- Charles Hermans
- signed Hermans (lower right)
oil on canvas
- 126 1/2 by 158 in.
- 321.3 by 401.3 cm
Joseph E. Temple, Philadelphia
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (given from the above in 1882 and sold, Sotheby's, New York, February 20, 1992, lot 78, illustrated)
Acquired at the above sale
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (on exhibition as no. D418 from 1882 and until at least 1911 as Masked Ball at the Opera)
Dixon Art Gallery & Gardens, Memphis, Tennessee (on loan from the present owner circa 1995)
Ludovic Baschet, ed., L'Exposition des Beaux-Arts (Salon de 1880), Paris, 1880 (as Bal de l'Opéra)
Philippe de Chennevières, Le Salon de Peinture en 1880, Paris, 1880, p. 60
Louis Enault, Guide du Salon, Paris, 1880, p. 23
Mauirce du Seigneur, L'Art et les Artistes au Salon de 1880, Paris, 1880, pp. 60-1
Prof. Charles Carroll, The Salon, A Collection of the Choicest Paintings Recently Executed by Distinguished European Artists, New York, 1881, p. 158
"Art, Contemporary Belgian Painting," The American, April 15, 1882, p. 10
J. Eugene Reed, The Masterpieces of German Art Illustrated: Being a Biographical history of art in Germany and the Netherlands, from the earliest period to the present time, Philadelphia, 1882, vol. I, n.p., no. 28, (the engraving) illustrated
John Denison Champlin, Jr., ed., Cycolpedia of Painters and Paintings, New York, 1885-87, vol. 2, p. 245
Helen Weston Henderson, The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and other Collections of Philadelphia, Boston, 1911, p. 167
Patrick and Viviane Berko, Dictionary of Belgian Painters born between 1750 & 1875, Brussels, 1981, p. 346
The alluring abandon of the masked ball offered inexhaustible inspiration for late nineteenth century artists. With his monumental composition of a Bal Masqué, Hermans continued the tradition of depicting festive dances that had been firmly established in the preceding decade. Earlier in his career, Hermans explored a similar subject with his L'Aube (1875, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique), depicting a group of party-goers, exhausted from a night of revelry, stumbling onto city streets past a group of disapproving workers preparing for a day of labor. Critics applauded the social commentary of the urban scene painted on a monumental scale, most often reserved for history painting, and they suggested its realism "brought the influence of [Édouard] Manet into his works" (William Sharp and Elizabeth Amelia Sharp, Progress of Art in the Century, London, 1906, p. 281). The comparison to Manet is particularly apt when considering the artist's own depiction of a Masked Ball at the Opera of 1873 (fig. 1). Like Manet's work, Hermans' Bal Masqué brilliantly plays with compositional scale, cropped perspectives, and contrasting cool and warm colors to suggest the multi-layered connections of the various costumed or evening-dressed figures. Rather than the stately frieze-like arrangement of Manet's depiction of the ball, Hermans invites the viewer to be swept along great waves of partygoers from shadowy figures peering from the balconies, chattering revelers spilling over the mezzanines, and those in prime position along the crowded dance floor. When Manet painted the crowded old Paris Opéra galleries, the mass of top-hatted gentlemen, which includes journalists and friends, and even Manet himself, outnumbered the young women. Though the present work's ball's ratio still seems to favor the men, many of the women take a more active role in the game of "see-and-be-seen" as some go brazenly unmasked, dancing with abandon, falling into the arms of male companions, hiding a near-kiss behind a fan, or confidently assessing the best opportunities in reach for a dalliance. While the pastoral costumes and exaggerated masks of some men are overtly fanciful, others' buttoned-up black jackets, smooth silk gloves, and glossy top hats disguise their true intentions as they covertly pursue en masse flirty female dancers in revealing low-cut scarlet costumes. The well-studied and distinctly painted faces of the gentlemen in the foreground suggest they are men the artist knew, though ultimately one is left to guess what banker or politician is flirting with what leading actress or society hostess among the crowds nearing evening's end.
Hermans' work perfectly illustrates American traveler Edward King's astonishment when describing the wild scene of the European masked ball, a place "where grave masks dance genteelly with grotesque figures; it is a mad whirlpool, wherein all that is graceful is cast away and unlimited licenses of attitude takes possession of the field. It is a salmagundi of all ages, classes, and conditions; an apotheosis of embracing of whirlings, of jumpings" (Edward King, My Paris, French Character Sketches, Boston, 1868, p. 78 as quoted in Robert L. Herbert, Impressionism, Art, Leisure, & Parisian Society, New Haven, 1988, p. 131). Viewing Hermans' many happy guests would not have surprised a travel writer in Brussels who remarked that its masked balls evidenced a "pleasure-loving city" (Demetrius Charles de Kavanagh Boulger, Belgian Life in Town and Country, New York, 1904 p. 203). Critics (particularly Americans) employed similar language when considering Bal Masqué at the Salon of 1880. Prof. Charles Carroll noted Hermans' painting as "loud... In the turmoil of people and things in his composition, we might pick out some well drawn types and episodes which show close observation" (Carroll, p. 158). Meanwhile, The American noted the "prodigious size" of the "wonderfully clever" composition praising its "prevailing color of glowing red" in capturing the pleasurable frenzy of the scene. Yet the writer considered if the composition's overall effect was "vulgar" meant to "attract the eye of the thoughtless world" ("Art, Contemporary Belgian Painting," p. 10).
Though Hermans may not have intended his work to inspire debate, it was likely inevitable in his realistic, boisterous depiction of the masked ball (itself a somewhat controversial entertainment) and its guests sensual and suggestive narratives. Bal Masqué's subject is undeniably compelling and attracted the attention of Joseph E. Temple, a collector, philanthropist, and a director of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, soon after its Salon debut. While it has yet to be determined how Temple acquired Bal Masqué, it was presented with other artworks to the Pennsylvania Academy in 1882 where it soon became listed in the city's guidebooks as a "must-see" (the Academy's stamp is still visible on the canvas' reverse). Bal Masqué became further known through engravings and illustrated books allowing all interested to witness a scene "where the participant is oft times unable to realize the degree of extravagance or excess that prevails. The spirit of revelry is infectious, and when a large company yield themselves up to it, it becomes a sort of intoxication, during which prudence and propriety are relaxed and an abandon is indulged which on other occasions would be surprising, to say the least" (Reed, p. 203).
Please note this work is sold unframed.