Balthasar Denner (1685-1749)
The fact that this picture remained in Denner’s possession may mean that the model was a friend or member of the artist’s family.
This delightful picture is one of the finest examples of Denner’s work. Its exceptionally good state of preservation allows us to see the highly finished style for which Denner was so admired, and which once occasioned Emperor Charles VI of Austria to pay the extraordinary sum of 600 ducats for a single head of a woman by Denner. Here, the subject of this genre picture is seen offering the viewer a cup of coffee, just poured from the polished pot on the left. Steam rises from the coffee, and the cup is being offered with some rapidity, as seen by the spilt liquid in the saucer.
Such detail is not only typical of an artist who began his career as a miniaturist, but also helps signal the meaning of the picture. The young woman has her back turned to the coffee pot and is also turned away from the viewer. The composition is therefore designed to convey a certain informality. It is not a depiction of a servant offering coffee to her master or mistress. Rather, the suggested relationship between artist and subject is one of some intimacy, with a sense of dialogue made clear by the open-mouthed smile of the sitter.
This picture is probably the painting sold in Denner’s posthumous sale in 1749, where it bore the title, ‘Eine Kaffee Schenkerinn’, literally, the coffee giver. The title ensures that we do not see the picture merely as a depiction of a young woman enjoying the coffee by herself, but instead offering it to the viewer. Although Denner did not usually cite the name of his models when selling his subject pictures (not even when the model was his wife, who sat for the ‘Penitent Magdalen’ [Victoria & Albert Museum]), the sitter here can be identified as one of the artist’s daughters, most probably his eldest, Catharina (1715-1744). The likeness compares well with another slightly earlier portrait of 1728 [currently with Robert Simon Fine Art] which shows one of Denner’s daughters. The 1728 picture is inscribed on the reverse of its frame in a Latin couplet by the collector Gottfried Christoph Beireis (1730-1809), which translates as;
The daughter of Denner, a happy and merry girl
Painted with a brush by her distinguished father.
Although Beireis’ note does not name the daughter, the sitter’s likely age suggests it is Catharina. Denner’s other daughters were called Maria and Esther. The fact that this picture remained in Denner’s possession may also reinforce the suggestion that the sitter was a member of the artist’s family.
Despite the picture’s excellent condition, a previous (twentieth-century) owner had attempted to ‘improve’ the image. The sitter’s white dress was over-painted with a thin blue glaze, and three curls of hair were added behind her neck. The background had also been over-painted in parts, notably to the right of the sitter, probably in an attempt to make the picture darker or more dramatic. Fortunately, the medium used was easily removable and the picture can now be seen once more as Denner intended.
This picture was painted in 1732, a few years after Denner had left London, where he had worked since 1721 and where, amongst others, he had painted Handel. On his arrival in England, Denner began to adopt a broader artistic technique in keeping with the more painterly demands of the time, as can be seen in his 1723 picture of A Girl in a Straw Hat in the Tate. But when back in Europe, Denner’s style returned once more to the enamel-like detail his continental clients favoured and which can be seen in the present painting. This picture was probably painted whilst Denner was living in Amsterdam, then the coffee trading centre of Europe.
We are grateful to Ute Mannhardt for helping us catalogue this picture.