The entry in the Nouveau Petit Larousse Illustré says only “Bazille (Frédéric), peintre impressionniste français, né à Montpellier (1841-70).” Nothing more to be said about a man that Camille Pissarro, a mature painter ten years Bazille’s senior, described as “one of the most gifted among us.” By contrast, the entry on Bazille’s friend and contemporary Claude Monet reads “peintre français, né à Paris (1841-1926). Poète de la lumière, chef et representant typique de l’impressionnisme; auteur des Nymphéas (Orangerie), Les Peupliers, Vues de Vetheuil.” There’s even a photo of the man himself, one of Nadar’s portraits with the cropped hair and bushy beard. The point? Obviously, that Monet outlived his colleague by more than half a century, ample time in which to establish himself as a poet of light. It’s worth noting, too, that not one of the three series identified by those codifiers of French culture, the editors of Larousse, as Monet’s most characteristic and significant achievements—the Waterlilies, the Poplars, the Views of Vetheuil—was painted before Monet turned forty. That was in 1880, a decade after poor Bazille was killed, a week short of his twenty-ninth birthday, in the carnage of the Franco-Prussian War.
Bazille had been painting for a brief eight years, most of them, if not precisely as a student, at least as a rookie. Did he have time to fulfill the promise Pissarro saw? It has been difficult to judge, since only sixty-five canvases have survived and those are widely dispersed. Bazille turns up in art-history courses as a conspicuously tall presence in group portraits such as Fantin-Latour’s A Studio in the Batignolles Quarter (1870), where he stands behind the critic Astruc’s chair, or his own Studio on the rue La Condamine of the same year (both Musée d’Orsay), where his lanky self-portrait dominates the center of the canvas, towering over his friends Monet, Manet, Renoir, and Zola. Most often, he is discussed briefly as a member of the Impressionists’ inner circle, an intimate, supporter, and studio mate, who nonetheless does not figure in the development of Impressionism quite simply because he died before the first group exhibition in 1874. Every once in a while you come across an extremely convincing or, just as often, an extremely awkward painting by Bazille—for example, the stiff but sympathetic African Woman with Peonies (1870, National Gallery, Washington, D.C.) or the haunting Family Gathering (1867, Musée d’Orsay), where the Bazille clan’s relaxed conversation appears to have been stopped dead by the demands of their painter relation. But until last year, when the Musée Fabre, Montpellier, organized a full-scale homage to Bazille in honor of the 150th anniversary of his birth, it was impossible to form a clear picture of what the ambitious young artist was able to accomplish in his all too short life. An abridged but still comprehensive version of this exhibition, recently on view in Brooklyn and soon to travel to Memphis, has happily extended this privilege to American audiences.1 Yet in many ways, Bazille remains as elusive as before. He still appears more clearly as friend and sometime model for his better-known (and longer-lived) colleagues than he does as a painter.
Bazille was anything but a formed artist at the time of his death.
Perhaps this is inevitable, since Bazille was anything but a formed artist at the time of his death. What we have is not so much a coherent body of work as tantalizing indications of talent, effort, and aspiration, without any real sense of consistency or all-stops-out risk-taking. Many of his surviving pictures are modest—especially the most successful among them. Bazille’s legacy is a vivid record of a serious young man’s struggle to find an individual voice and method at a time when possibilities were enlarging, yet there’s a pervasive cautiousness or, at least, prudence in many of the works that have come down to us, rather than the driven self-assurance of—say—the penniless young Monet of those years, at work on his dazzling near-life-size images of women in white dresses and frock-coated men in light-dappled gardens. Then, too, even the best of Bazille’s surviving works make us think, more often than not, about other painters, about the artists he admired, both among his contemporaries and in the recent past. Perhaps the strongest effect of the Bazille show, in fact, is to demonstrate once again how complex a period the 1860s really was, for painting. Like the exemplary exhibit “The Rise of Landscape Painting in France: Corot to Monet,” seen in 1991-92, the Bazille show reminds us of how old and new approaches overlapped and coexisted, of how profoundly accepted nineteenth-century masters influenced younger painters whom history now sees as rebels and radicals. (It’s not surprising that Kermit Champa, the organizer of “Corot to Monet,” has written provocatively about Bazille.) Modernism was indeed evolving in those years, but almost in spite of itself, looking backward as much as forward.
