The Boghossian Foundation – Villa Empain is exceptionally closed on Thursday 20 June. We thank you for your understanding and look forward to welcoming you from Friday 21 June, until 8 September for the visit of the exhibition Josef and Anni Albers.

It was in 1930, at the age of barely 22, that Louis Empain launched the project to construct the villa in Brussels, for his private use on the Avenue des Nations, later renamed Avenue Franklin Roosevelt.

The second son of Édouard Empain, an extremely wealthy businessman, Louis had, like Jean, his elder brother, only been using his father’s surname officially for a few years. Jeanne Becker, their mother, and Édouard Empain only married in 1921, after a relationship that had long remained concealed.

Édouard was born in 1852 to a humble Walloon family. The success and reputation of the Empains within the rapidly industrialising Belgium of that time, and well beyond its borders, is due to him. After a mediocre school career, Édouard entered La Métallurgique as an apprentice draughtsman, thanks to Alexis du Roy de Blicquy, to whom he was to remain sincerely grateful for the rest of his life. He swiftly rose to the position of director and, with the help of La Métallurgique, bought a small marble quarry which he converted into the Société anonyme des Marbres in 1879. The purchase of further marble quarries launched Édouard Empain into business: within a few years, he had masterfully created an impressive network of manufacturing companies, banks and holding companies interlinked by a web of reciprocal shareholdings.

From 1881 onwards, Édouard took an interest in public transport and set up the Compagnie générale des Railways à Voie étroite [General Narrow-Gauge Railways Company], operating in Belgium and the north of France, where it swiftly acquired the regional railway company. He also bought the railways of Périgord and the Midi region in France, developed those of Holland and installed tramlines in Cairo and railway lines in the Caucasus and in Turkey. In China, he provided the capital base for a 1 200 km strategic railway line between Beijing and Hankou, and had the line built that links Kaifeng and Luoyang. From 1901, Édouard Empain became a close friend of King Léopold II, and helped him to set up a railway network in Congo, starting from Stanleyville. It was undoubtedly the construction of the Paris metro that was to make the Empain name famous in France. In 1900, thanks to the Société parisienne pour les Chemins de fer et Tramways (Paris company for railways and tramlines) and after much political intrigue, Édouard Empain won the contract to build the Paris metro, of which his group retained ownership until after the Second World War.

1904 was to be an important year in the brilliant career of this industrialist whose ambition knew no bounds: Édouard Empain became majority shareholder of the Ateliers de Construction électrique de Charleroi (ACEC) and also discovered Egypt, where he took over ownership of the Société des Tramways du Caire [Cairo Tramlines Company]. He fell in love with the country immediately and decided to turn a dream into his own reality. He created a new town, a type of garden city born of the desert bordering the former ancient city of Heliopolis. This modern town, today part of greater Cairo, would remain a model of urban planning and architecture, harmoniously combining Art Deco, orientalism, the neo-Moorish style, monumental art and the comforts of modern life.

In 1907, two years before his death, Léopold II ennobled Édouard Empain, thereby confirming his success and respectability. Now bearing the title of baron and, a little later, that of Grand Officer of the Order of Léopold and of Major-General, as organiser of supplies for the Belgian army during the First World War, Édouard Empain calmly continued his rise during the 1920s, both in the chemical industry and in Congolese mining.

In the autumn of 1929 and despite their youth, Jean and Louis thus found themselves at the head of the huge empire built by their father. They began by restructuring the various companies within the family group, creating the Société Électrorail (Electrorail Company). Jean made a tolerably good job of this, despite an extremely dissipated life in which sumptuous parties and cruises on the yacht Héliopolis vied with evenings spent gambling in Europe’s most famous casinos. For his part, and in contrast, Louis became more and more austere, creating concern in his circle by taking positions described as socialist, prioritising human relations and the solidarity that he felt should be developed between the financial world and the world of the working man.