Realist painting first became popular in the Renaissance, and despite all the changes that have happened in art since, it remains popular to this day. The ability to make the image of a person come alive using pastels has long been rated highly, and the pastel paintings of Firmin Baes (1874–1943) are no exception. Although now little-known outside Belgium, they should fill you with wonder. Sadly, few of his paintings are accessible now, and even fewer of them have sufficient information to determine whether they were painted in pastels or oils. Here are four that I’m confident qualify for this series.
Baes came from an artistic family in Belgium, and his father was Director of the School of Decorative Arts in Brussels. He was trained in decorative painting by his father, then from about 1880 in fine art painting by the eccentric symbolist Léon Frédéric. He went on to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century he associated with some of the leading critics and writers of the day, including Octave Maus and Emile Verhaeren.
Before 1900, he seems to have painted largely in oils, but then switched to pastels almost exclusively. He used some unconventional techniques, including the application of powered pastel using a fingertip. He preferred canvas to paper as his ground, and usually worked in larger formats.
Baes painted The Cleaning Lady in 1910. This housemaid, perhaps in one of the mansions he and his father painted, is polishing a large earthenware bowl. This is an excellent opportunity for the artist to demonstrate his skill at depicting optical effects and reflective surfaces.
This double portrait of Two Brothers from 1924 has been painted in the studio, against a backdrop perhaps showing their home in the countryside. Although this image isn’t as crisp as I’d like, the wear on their clothing is shown realistically.
Still Life with Mushrooms and a Pitcher, from about 1935, is another essay in the optical properties of different surfaces, including the soft sheen of the mushrooms, and the reflective glaze on the pitcher. The detail view below shows the soft grainy effects Baes achieved with the pastels to mimic specular reflections. The darker blue decoration on the pitcher appears to have been applied using a fingertip.
Appropriately, Baes painted The Old Spinner in 1943, when he must have been about sixty-nine. She appears to be blind, and there is a wide range of different surface textures, ranging from the softness of the raw wool, to the polished wood of her spinning-wheel. Interestingly, he doesn’t blur the wheel, as had become popular since the widespread use of photography.
Baes’s finely detailed realism is reminiscent of the great, if rather eccentric, pastel painter Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702-1789). For reference, below is a detail from his most famous painting, The Chocolate Girl from about 1744-45. Liotard preferred parchment as his ground, which enabled even finer detail than canvas.
Firmin Baes died in Brussel in 1943.
I’m very grateful to baron for drawing my attention to this wonderful pastel painter.