Yesterday, 26 February 2022, an auction house in Coutances, France offered a large charcoal drawing by Belgian artist Firmin Baes:
BAES Firmin (1874-1945) - "Concours de tir à l'arc" juin 1899 - fusain signé avec envoi - 87x112 cm - cadre en chêne mouluré 110x133 cm
Estimation : 1000 - 1200 €
BAES Firmin (1874-1945) - "Archery contest" June 1899 - charcoal drawing signed with envoi - 87x112 cm - frame in moulded oak 110x133 cm
Estimation : 1000 - 1200 €
It sold for 7,000 Euro instead (way above my bid), and there are three main elements for this: one is the sheer quality of the drawing, the other two need some effort, but it seems at least two bidders beside me knew this.
Let's start with the dedication:
"To my dear Léon, on the occasion of his marriage, Firmin Baes, June 1899".
Léon Frédéric (1856-1940) was one of the most succesful Belgian painters of the fin-de-siècle, winning gold medals at the Paris World Fairs of 1889 and 1900, and was made a Baron in 1909 (at the same time as James Ensor). His work is Symbolist / Realist in nature, influenced by the precision and style of the Early Netherlandish painters.
On 3 June 1899, Frédéric married the painter Laurence Bastin.
And the link to Firmin Baes? Baes met Frédéric when he was still a child, and became his pupil and later collaborator and friend.
So this was the painting that Baes gave to his mentor for his marriage, indicating that it was an important work for Baes at the time.
Now, the second element which made this work more valuable than the auction house realised is the position it has in the career of Baes. In 1899, Baes was still a young and relatively unknown painter: by 1900, he was an internationally known rising star, after he won a bronze medal at the Paris Salon (at the time still hugely influential) for his large oil painting, "The Archers". Ah!
That painting seems to be in a private collection at the moment, and I haven't found a picture of it. But what we do have are some studies.
The first and smallest is a rough sketch of the composition, which remained in the hands of the descendants of Baes until 1985, when they donated it to the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels. Bingo! It's the same composition, so the work for sale was a much more finished, large study for the work that launched his career and which he clearly considered as very important himself.
Final evidence for this is another similar study, this time for the right side of the painting, which is by coincidence for sale as well. Lancz Gallery offers this charcoal drawing. It's 68 by 51 cm, so it's not cut off from the work I discuss here, but conceived independently. But together they gave a very good idea of what the final work must have looked like, minus the colours of course.
This work also has a dédication, "à Monsieur et Madame Nélis bien affectueusement - Firmin Baes 1900" , meaning "to Mr and Ms Nélis, with my affection". When one learns that in 1902, Firmin Baes would marry Maria Nélis (portrayed here in a beautiful charcoal portrait from 1901, for sale for 28,000 Euro at Alexis Bordes), it looks as if he gave this second study to his future inlaws, again indicating how important this painting was to the painter.