The quaint town of Balchik, on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast, is now one of the main attractions of the country. Throughout history, though, it belonged to various empires and countries, turning, over time, into quite a cosmopolitan place. For roughly 30 years, in the first half of the last century, between 1913-1940, Balchik was part of Romania, as a result of the Second Balkan War. It also became the place that was to be identified with the Romanian painting on the first half of the XXth century, giving birth to what became The Balchik School of Painting.
The town of Balchik
With a nod to Côte d’Azur, Balchik was dubbed The Silver Coast, for its calcareous rocks and the white houses, and at the beginning of the 20th century it was a commercial town inhabited by people of many nationalities: Bulgarians, Romanians, Turks, Tatars, Greeks, Romani, and Armenians. Although the Muslim population had started to decrease in the area, the town was still maintaining an oriental appearance.
A favourite place of Queen Mary, who built her favourite residence there in 1924—a cosy villa that she dearly called The Quiet Nest—the sea town quickly became a sought-after summer destination for the Romanian bohemians, socialites, writers, and artists.
In 1926 Octavian Moșescu, then a professor, later mayor of Balchic, founded the summer university Coasta de argint (The Silver Coast). Besides lectures by acclamied cultural figures of the era, the town got a library and several journals, while establishing periodic arts workshops and summer camps. Per Queen Mary’s special request, the architecture of the town was preserved, and all the new constructions were built in compliance with the local ambience.
Balchik school of Romanian painting
Painter Alexandru Satmari is the one credited for discovering the coastal town, in 1915. Fascinated by the special light, the white houses, the colourful people and its lively vibe, other painters soon followed Satmari in search of the lost oriental paradise. Among them, some of the most prominent at the time: Nicolae Tonitza, Gheorghe Pătrașcu, Jean Alexandru Steriadi, Theodor Pallady, Camil Ressu, Francisc Șirato, Cecilia Cuţescu-Stork, Iosif Iser.
Everything looked completely different and appealing for the Romanian painters, more used to the rather tarnished coast of the Romanian Black Sea: the wild, shiny rocks reminded of the Mediterranean coast, while the town itself was exotic in its own right, animated yet laid-back.
According to art historians—who agree that the Balchik school of Romanian painting represented for Romanian art what Barbizon did for the French or Worpswede for the Germans—there’s no Romanian painter of the era who hadn’t visited the place at least once during these years. Between 100 and 150 artists would stop in the town each summer. Some of them lived here for longer stretches of time, while others, with more financial means, like Cecilia Cuţescu-Stork, built their own houses or villas.
Although each artist had their own visions of the place and were inspired by various elements, there seems to be a common thread in regards to the themes of the works produced at Balchik: narrow streets, the sea and its fishermen, portraits of children or voluptuous women, bright interiors or sleepy cafes.
Not only painters were fascinated with the place; many writers and poets of the era would often spend their summer here, praising the seaside, while one of the most famous interwar love novels, Pânza de paianjen (The Spiderweb), is rightfully set in Balchik.
The place remains popular among Romanians and Bulgarians, with thousands of people visiting Queen Mary’s castle and its adjoining cacti garden, Balchik International Short Film Festival, and, last but not least, painting itself, with various arts camps and exhibitions.