Most people thought of Belgian artist Charles Hermans as a one-hit wonder after he took the 1875 Salon de Bruxelles by storm with his masterpiece At Dawn. The grand scale of the painting, traditionally reserved only for historical pieces, coupled with the realism and the social undertones, turned the painting into a huge hit and put the spotlight on Hermans. By choosing to portray the frivolous upper class – intoxicated after a night of wild partying – under the disapproving eyes of the working class, the Belgian seemed to have reached a turning point in his artistic career, at the time.
And yet, Hermans never quite agreed with the interpretation his painting received. He wasn’t trying to praise the ideals of socialism, nor rebuke the lazy bourgeoisie. In fact, he came from a well-off family himself, and he was very much fond of his dandy lifestyle. Sure, some guilt may have crept in, but his modus operandi was straightforward: paint what you see.
Five years after the grand success of At Dawn, Hermans returned to the Salon with another painting, this time with his eyes set on one of the biggest social attractions of that period: the masquerade ball. Taking place during the winter season, six weeks before the start of Lent, masquerade balls were a fashionable pretext to indulge in extravaganzas and debauchery, a dizzying mixture of too-much-champagne, too-much-food and too-much-sex. The most liberating part of it all? People could truly be themselves under the illusory guise of anonymity, provided by their masks and costumes.
Bal Masqué (zoom in here) portrays one such festivity within the lavish theater of an opera house, reminiscent of the ones in Paris and Brussels. With the vantage point set slightly above ground level, Hermans waltzes our view from the improvised and bustling dance floor to the mezzanines and heights of the balconies, all decorated in luxurious shades of red and gold. The whole atmosphere is intoxicating, with a lot of movement and noise being suggested in this overcrowded scene. The sea of people – some costumed, some masked, but most of them simply wearing fashionable clothes – is colliding in waves, chatting, dancing and flirting away. There seems to be an extra emphasis added on three pairs in the foreground: a young woman, in white, talking to an older, wealthy man; a couple, in black, exchanging sweet words and kisses while partially hidden by a fan; and two very attractive young women, dressed in ruby red, who appear to be spotting their next victims of seduction.
The abandonment and frenzy that Hermans captures so well lures the viewers into wishing they were right there, partaking in this stirring and sensual celebration that unfolds before their eyes. There is no moralizing tale, nor an ironic social commentary included, to the art critics’ disappointment. In the end, the Belgian stayed true to his vision and painted what he saw. And what a mesmerizing sight he gave us!
Next time: Pictor classicus sum