This long frieze juxtaposes head-and-shoulders portraits of the artist’s family. To the left are his older sons Rico and Jean-Jacques in Russian costumes, then Luc, playing the accordion. To the right are the artist’s French wife, Alice, and his youngest son, Max. The touching depiction of family life attests to Paul Friedrich Wilhelm Balmer’s skill as a portraitist specialising in children: he had already made a name for himself in Basel some years earlier with a spectacular portrait of the Vischer-Sarasin family (1897, Basel, Historisches Museum).
Balmer painted this work when he was established in Florence after studying fine art in Munich and spending time in Paris. He claimed in his memoirs that the painting was one of his finest: indeed, it won him a silver medal at the International Fine Art Exhibition in Munich in 1903. He also wrote about how hard it was to get the baby to stay still for the portrait and how in the end he gave up and painted him from memory.
The painting is in tempera on fibre cement board. The left-hand side reflects Balmer’s initial idea of painting profile portraits against a uniform dark background, in the Italian Renaissance style. He changed his mind after seeing a dark-leaved shrub with a cluster of white flowers in his garden in the via Faentina, dropping the idea of a black background and playing instead with complementary greens and scarlets on the left. To the right is an open-air landscape framed by the Fiesole hills.
The naturalistic portrait is at pains to capture the light and the characters of each individual sitter. It might have generated a vibrant springtime atmosphere, but somehow, curiously, it does not. The poses are frozen, almost statue-like. The gazes are vacant. The faces turned not out to the viewer but to some event outside the frame create a mysterious, expectant ambiance that gestures towards Symbolism.
Francis Kervin (edd.), Wilhelm Balmer in seinen Erinnerungen, Erlenbach-Zurich and Leipzig, Rotapfel-Verlag, 1924.