As a child, Emile already loved drawing and on Sunday went three kilometres on foot to the Academy of Waregem (the neighbouring town) to learn how to draw. He graduated from the Academy with a gold medal. Although father Claus allowed him to take drawing classes, he did not fancy an artist's career for his son. Instead, he sent Emile as a baker’s apprentice to Lille (France). Emile learned French there but the job of a baker clearly did not appeal to him. He also worked for some time with the Belgian Railways and as a representative in the flax trade.
Stimulated by his friend, the author Camille Lemonnier, and influenced by the French impressionists, like Claude Monet whose works he got to know during his trips to Paris in the 1890s, Claus gradually shifted from naturalistic realism to a very personal style of impressionism called 'luminism', because of the luminous palette he used.
His paintings The Beet Harvest (1890) and The Ice Birds (1891) represent important turning points in this evolution.
The Beet Harvest shows farmers harvesting sugar beets, hacking them out of the frozen field. The painting is gigantic in size and hangs at the Museum of Deinze and de Leiestreek in Deinze, Belgium. Claus never sold it and after his death, his widow donated it to the city of Deinze on the condition they built a museum to exhibit it. The painting can now indeed be found at the Museum van Deinze en de Leiestreek (museum of Deinze and the Lys area') in Deinze (Belgium).
The Ice Birds (1891) shows an icy landscape with playing children. The painting was inspired by the novella of the same title by the Waregem novelist Léonce Ducatillon. The naturalistic story is set at the Keukelmeersen (‘keukel meadows’), a swampy area with dips, drains, ditches and trenches near the centre of Waregem.
Every winter, it got flooded and changed into a wide icy plain. At the end of the story, one of the poor hungry boys falls through the ice while trying to pull out a frozen fish, and drowns. The painting is now part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent (Belgium).
Claus is considered to be the pioneer of Belgian luminism. In 1904, he founded the society Vie et Lumière ('life and light') and became known as the 'sun painter' and the 'painter of the Lys'. A magnificent example is his painting Cows crossing the Lys (1899), which shows a group of motley cows being herded across a small river, with sunlights reflecting off the moving water. The painting hangs in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels (Belgium).
During the First World War, while in exile in London, he painted a series of views on the river Thames, known as "reflections on the Thames", in the style of Monet. They are his most traditional impressionist works. On 14 June 1924, Claus died at Astene. His last words were: “Bloemen, bloemen, bloemen …” (‘Flowers, flowers, flowers’). The day before his death, he had painted a pastel of a bouquet of flowers, sent to him by Queen Elisabeth of Belgium. Claus is buried in his own garden in Astene and a street is named after him in Brussels.