when she won the Belgian Junior Championship.

Kim Clijsters
Kim is successful in the junior grand slams and in 1998 she becomes the youngest national A champion ever (age 15). Clijsters debuts in the WTA tour in Antwerp in 1999 where she loses in the quarterfinals to first seed Sarah Pitowski. 

Kim can call herself unofficial world champion, twice even, as she won the Masters in both 2002 and 2003. In 2005 she beats the field of contenders at the US Open. She also reached four more Grand Slam finals and has won 34 singles titles in her career. In the doubles Kim is successful as well. In 2003 she wins both the French Open and Wimbledon along Ai Sugiyama. Together with the Japanese she reels in another 9 doubles titles. Kim is often nicknamed "Killing Kim" or "Kim Kong".

The former number 1 (2003) announced her retirement from tennis in 2007. Not long after, she and partner Brian Lynch welcomed the little Jada into their family. Kim announced her return to tennis in 2009 and has since then added 7 titles to her impressive record. Recently, she won the Australian Open (2011).

2. Eddy Merckx

Eddy Merckx
Edouard Louis Joseph Mercks, born on 17th June 1945 in Meensel-Kiezegem, is better known as Eddy Mercks. This world-famous cyclist is now retired but during his professional career, he was a force to be reckoned with. Nicknamed 'The Cannibal', Merckx was the strongest time trialist and climber and could outsprint nearly all of his rivals. Merckx rode his first race in 1961 and turned professional in 1965 after 80 wins as an amateur. His first Grand Tour was the 1967 Giro d'Italia where he finished ninth.  In the 1969 Tour de France, Merckx won the Yellow, Green and the Polka-Dot Jersey. A feat which no other cyclist has achieved. 

Amongst his achievements are:

  • 5 times winner of Tour de France (only achieved by 3 other cyclists)
  • 5 times winner of the Giro d'Italia (achieved by only 2 other cyclists)
  • winner of the Vuelta a Espana
  • won the world championship twice; once as amateur and once as a pro
  • set the 10km, 20km and 1 hour record in Mexico in 1972
  • set the record of most Grand Tour victories at 11

Merckx retired from professional cycling in 1978 and became the coach of the Belgian national cycling team in the nineties. He now owns a bicycle factory in Meise and is active as a race commentator on tv.

1. Audrey Hepburn

Audrey Kathleen Ruston was born in Elsene (Brussels) on 4th May 1929 to the British Banker Joseph Ruston and Dutch baroness Ella van Heemstra. Hepburn was in the Netherlands at the time of the war and in order to raise less suspicion, her mother temporarily changed Audrey's name to Edda van Heemstra. After the war, her father found documents of his ancestors whom were named Hepburn and added it to his name, hence Audrey officially became Hepburn-Ruston.

After originally training as a dental nurse, Hepburn went to a ballet school in London and later began a modelling career. After being spot by a producer, she first starred in the film Dutch in Seven Lessons (1948). After her first 'speaking' role as Eve Lester in Young Wives' Tale in 1951, Hepburn headed to America where Audrey had great success. For her first American film Roman Holiday (1953), Hepburn won an Oscar as best actress. Several films and successes later, Hepburn was again nominated for her role of Holly Golightly in Breakfast At Tiffany's (1961).

Audrey Hepburn

Hepburn's films include:

  • Sabrina (1954)
  • Funny face (1957)
  • Love in the afternoon (1957)
  • The nun's story (1959)
  • My fair lady (1964)

Hepburn retired from film in the late 60's and became active as a special ambassador for UNICEF in the 80's. Hepburn passed away in 1993 and later that year was posthumously awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.



Jun 28, 2011 10:51pm
Audrey Hepburn is from Belgium? I had no idea! You learn something new everyday.
Jun 28, 2011 11:06pm
Nice article!

I learned a lot.

I've always been a fan of Magritte, particularly the treachery of images.
Jun 28, 2011 11:10pm
Terrific article, yes I bet everyone will be surprised by No 1 Audrey Hepburn. Thanks for sharing this keep up the good work.
Jun 29, 2011 5:59am
I enjoyed reading this so much. I am a big fan of history.
Jul 5, 2011 1:35pm
Thanks for introducing us to these notable people. I know many things about Hepburn but wasn't aware she was from Belgium!
Jul 15, 2011 1:42pm
Great article, I'm glad I got to know some people that deserves to be notice.
Aug 10, 2011 12:11pm
This is a terrific article!!!! Lots to learn here - great job! I do think that by and large though Audrey trumps J.C.V.D. though! (she' was better looking!)
Aug 10, 2011 9:52pm
Wonderful article on 10 famous Belgians; like a few here I was surprised to see Audrey Hepburn's name on the list.
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