Charles Hermans – Bal Masqué (1880)

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.

Charles Hermans - At Dawn
Charles Hermans – At Dawn (1875), oil on canvas

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.

Charles Hermans - Bal Masqué
Charles Hermans – Bal Masqué (1880), oil on canvas

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



12 Comments Add yours

  1. David says:

    I’ve spent about 15 minutes examining this two paintings because I like them so much. I wonder if there is any significance to the trash in the street in the first painting, or it’s just what he saw. I see a bouquet of blue flowers that looks like they hadn’t been taken out of the paper wrap and some other unknown trash. In the second the ladies in red really pop and not just because of the red. The lightness of their skin, and lots of it relatively speaking contrasts with the dark clothing on either side. The lady on the viewer’s left also pops because of the mask and I wonder if that was intentional. To me it seems that, at least for the significant figures in the foreground, the men’s’ faces have aggressive angular lines with high light/dark contrast making the ladies appear that much more feminine. I could spend a lot more time looking at these two; just wish I could email a couple of questions to Mr. Hermans.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gabriela says:

      I’m so glad you like both of the paintings, David! For some reason, the second one didn’t receive as much attention and was considered more shallow. But I like how it reflects on the culture and customs of that epoch.

      I think the trash in At Dawn is supposed to be picked up by the workers, so it adds insult to the injury. It humiliates them even further, as they have to clean up the mess that the bourgeoisie has created. The trash, in my view, also makes those party-people look more chaotic and hedonistic. We tend to associate order with principles and morality, so the trash accentuates their reckless abandon.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. M.B. Henry says:

    Wow these are both very fascinating paintings. You know the masquerade one made me think a little bit of Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.” I always imagined a setting like that painting when I read that story. Such an interesting background on the painter too!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gabriela says:

      I haven’t read “The Masque of the Red Death”, but I’ll be sure to check it out. Anything taking place in a setting like this would pique my interest.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. M.B. Henry says:

        It’s a short story so it shouldn’t take too much of your time! 🙂 And it’s Poe so prepare to get the creeps haha.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Gabriela says:

          Haha, I can’t wait to read it!

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Emma Cownie says:

    Fascinating paintings – I can see why the second one was seen as more shallow!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gabriela says:

      I only wish we could have seen more from Hermans. He’s largely forgotten.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Eric Wayne says:

    My guess is most people never heard of Charles Hermans, and so you must have meant he was thought of as a one-hit-wonder in or around 1875. I’ve never seen the painting before, so I can thank you for exposing me to it.

    “There is no moralizing tale, nor an ironic social commentary included, to the art critics’ disappointment.”

    That all might depend on the critic. Moralizing as art criticism is very common right now (I’d say it’s the dominant trend) but was considered insipid in the not too distant past, and to miss the point of art. I rather agree. The moral message is often a one-liner telling us what we already know we are supposed to think, or else! Hardly enlightening.

    These paintings strike me as ambitious, and eminently skilled, but I feel distant from the people, more so in the ball scene. I suppose for my tastes the people are insufficiently intimate. But I suppose that is a strength and a kind of big picture. Both images seem about gaiety, and in the former its aftermath.

    Looking back at the “At Dawn”, there really is a contrast there, that can’t be unintentional, of contrasting working class people going to work in the early morning as the rich descend from a night of seeming excess and frivolity. It’s more interesting if it’s NOT making a particular argument from a fixed point, but showing two classes and their abrupt clash. I come from the working class, with a vengeance, but have also had decent paying jobs and occasionally stayed out all night drinking. So, I can envision being in either of those groups. But there is one stinging impression I get, which is that the all-night revelers are able to do so because of the work performed by the early risers. Not “socialist” perhaps in intent, but, that’s the way the typical job works. The employer makes more off of the employee than the employee makes for his or herself.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gabriela says:

      Yes, there is an obvious contrast in At Dawn. But I don’t think that Hermans was being moralizing with it, as in fighting for the working people and advancing the ideals of socialism. Maybe he had a better understanding of the situation, but that is all. Otherwise I reckon he would have continued with art painted in the same vein.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Eric Wayne says:

        I rather like the idea of presenting an issue without hammering home a certain agenda.

        Liked by 1 person

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