Sunrise on Impressionism: 18 Frédéric Bazille

Frédéric Bazille (1841–1870), Self-Portrait with Palette (1865), oil on canvas, 108.9 x 71.1 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL. Wikimedia Commons.

One name is missing entirely from the catalogue of the First Impressionist Exhibition, an artist who little more than three years earlier had been one of the most promising members of the new movement, Frédéric Bazille (1841–1870). He had been killed in the Franco-Prussian War, just short of his twenty-ninth birthday, when he had only been painting in oils for around seven years.

Jean Frédéric Bazille was born into an affluent family in Montpellier, France, a city on the Mediterranean coast. 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 continuing with his medical training. 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.

Frédéric Bazille (1841–1870), La Robe Rose (The Pink Dress) (1864), oil on canvas, 147 x 110 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

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 wasn’t 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.

When he went back to Paris in the autumn, he didn’t return 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.

Frédéric Bazille (1841–1870), Landscape at Chailly (1865), oil on canvas, 81 x 100.3 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL. Wikimedia Commons.

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 brighter, and escape the rather sombre browns and greens more typical of that school.

Frédéric Bazille (1841–1870), The Beach at Sainte-Adresse (1865), oil on canvas, 58.4 x 140 cm, The High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA. Wikimedia Commons.

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.

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 on his own 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.

Frédéric Bazille (1841–1870), The Western Ramparts at Aigues-Mortes (1867), oil on canvas, 60 x 100 cm, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

Bazille first wanted to paint at Aigues-Mortes, east of Montpellier, in the summer of 1866, but didn’t 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 others.

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.

Frédéric Bazille (1841–1870), Portraits of the *** Family (The Family Gathering) (1868), oil on canvas, 152 x 230 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

During the summer of 1867, Bazille started work on Portraits of the *** Family also known as The Family Gathering, which he didn’t 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. It’s 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.

Frédéric Bazille (1841–1870), View of the Village (1868), oil on canvas, 137.5 × 85.5 cm, Musée Fabre, Montpellier, France. Wikimedia Commons.

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 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.

Frédéric Bazille (1841–1870), Fisherman with a Net (1868), oil on canvas, 137.8 × 86.6 cm, Arp Museum, Remagen, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Another painting of figures in a landscape which he made that summer is Fisherman with a Net (1868), which was refused by the Salon jury of 1869. This was painted on the banks of the River Lez, close to Bazille’s family’s estate at Méric. Unlike most of his other figures in a landscape, it was executed quite quickly, with just one preparatory drawing. The stark contrast between the flesh figures and the rich greens of the surrounding vegetation makes the two men pop out almost incongruously.

Frédéric Bazille (1841–1870), Pierre Auguste Renoir (1868-69), oil on canvas, 61.2 × 50 cm, Musée Fabre, Montpellier, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Bazille remained productive that winter, in part because he and Renoir reorganised their shared studio. His portrait of Pierre Auguste Renoir (1868-69) was a quick oil sketch painted over an abandoned still life, which probably filled in some free time when waiting for models to become available.

Frédéric Bazille (1841–1870), Woman in Moorish Costume (1869), oil on canvas, 99.7 x 59.1 cm, Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

His growing success ensured that he had no difficulty finding models. Woman in Moorish Costume was painted during the winter of 1868-69, and is a nod towards the vogue of ‘orientalism’ at the time.

He was visited by Daubigny, and Alfred Stevens invited him to his evening meetings. With continuing hostility from some members of the Salon jury, notably Jean-Léon Gérôme, Bazille had only one painting, View of the Village, accepted for the Salon of 1869. However, he wasn’t discouraged, and seems to have relished the continuing battle between the Impressionists and Gérôme.

Frédéric Bazille (1841–1870), Summer Scene (Bathers) (1869-70), oil on canvas, 160 × 160.7 cm, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

Bazille started painting Summer Scene, also known as Bathers, during the summer of 1869 when he was on holiday in Montpellier. He had already made a series of compositional studies, from as early as February that year, but when he was working on the canvas, he didn’t find it easy going.

He eventually opted for a composition based on strong diagonals, in which the bathers in the foreground are in shade, while the two wrestlers in the distance are lit by sunshine. The landscape background was painted from the hot green mixture of grass with birch and pine trees, typical of the banks of the River Lez. He completed this painting in early 1870, and it was accepted for the Salon of that year, where it was well-received by the critics.

Frédéric Bazille (1841–1870), La Toilette (1870), oil on canvas, 130 x 128 cm, Musée Fabre, Montpellier, France. Wikimedia Commons.

La Toilette (1870) was one of his three planned projects for the winter of 1869-70. However, with three models required, he had to ask his father for money to cover their cost. The painting was refused by the Salon jury of 1870, the year in which Daubigny resigned in protest at refusals.

Frédéric Bazille (1841–1870), Bazille’s Studio (The Studio on the Rue La Condamine) (1869-70), oil on canvas, 98 x 128.5 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Bazille’s Studio, or The Studio on the Rue La Condamine, was another project he worked on during the winter of 1869-70.

Bazille clearly liked painting his studio, but the three canvases he completed showing his different studios are not as straightforward as they might appear. Inspired by Fantin-Latour’s A Studio in the Batignolles Quarter (1869-70), which includes Bazille, it is in some ways its antithesis in the space shown.

Bazille was careful in the choice of paintings shown, which include View of the Village on the easel, Fisherman with a Net, Terrace at Méric, and La Toilette as yet unfinished. The largest painting hanging is Renoir’s Landscape with Two Figures, and there is also a small still life by Monet. Bazille used these as pictures within a picture to map his career, from the past to his aspirations for the Salon in 1870, not so much in his successes as in the paintings that were refused, and were better appreciated by the colleagues shown in his studio.

Frédéric Bazille (1841–1870), La négresse aux pivoines (Young Woman with Peonies) (1870), oil on canvas, 60.5 × 75.4 cm, Musée Fabre, Montpellier, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Bazille painted two related but different versions of La négresse aux pivoines (Young Woman with Peonies) in the Spring of 1870. The model, a professional, is the same as that used for La Toilette. She is normally read as being a servant who is engaged in making the floral arrangement, although in the other version (in the National Gallery of Art in Washington) she appears to be a flower seller.

At the time, the dominant flower, the peony, was a relatively recent import to France, and would probably have been seen as bringing exoticism to the two paintings. The striking vase may have been borrowed from Fantin-Latour. Rishel has proposed that this painting, in Montpellier, was intended as homage to Gustave Courbet, and that in Washington was homage to Eugène Delacroix.

On 19 July 1870, France declared war on Prussia. Within a month, Bazille had enlisted in the Third Zouave Regiment. He spent September training with the regiment in Algeria, then returned into combat in France. On 28 November 1870, he was killed at the Battle of Beaune-la-Rolande. He would have celebrated his twenty-ninth birthday just over a week later.

Oddly, there’s no mention of Frédéric Bazille in the records of the First Impressionist Exhibition, which might have been an opportunity to have exhibited some of his work in his memory. As a result, his great promise has been largely forgotten.



Hilaire, Michel, & Perrin, Paul (eds) (2016), Frédéric Bazille and the Birth of Impressionism, Flammarion. ISBN 978 2 080 20285 7.