… 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.)
There’s one Impressionist that we all know of, whose work few of us know: Frédéric Bazille (1841–1870), who was tragically killed in the Franco-Prussian War, just short of his twenty-ninth birthday. At that stage, he had only been painting in oils for around seven years, and the Impressionist movement was only just developing.
This and the next article look at Bazille’s brief life, and a selection of his paintings.
Jean Frédéric Bazille was born into an affluent family in Montpellier, France, a city on the Mediterranean coast with one of the oldest universities in the world. He was inspired to paint when he saw some paintings by Delacroix, but his family wanted him to study medicine. An accommodation was reached, and in 1859, he started his medical studies at Montpellier University.
In November 1862, Bazille left his home city to transfer to medical studies in Paris. A friend introduced him to Charles Gleyre’s studio, and some time in early 1863, he seems to have started as a pupil there, in addition to his medical course. He met Claude Monet there in March or April of that year, and started painting en plein air with him, probably with Sisley and Renoir too. By the end of 1863, he seems to have been making good progress with Gleyre, although his parents were keen to remind him of the precedence of his medical studies.
In January 1864, he started renting his first studio, and that summer travelled to Normandy with Monet. Shortly after that, he failed his medical exams, and dropped out from those studies, leaving him painting full-time.
In the late summer, in an effort to convince his family that he was serious about his career in art, Bazille started work on his La Robe Rose (The Pink Dress) (1864). Using his cousin, Thérèse des Hours, aged fourteen, as his model, he painted this from a drawing which he made at Méric, looking towards the village of Castelnau-le-Lez, near Montpellier.
In his drawing, the model was looking to the right and out of the picture plane, with her head rotated by about ninety degrees from that shown in this painting. As this was his first painting of a figure set in a landscape, Bazille seems to have wanted to avoid tackling her face, and opted for her to look away from the viewer, at the view.
This painting was not seen by the public until 1910, but since then has become accepted as one of his major works – which is surprising for such a challenging motif and such a relative novice.
In the autumn of 1864, when he returned to Paris, Bazille did not go back to Gleyre’s studio, but painted mostly from the models in Monet’s studio. In January 1865, the two painters moved into a new studio together, above Delacroix’s former flat in rue de Furstenberg.
It is not clear exactly when Bazille painted his Self-Portrait with Palette, but it was most probably in 1865. It is a remarkably accomplished work, given the complexity of arranging the mirror and canvas to result in this unusual pose.
In May, Bazille left the city for the Forest of Fontainebleau, where the Barbizon School had been centred. There he painted Landscape at Chailly (1865) in company with Monet, and possibly Renoir and Sisley. Although clearly influenced by the Barbizon School, Bazille’s colours are much brighter, and escape the rather sombre browns and greens which dominated much of the work of that school.
In May 1864, Bazille and Monet had travelled to the Channel coast, to Le Havre. This was Monet’s home ground, but the first time that Bazille had explored this coast. Oddly, Bazille painted The Beach at Sainte-Adresse a year later, in May 1865, as one of a pair of paintings for an uncle. It appears to have been partially copied from a painting of the same name by Monet, which was made when the two visited Sainte-Adresse the year before. Bazille re-arranged the yachts and changed the staffage of the beach, but the sea, sky, and coastline are essentially the same.
During the summer of 1865, Bazille painted Monet lying in bed, injured, at the Lion d’Or Inn, in The Improvised Field Hospital (1865); sadly I have been unable to find a good image of that painting.
In the late autumn, Gustave Courbet visited Monet and Bazille, and congratulated them on their work. However, in January 1866, Bazille left their shared studio, and set up in his own studio at last. In the Spring, he submitted two paintings to the Salon, of which one, Still Life with a Fish, was accepted. During the winter of 1866-67, Monet lodged in Bazille’s studio for a while.
During this period, he started to paint The Little Gardener (1865-67), but seems to have abandoned it with the foreground incomplete. It was another step in his development of figures in landscapes, and a precursor to his paintings of 1868.
Bazille first wanted to paint at Aigues-Mortes, east of Montpellier, in the summer of 1866, but did not get there until May 1867. He then produced one of his most painterly and brilliant landscapes of The Western Ramparts at Aigues-Mortes (1867), as well as several other works, including many sketches.
I include this Portrait of Paul Verlaine (1867) because of its controversial history. On the strength of the signature on it (which is not legible in this image, I am afraid), it had been attributed to Gustave Courbet. Most recently, though, it has been claimed to have been painted by Bazille. If that is accurate, its painterly style is surprising, but very impressive.
In the Spring of 1867, Bazille submitted two more paintings for the Salon, but both were refused. He drafted a petition calling for a new Salon des Refusés, which was signed by Daubigny, a distinguished member of the Salon jury at the time.
During the summer of 1867, Bazille started work on Portraits of the *** Family also known as The Family Gathering, which he did not complete until January 1868. This seems to have been one of his most carefully-composed paintings, and he devoted a series of sketches to getting the arrangement of the figures and the terrace just right.
The figures include the artist, squeezed in last at the extreme left, an uncle, Bazille’s parents seated on the bench, Bazille’s cousin Pauline des Hours and her husband standing, an aunt and Thérèse des Hours (model for The Pink Dress) seated at the table, his brother Marc and his partner, and at the right Camille, the youngest of the des Hours sisters. This painting marked a special version of a regular summer meeting, as Pauline des Hours and Bazille’s brother Marc married the partners shown in the late summer of 1867.
At the time, such group portraits were exceptional in French art, although they were popular in Britain, and had been so in the past in the Netherlands, of course. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that it was exhibited at the Salon in 1868, and remains one of Bazille’s finest and most innovative works.
In January 1868, Bazille moved into a new studio with Renoir, at what was renamed the following year rue La Condamine, in the Batignolles. He was a regular attender at the Café Guerbois with Manet, Degas, Duranty, Zola, Astruc, and Cézanne.
Bazille painted another of his best-known works, View of the Village, during the summer of 1868. He based this on sketches which he made in the Spring at Saint-Sauveur, of a farmer’s daughter in her Sunday best dress, in Bel-Air Wood, overlooking the River Lez, near Montpellier. Its location and composition are variations of the theme he first developed in The Pink Dress, and he was also reminded of his model for that painting, his cousin Thérèse des Hours.
He probably completed this painting in the autumn and early winter of 1868, and the following year it was exhibited at the Salon. Puvis de Chavannes and several of the critics were full of praise for it, and for Bazille. He also made an etching of it – the only print made from one of Bazille’s paintings during his lifetime. It remains his greatest success.
Hilaire, Michel, & Perrin, Paul (eds) (2016), Frédéric Bazille and the Birth of Impressionism, Flammarion. ISBN 978 2 080 20285 7.