Almost a decade after the start of the brief Franco-Prussian War, and the swift and ignominious defeat of France, the nation was torn between remorse and those calling for revenge on Germany. When it opened on the first of May, the Salon of 1880 included many patriotic paintings, among them an innovative depiction of the great French heroine, Joan of Arc, by a young prodigy, Jules Bastien-Lepage.
Bastien had started work on this in 1875, when he was an aspiring history painter. He lived, and had been brought up, in the village of Damvillers, not far from Domrémy, where he pictured Joan winding wool. It shows her receiving her first call to arms against the English, in her vision of 1424. She is watched by Saints Michael, Margaret, and Catherine in semi-transparent forms, having been symbolically winding the thread of fate.
Although the painting was widely discussed, and featured in press coverage of the Salon, reviews were mixed. Those who were inclining towards the new Naturalism, of which Bastien had become the effective leader, spoke in its praise. Others objected vociferously to its mixture of the real with visions of saints floating in mid-air.
Bastien’s hopes were dashed, and he soon left Paris for London, where he once again refocussed his art. The State didn’t purchase the painting, but it was quickly bought by the American collector Erwin Davis, and has subsequently passed into the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
This wasn’t his first disappointment, and was far from being the most decisive of his rejections, but it finally drove Bastien to pursue the new kind of art which was so important to Impressionism, and influenced a whole generation of artists, including Claude Monet, Joaquín Sorolla, Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Julian Alden Weir, and Harriet Backer.
Bastien had fought, and was wounded, in the Franco-Prussian War, when he should still have been studying at the École des Beaux-Arts. Just prior to that, at the age of twenty-one, he’d had his first painting accepted for the Salon, but that and another two years later had escaped the attention of the critics. He had better luck in 1874, when his portrait of his grandfather, painted at home the previous year, was awarded the Salon’s third class medal.
As he wanted to be a history painter, the only course open to him was to win the Prix de Rome, which he had entered in 1875.
The painting he submitted for the final round was The Annunciation to the Shepherds (1875), his response to the prescribed subject of ‘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 rejected his painting on a trumped-up technicality.
Faced with growing public outcry, they awarded him 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.
He did try again the following year, with his Achilles and Priam (or Priam at the Feet of Achilles) (1876). 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.
Bastien was again unsuccessful, and returned to Damvillers to work on his future. His painting of Joan of Arc had been his one last shot.
He then worked on some looser oil studies, including Resting Peasants (c 1877), which doesn’t appear to have progressed any further, but its ideas developed into his next entry for the Salon in 1878.
Les Foins (Haymakers or Hay making) (1877) marked his return to the Salon. 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, as she had been for Joan of Arc, and her utterly vacant stare is piercing.
Finally Bastien-Lepage was gaining some traction. When this was shown in the Salon, conversation turned to the harsh life that it portrayed.
The following year, Bastien 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.
His Wood Gatherer (Father Jacques) (1881) is one of the key Naturalist works of art, also one of the most successful examples of his compositional formula. Its high horizon and woodland break the thin slice of sky into fine fragments. The detailed foreground includes both of the figures, who are diametric opposites – an old man bent with his load of firewood, who at any moment could keel over and die, and a young child who runs free among the wild flowers. The perception of depth is enhanced by the recession of tree forms, although here the space is enclosed rather than open.
By the early 1880s, Bastien had come to dominate the Salon, as his Naturalism dominated French painting. At the same time, his health was in decline.
Dated in 1883, The Little Chimneysweep (Damvillers) is unusual as its subject isn’t shown standing, face-on to the viewer, but he sits and looks down at the kitten at the lower right. This young boy is also the dirtiest of Bastien’s many waifs, his left hand still being black with soot from his work. He appears to be living in a hovel, with the embers of a fire at the left edge.
His health was collapsing fast. A visit to Algiers to try to recover was unsuccessful. He returned to Paris, where he died in December 1884, while still planning a new series of rural paintings. By an odd and more tragic coincidence, his friend and pupil the Ukrainian artist Marie Bashkirtseff had died from tuberculosis just over two months earlier. She was only 25.