Firmin Baes was a master of the pastel medium. While he also worked in oil and charcoal, it was his wide-ranging subjects in pastel - portraits, still-lifes, nudes, genre interior scenes and landscapes – for which he is best known. Often large-scale and executed on canvas instead of paper or cardboard, his pastels are characterized by a velvet-like quality to the surface, a technique that resembled Chardin. However, when compared to contemporary masters of the medium, such as Jean-François Millet, Léon Lhermitte or Edgar Degas, the differences in style become immediately apparent. Unlike his French counterparts, Firmin Baes never reveals the actual process of his technique; rather the strokes of his crayon dissolve into soft, almost smudged areas of color, which in turn transform into his subjects. The result is so “finished” that the pastel often resembles a painting.
Baes was born into a family of decorator-painters and architects. His transition to a pure painter, having started his career assisting his father in decorating private and public buildings in Brussels, occurred when he met the Belgian Symbolist, Léon Frédéric. Baes became Frédéric’s student at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels between 1888 and 1894 and his early works from this period were influenced by Frédéric’s distinctive style. Baes achieved both critical and commercial success throughout his career; he was awarded a bronze medal at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900 for his painting The Archers and in 1920 he painted a memorial in honor of the Belgian army at the Hôtel des Invalides in Paris. His success was hard earned; he followed a regimented schedule where his mornings were spent working on portraits and female nudes, while the afternoons were devoted to still-lifes, genre scenes and landscapes. Baes’s output was prolific, which is even more extraordinary given the vagaries associated with working almost exclusively in pastel.