Born in Zurich, Switzerland, the miniturist, portrait and genre painter Hans Heinrich Bebie, or Henry Bebie, as he was called in America, spent his youth as a shepherd. Little is known of his early life, but in 1826 the Berlin Academy exhibited six of his paintings, suggesting that he may have studied in Germany. Emigrating to the United States in about 1842, Bebie settled first in Richmond, Virginia. After a brief stay in the Western part of Virginia, he moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where he remained for the rest of his life.
Judging by the list of families represented in Bebie’s individual and group portraits, and the costumes and jewelry in which the women are dressed, he was favored by a socially prominent clientele. Some of his interior scenes, which typically include a group of women in the process of dressing or grooming and/or a group of several women and men in conversation, have been interpreted as representations of Baltimore’s most stylish brothels (Who Was Who, p. 253). Why Bebie produced such scenes will probably never be known. They may be a record of things he actually saw, or simply the product of a romantic imagination.
Though Bebie never married, he clearly liked painting women and endowed his female subjects with refinement and grace. All have delicate complexions, milk-white shoulders, and meticulously coiffed hair, usually worn straight, with a middle part and side curls, or held at the back in a bun. While they never smile, their lips are poised in an upward curve reminiscent of the Mona Lisa. Whether representatives of Baltimore society, or sensuous ladies of the night, the resemblance of the women shown in these pictures indicates that Bebie relied on the same group as models. In addition, his settings and decorative accessories vary only slightly, and appear in more than one painting.
Conversation Piece: Young Ladies in an Interior (Baltimore Museum of Art) is Bebie’s largest and most elaborate composition, but other known variants are similar in many respects. For example, in Baltimore Interior three groups of women are engaged in conversation, while a young boy and his dog rest in the lower left foreground. Whether to give a sense of depth or to give prominence to certain figures, Bebie often manipulated their relative sizes within the composition. In this example, the figure holding the book is slightly larger than the others so that her importance in the group is enhanced. Conversely, the ladies seated directly behind her seem disproportionately small.
Van Dyke in His Studio is one of the artist’s most meticulously composed pictures, and like many of his works, it possesses an enigmatic and unsettling quality. The Old Master in his studio was a popular subject in the last half of the 19th century, and gave artists the opportunity to express in historical disguise their own ideals of practice. A curious aspect of this picture, assuming the subject is actually Bebie, is the contrast between the shy and retiring model and the painting she inspired of Cupid and Venus. There is obviously a personal level of content in the scene, which is arranged according to classical principles of composition, and presented as if it were being performed on the stage.
Bebie’s zest for precision of detail, and his selection of still-life objects appropriate to his subjects, together with the psychologically ambiguous orientation of his scenes, assured his popularity. He died in Baltimore in 1888. Shortly after his death, there was an exhibition of a number of his figure pieces at the Art Rooms and Frames Store of William Eckert.
Nancy Rivard Shaw 2001
© Robert M. Hicklin Jr., Inc.
Two Hundred and Fifty Years of Painting in Maryland. Baltimore, Maryland: Baltimore Museum of Art, 1945, p. 47.
“Henry Bebie (Hans Heinrich Bebie) 1800?-1888: Portrait and Genre Painter of Baltimore.” Exhibition Catalogue, Baltimore, Maryland: Maryland Historical Society, 1956.
Earley, Mary Dawn and Richard F. Snow. “Baltimore Through a Glass Darkly,” American Heritage, April 1973, Vol. XXIV, No. 3.
Falk, Peter Hastings. Who Was Who in American Art, 1564-1975, vol. I. New York: Sound View Press, 1999.
Johns, Elizabeth. Thomas Eakins: The Heroism of Modern Life. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1983, p. 94n.
Pleasants, J. Hall. Unpublished three-page note on Henry Bebie in the artist’s file, Maryland Historical Society.
Williams, Hermann Warner, Jr. Mirror to the American Past: Greenwich, Connecticut: New York Graphic Society, 1973.
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© 2008 Robert M. Hicklin, Jr. Inc.
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