Traces of the Hand



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Traces of the Hand: Master Drawings from the Collection of Frederick and Lucy S. Herman

Social Commentary

Ferdinand Balzer
German, 1872–1916
Coffeehouse Scene, 1900
Graphite on wove paper
8 1/4 x 6 3/8 in, 20.96 x 16.19 cm (sheet)
Provenance: Artist’s estate; dealer Joseph Fach, gift, to Frederick and Lucy Herman, 1972
Gift of The Frederick and Lucy S. Herman Foundation, 2007.15.12


Known primarily in Germany for his genre and landscape scenes, Ferdinand Balzer spent most of his life in Frankfurt.1 In his unsigned Coffeehouse Scene, Balzer heavily works the surface with his highly energetic line, exploiting graphite’s luminescent, silvery, almost metallic luster, as well as its capacity for rendering a wide range of values and detail. While graphite can at first glance be difficult to distinguish from charcoal, its line is smoother than charcoal, especially in heavily worked areas which have a distinctive silvery sheen.2

Balzer’s handling of medium and composition are characteristic of the late nineteenth-century tendency in drawing to capture the immediacy of an impression, creating in effect a graphic snapshot. Like the works of Edgar Degas or Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Balzer’s drawing cut off objects and figures at the edges of the pictorial field, a compositional technique influenced by the random framing possible in photography. This effect is most notable in the man in the right foreground, whose bug-eyed stare and open mouth are seemingly incongruous with the apparently innocent gesture of a woman selecting a flower from the tray offered by the old man at left. While he is barely described, his face in shadow, the face of the foreground figure is much more delicately modeled as he seems caught in a moment whose import is hard for us to define—is he responding to the interaction of the other two figures or is he caught in animated conversation, talking to someone off to the left, out of our view?

The woman chooses a flower with her graceful bare hand, contrasting with the rough gloved hand of the vendor. The expression on her partly shaded face conveys something slightly sinister. Her dark neck wrap has a high sheen, as well as soft velvety texture, due to Balzer’s heavy pressure on the pencil. While depicting a scene typical of the café iconography of artists like Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec, Balzer deftly uses the expressive capacity of graphite pencil to suggest something darker in this moment of ordinary life.

Marika Kielland
Mary Haviland


1. Dankmar Trier, "Balzer, Ferdinand," Allgemeines Künstler-Lexikon, Munich, 1992, Vol. 6, 540.

2. James Watrous, in The Craft of Old-Master Drawings (University of Wisconsin Press, 1957), 138. Graphite is a mineral; lead is a metal.


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