The oeuvre of the Slovene sculptor Franc Berneker (1874–1932) includes both sculpture in the round and reliefs, and as to their motifs his works vary from portraits and figural compositions to monument- and sepulchral sculpture. He received his first sculptural training from the artisan Ignacij Oblak in Celje, then improved his skills in Innsbruck and Graz, and finally enrolled in the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna in 1897. He studied under Professor Edmund Hellmer and completed the sculptural master class in 1905; however, he remained in the Austrian capital all until 1915. After the end of the First World War he moved to Ljubljana – he periodically also stayed in Celje – where he lived, impoverished and ill, in one of the rooms of the Narodni dom until his death. He was trying to solve his hopeless situation by way of short-term employments, by executing works on order –however, the commissions were but rare–, and by taking part in sculptural competitions which often ended without result, because the works for which they had been called were eventually not ordered at all.
In the first decade of the 20th century, Berneker, while in Vienna, executed a number of realistically rendered portraits made on commission. They feature personages from cultural and social life, patrons, supporters, friends and their children. From his study years onwards he was generously supported by the publicist, patron and educator Dr. Pavel Turner (1842–1924), and particularly by Dr. Fran Vidic. In his autobiography, written in 1903 at the request of his fellow-artist, the painter Rihard Jakopič (1869–1943), Berneker wrote: “I met a number of Slovene intelligentsia in Vienna, among them Dr. Fr. Vidic. Dr. Vidic was rather intensely interested in the field of the arts; I became a guest of him almost on a daily basis. He helped me a lot, he collected funds for my studies as best as he could – and always successfully. Upon his recommendation I got a number of commissions and also received a minor grant, and he occasionally gave me a loan as a stopgap.”
Dr. Fran Vidic (1872–1944) was a literary historian, translator and patron, and he also held several political functions. He wrote a monograph in German language on the first Slovene poet, Valentin Vodnik, and published in Vienna the collection of poems Poezije by the greatest nation’s poet, France Prešeren; he contributed the profits for the Prešeren monument to be erected in Ljubljana. In various native and foreign papers he published his articles on Slovene literature and, under a number of pen-names, also his realistically styled prose feuilletons. He was a co-founder and member of the Slovene literary club in Vienna and a patron to numerous Slovene artists and writers, such as Ivan Cankar, Ivan Grohar, Fran Tratnik, Ivan Žabota, Ivan Vavpotič and, of course, Franc Berneker. He owned a rich art collection whose items now belong to the holdings of the Maribor Art Gallery, Art Gallery Slovenj Gradec, and National Gallery of Slovenia.
Of the surviving Vidic family portraits by Berneker, the most intimate appears to be the portrait of daughter Zdenka Vidic and her friend Mira Ban, housed in the National Gallery of Slovenia. The double breast-length portrait was purchased by the Gallery in 1971. The sculptor first exhibited this artwork at the first Slovene art exhibition in Trieste in 1907, that is in the year of its execution. In 2013, the Vidic family donated abundant documentary materials about the sitter, Zdenka, to the National Gallery. She was born on 9 May 1902, so she was five years old when Berneker portrayed her. She prematurely died after a prolonged illness as a nineteen-year maiden.
The double portrait was envisaged as an intimate piece of art and radiates a lyrical mood. The faces of the two girls are made soft through their childlike features, their loveliness is emphasized by their hairdo. The sculptor rendered the lower section of the sculpture with rougher chisel handling to achieve a contrast to the smoothly polished facial parts. The portrait is pervaded with Art Nouveau grace, tenderness, and dreaminess, and the translucent quality of white marble as the sculptural medium even further enhances the poetic effect.