Belgium has produced many famous figures in the arts. In the 15th century, one of the great periods of European painting culminated in the work of Jan van Eyck (1390?–1441) and Hans Memling (1430?–94). They were followed by Hugo van der Goes (1440?–82), and Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1525?–69), the ancestor of a long line of painters. Generally considered the greatest of Flemish painters are Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) and Anthony Van Dyck (1599–1641). In the 19th century, Henri Evenepoel (1872–99) continued this tradition. The 20th century boasts such names as James Ensor (1860–1949), Paul Delvaux (1897–1994), and René Magritte (1898–1967). Modern Belgian architecture was represented by Victor Horta (1861–1947) and Henry van de Velde (1863–1957).
Belgium made substantial contributions to the development of music through the works of such outstanding 15th- and 16th-century composers as Johannes Ockeghem (1430?–95), Josquin des Prés (1450?–1521), Heinrich Isaac (1450?–1517), Adrian Willaert (1480?–1562), Nicolas Gombert (1490?–1556), Cipriano de Rore (1516–65), Philippe de Monte (1521–1603), and Roland de Lassus (known originally as Roland de Latre and later called Orlando di Lasso, 1532–94), the "Prince of Music." Later Belgian composers of renown include François-Joseph Gossec (1734–1829), Peter Van Maldere (1729–68), André Ernest Modeste Grétry (1741–1813), César Franck (1822–90), and Joseph Jongen (1873–1953). Among famous interpreters are the violinists Eugène Ysaye (1858–1931) and Arthur Grumiaux (1921–86). André Cluytens (1905–67) was the conductor of the National Orchestra of Belgium. Maurice Béjart (Maurice Berger, b.1927), an internationally famous choreographer, was the director of the Ballet of the 20th Century from 1959 until 1999.
Outstanding Belgian names in French historical literature are Jean Froissart (1333?–1405?) and Philippe de Commynes (1447?–1511?), whereas early Dutch literature boasts the mystical writing of Jan van Ruysbroeck (1293–1381). The 19th century was marked by such important writers as Charles de Coster (1827–79), Camille Lemonnier (1844–1913), Georges Eeckhoud (1854–1927), and Emile Verhaeren (1855–1916) in French; and by Hendrik Conscience (1812–83) and Guido Gezelle (1830–99) in Flemish. Among contemporary authors writing in French, Michel de Ghelderode (1898–1962), Suzanne Lilar (1901–1992), Georges Simenon (1903–1989), and Françoise Mallet-Joris (b.1930) have been translated into English. Translations of Belgian authors writing in Dutch include works by Johan Daisne (1912–78) and Hugo Claus (b.1929).
Eight Belgians have won the Nobel Prize in various fields. The poet and playwright Maurice Maeterlinck (1862–1949), whose symbolist dramas have been performed in many countries, received the prize for literature in 1911. Jules Bordet (1870–1961) received the physiology or medicine award in 1919 for his contributions to immunology. The same award went to Corneille J. F. Heymans (1892–1968) in 1938 and was shared by Albert Claude (1898–1983) and Christian de Duve (b.1917) in 1974. Russian-born Ilya Prigogine (b.1917) won the chemistry prize in 1977. Three Belgians have won the Nobel Peace Prize: Auguste Beernaert (1829–1912) in 1909, Henri Lafontaine (1854–1943) in 1913, and Father Dominique Pire (1910–69) in 1958.
Belgium's chief of state since 1951 had been King Baudouin I (1930–93), the son of Leopold III (1901–83), who reigned from 1934 until his abdication in 1951.