Baltimore, Through A Glass Darkly

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The proper Baltimore gentry of the mid-nineteenth century who paid Hans Heinrich Bebie to paint their portraits posed for the staid, rather dour man (or so he seemed) whose own self-portrait appears to the left. The neat and competent if uninspired likenesses that rewarded their patronage gave them little indication that Bebie was anything more than a stolid professional. Many cities had their Bebies until the age of photography.

But there was another Bebie hidden behind the prim exterior. And the worthies who sat for him would no doubt have been appalled to know that in his spare time the portraitist was painting quite different Baltimore types against fantastic and sensual backgrounds, in pictures for which modern collectors are competing. This other Bebie created a rich and mysterious dreamBaltimore filled with plush rooms, heavy draperies, and languid young ladies who, in the expression of the day, seemed no better than they should be. Why Bebie produced these remarkable canvases will probably never be known. They may be actual representations of things he saw, they may be wishful fantasies, or they may reflect the ironic humor of a foreigner who, having emigrated to America, was bemused by the fact that in the NewWorld money and gentility rarely went hand in hand.

Beyond a few sparse facts we know little about Bebie. He was born in Switzerland about 1800 and spent his youth as a shepherd. He evidently had little or no artistic training, although he had exhibited his paintings in European galleries before his arrival in America in 1842. After a brief stay in Virginia he moved to Baltimore, and by 1850 he was listing himself as “H. Bebie, artist “in the city directory. He never mastered the Englishlanguage, and was described by a contemporary as “characteristically eccentric,” although the only eccentricity the observer noted was the mild one of a penchant for long walks. He was a skillful limner, as the examples here attest, but more interesting than his portraits are the curious paintings that he did for his own enjoyment and refused to sell. Some, like Van Dyke in His Studio (is the artist really Bebie?) on the opposite page, have a strong European flavor, and most are charged with a surreal quality as well as a pervasive eroticism.

Bebie was fascinated with mirrors and rococo trinkets, and his pictures teem with young ladies surrounded by trappings lavish and gaudy enough to suggest the interior of a high-class bordello. This may well be the case, for Bebie had ample opportunity to make firsthand observations; the Baltimore of his time was notorious for what one disgruntled visitor called its “gilded mansions of shame.” There were upward of three hundred such establishments in the city, and those on Josephine Street in the western section were every bit as opulent as Bebie’s splendid visions suggest. There is also a touch of the sinister about the scenes: mirrors throw back strange reflections, huge gold clocks are almost threatening, and ominous things loom behind the girls who disport in the dim, gaslit hours. It would be fascinating to know if some vanished Baltimore establishment actually did boast all those lovely women and red velvet, but we can only guess. Bebie died in 1888, and no record remains to tell us whether these are glimpses of real places or simply the product of a romantic imagination.