skip to Main Content


The eyes of Gerardus Mercator; 16th-century Flemish cartographer; look into mine. The bearded old man is surrounded by maps and a globe, and holds in his hand a pair of dividers. His head is tipped slightly, and his eyebrows are raised, as if he has just posed a question about geography or mapmaking, and, like a patient professor, awaits my answer.

I found this portrait in an issue of Penrose Annual and wrote the author to see if the painting could be used in a map exhibit I was designing for the National Geographic Society. He forwarded my request to the artist in Belgium, and in a few days a small envelope arrived on my desk. In it was a postcard-size image of Mercator and a letter from Jean-Leon Huens telling me that this was the original painting and “May I ask you to guard this with your life.” I was amazed that he would dispatch this exquisite little gem across the Atlantic, and to a perfect stranger!

Thus began a collaboration and a friendship that was to last for 17 years.

Generous in many ways, Jean-Leon Huens was most generous in the rich detail that he gave to every painting. Instead of using shortcuts and simplifications, he took great delight in recreating the wood grain in furniture, the texture of clothing, the brickwork of old buildings, the wrinkles of old age. And over all a gentle Flemish light that unified all the elements of these miniature masterpieces.

Huens was a master not only of detail and of lighting, but also of perspective and composition. His panorama of Bethlehem at the time of Christ, painted for Reader’s Digest, compels the eye to wander the streets, rooftops and plazas, and to end up back at the beginning, still wanting to mingle with the more than a hundred people going about their business. The panorama appeared in the book Great People of the Bible and How They Lived. And also as the jacket design.

Huens painted many covers for Reader’s Digest but they appeared in the magzine’s international editions and were rarely seen in the United States. Reader’s Digest also commissioned Huens to make more than a hundred paintings to illustrate Shakespeare’s works. The book unfortunately was never published. Twenty-two of Huens’ paintings were donated to the Society of Illustrators.

Those works in the Society’s collection are small, measuring but 5.25 by 7.25 inches. They are breathtakingly precise glimpses of scenes from Julius Caesar, Hamlet, and Macbeth: Calpurnia, on bended knee, begging Caesar not to leave; Macbeth hiring two wicked knaves to murder Banquo; Hamlet rejecting Ophelia with the line, “Get Thee to a nunnery…”; Macduff holding Macbeth’s severed head.

Had the book been published, these paintings would certainly have enriched the iconography of Shakespeare’s work. But now they are stored in dark archives, seldom exhibited, because of the very light-sensitive nature of Huen’s work.

Huens painted with what he called “water color pencils,” which enabled him to render detail with great precision, later brushing a slight wash of clear water over the areas to blend the colors. He worked from photographs of models in various poses and costumes, often posing himself. His wife Monique—researcher; correspondent, translator, critic and photographer—assisted him throughout his career.

Jean-Leon Huens was born December 1, 1921, in Melsbrock, Belgium. He attended the institute of St. Luc and completed his studies at the Academy of La Cambre, in Brussels. At the end of World War II, while still in his twenties, Huens began illustrating children’s books for publishers such as Casterman, Marabout, Desclee-DeBrouwer and Durendel.

In 1946 Huens and his brother Etienne founded the Historia Society, with the aim of popularizing Belgian history through more than 400 paintings—village scenes, battle scenes, coronations, hangings, and portraits of heroes such as Gerardus Mercator. Huens’ carefully researched paintings were lithographed in full color, each 3.75 x 5.75 inches, and were offered as premiums with packages of tea, chocolate, spices, and biscuits. Like nineteenth-century trade cards, the Historia Society cards are prized collectibles today.

As soon as I saw the Mercator portrait, I knew that Huens could enrich the pages of National Geographic, and in short order he was working on portraits of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Herschel, Einstein, and Hubble, all of which appeared in the May 1974 issue. A year later, National Geographic published four Huens paintings in a story about Sir Francis Drake, including a heart-stopping view of the Golden Hind in the stormy seas of the Straits of Magellan. He later painted scenes of life in Thrace (ancient Bulgaria), and, for a major article on the Byzantine Empire, two large, fold-out paintings. One, a map of the Byzantine world, was painted as if it were a mosaic assemblage, a self-imposed challenge that he may have regretted, but one he finished flawlessly. The other, an aerial view of ancient Constantinople, is equally powerful.

Huens’ Christmas cards throughout the years, painted in full color, showed Father Time in a wide variety of styles and situations, giving us a peek at Huens overflowing wit and humor. This made him the perfect artist for a Time-Life Books series called The Enchanted World, a set of books about wizards, merlins, magic and mystery. Huens completed but one painting, a promotional piece to help get the series marketed, before he died suddenly on May 24, 1982, in Benissa, Spain.

In his 60 years, Jean-Leon Huens had seen his work heralded throughout Europe, amd had successfully expanded his audience to the United States. Now, 20 years after his death, the Society of Illustrators pays tribute to Jean-Leon Huens by inducting him into its Hall of Fame.

Howard E. Paine
Former Art Director
National Geographic

Back To Top