… Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more.
(William Shakespeare, Macbeth Act 5, scene 5.)
You can hardly find any painter of significance during the last quarter of the 1800s who was not greatly influenced by Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848–1884). Although that influence lasted long into the twentieth century, Bastien-Lepage’s promising career as an artist and mentor was cut tragically short when he died at the age of only 36.
Born as Jules Bastien in the village of Damvillers in the northeast of France, he showed an early aptitude for drawing, and his father taught him to paint. He enrolled in the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1868, where he adopted the surname of Bastien-Lepage by incorporating his mother’s maiden name. While there he was taught the Academic and Salon tradition by Cabanel.
He fought, and was wounded, in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1, but managed to have his first work accepted for the Salon in 1870. Unfortunately this, and another acceptance in 1872, passed unnoticed by the critics and public. It was not until 1874 that his portrait of his grandfather, painted at home the previous year, was awarded a third class medal at the Salon, and he started to attract more attention.
He entered the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1875, and by public reaction would have received the award. However, the jury rejected his painting on a trumped-up technicality.
Bastien-Lepage’s submission for the final was The Annunciation to the Shepherds (1875). I should point out that the subject was not of his choosing: the prescribed subject was ‘the annunciation of the nativity of Christ by the angel to the shepherds of Bethlehem’, as in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 2, verses 8-15.
If there is one painting which epitomises Bastien-Lepage’s approach, as a painted manifesto, it is this. Painted with exceptional skill, it builds on tradition rather than discarding it. Its strength is in its compromise between the gilding and Renaissance appearance of the angel, the rural realism of the shepherds who have come from Millet rather than Bethlehem, and the wonderfully controlled looseness and gesture of the darkened landscape.
The story may be a simple one, but Bastien-Lepage wastes not a brushstroke in its telling, in the almost averted facial expressions, the arms frozen in surprise, hands which have just been tending sheep, even their bare and filthy feet.
The jury of the Prix de Rome attempted to avert outcry by awarding Bastien-Lepage a consolation prize, but it was too late: the damage had been done. That damage stopped him from pursuing an Academic future, and for the good of art, he retreated to his rural village, and the pursuit of truth in his painting.
His transition was not quite as sudden. He painted some parting Academic works with a difference, such as his Achilles and Priam (or Priam at the Feet of Achilles) (1876). Here, Hector has been killed by Achilles, the Greek warrior, who then treats the body disrespectfully and refuses to return it for burial. Hermes escorts King Priam of Troy, the father of Hector, to plead with Achilles, as shown here. Achilles is deeply moved by this, relents, and calls a truce to allow Hector’s body to be returned for the funeral.
This was his second and final attempt to secure the Prix de Rome, and was again unsuccessful.
His Diogenes (1877) takes human anguish further still, in the depiction of this ancient Greek philosopher and cynic. Traditionally shown living in a barrel, Bastien-Lepage gives him cruelly mutilated feet, and one of the most expressive faces since Rembrandt. You will see this painting erroneously dated to 1873 in many places, although it is clearly marked as being signed by the artist in 1877.
Resting Peasants (c 1877) gives us a glimpse of the looseness of Bastien-Lepage when painting oil studies, and appears to have been an early precursor to the next finished work.
Les Foins (Haymakers or Hay making) (1877) was Bastien-Lepage’s return to the Salon of 1878. Although its canvas is almost square, its composition – particularly the recumbent man – and the lay of brushstrokes makes it feel almost panoramic. The artist’s cousin, Marie-Adèle Robert, was the model, and her utterly vacant stare is piercing. Its appearance at the Salon resulted in debate over the harsh life that it portrayed.
The following year, Bastien-Lepage returned with what is now sometimes known as October or Potato Gatherers (1878), but was originally shown as Saison d’Octobre: Récolte des Pommes de Terre. His cousin modelled again, still showing the hard graft typical of Millet’s paintings, but earlier debate was replaced by delight: it was a huge success. And somehow his almost square canvas once more becomes a broad panorama.
That same year, he painted the more personal, and wonderfully painterly, La Toussaint (All Souls’ Day) (1878), a heart-warming outing for an old man and his two grandchildren among the increasingly industrialised fields around towns.
The next and final article in this series will show some of his portraits and late works.