Bazille’s history perhaps explains the caution. Born into a comfortable, prominent Protestant family in Montpellier, eminently respectable but with a fondness for the arts, Bazille followed family tradition by going to Paris to complete his education. He was not, however, supposed to study art, but rather medicine, supported by his family. Medicine was soon relegated to second place and eventually abandoned, as Bazille enrolled in the studio of Charles Gleyre, on the advice of one of his relatives, the painter Eugène Castelnau. There, Bazille met the young painters who would become his companions and mentors: Monet, Renoir, and Sisley; he, in turn, posed for them, let them share his studio, and helped to support them with whatever he could spare from what he received from his parents. It would be reasonable to assume that the family objected to all this, but there seems to have been little opposition, an anomaly partly explained by the Bazille family’s ties to the art world of the day. Alfred Bruyas, the collector who was Courbet’s patron, was a neighbor and friend; Bazille cousins knew such figures as Manet, Cézanne, Baudelaire, Nadar, and Verlaine well enough to invite them to dinner, and still other family connections were close to Courbet. It’s an absorbing story of intricate relationships and cross-connections. Part of the (slightly over-designed) exhibition catalogue’s strength lies in a series of essays by a variety of scholars that provide a context for Bazille’s work, much of it based on information painstakingly gleaned from his surviving correspondence with his family and his painter friends. These highly descriptive letters make Bazille more real and immediate, and, at the same time, they help us to see his work. Knowing who the painter’s most frequent companions were confirms influences suggested by the evidence of the paintings. Knowing that he said “tu” to Renoir, while adhering to the formal “vous” with Monet, for example, helps to explain some of the fluctuations in Bazille’s approach.
Often, like so many young painters, Bazille is at his best when leaning on his chosen ancestors.
And there are considerable fluctuations. Often, like so many young painters, Bazille is at his best when leaning on his chosen ancestors. The more his landscapes remind us of Courbet’s, with their intense colors of grass, foliage, and sky, the better, although Corot’s example is not to be discounted. The clear geometry and radiant light of the “Italian” Corot is palpable (and helpful) in the piled-up architecture in the backgrounds of Bazille’s two large canvases of women seated out of doors, The Pink Dress (1864, Musée d’Orsay) and View of the Village (1868, Musée Fabre). Corot is present, too, in the moist light and broad handling of the landscapes of Aigues-Mortes and its ramparts, of 1867. The seated women themselves, like the solidly painted Young Woman with Lowered Eyes (1867, Private Collection), are reminiscent of Corot’s middle-period figures, in both their rounded forms and their still, self-contained poses.
Delacroix, Bazille said, was his greatest hero, although his influence is less immediately visible. Bazille’s painting of a corner of his sparsely furnished studio on Rue de Furstenberg, stove glowing red, canvases on the walls (1865, Musée Fabre), has been seen as an homage to Delacroix, who lived in the same building and painted a similar studio view, but once again, Corot’s geometric near-monochrome studio interiors also provide a precedent.
Of Bazille’s contemporaries, Fantin-Latour makes his presence felt in the flower paintings, as well as in the Musée Fabre’s subtle second version of African Woman with Peonies (1870), where the sensitively rendered, luminous dark face and elegant hands of the woman arranging flowers are played against the lush pinks and creamy whites of the full-blown blossoms. Manet’s beneficial influence (much disliked by the critics of the period) makes itself felt in a still life of glittering fish, and in two small, splendid oil sketches, one of soup-bowl covers and the other of two herrings, as well as in a couple of pictures of dead game birds, marvelous orchestrations of blacks, whites, and grays, applied with a vigorous touch. Yet the breadth of handling in these pictures probably owes something, too, to the proximity of Monet, who was obsessed in these years with capturing the way brilliant light obscures details and clarifies form; a pair of plein-air studies of vineyards, painted by Bazille near Montpellier, are informed by this sensibility.
The painting where Bazille comes closest to Monet, at least in intention, is the large Family Gathering, with its hoop-skirted women and elegant men grouped in the light-filled shade of a terrace; one regrets that it is not a part of the American version of the show. In the Musée d’Orsay, it’s always enlightening to go from this picture to Monet’s exactly contemporary Women in the Garden, where white flowers form a staccato counterpoint to pale, spreading skirts and floating ribbons, all shimmering against deep green, light-swallowing foliage. Everything seems precarious in the Monet, momentarily glimpsed by an unobserved spectator; the women, unaware that they are being watched, will move out of our range of vision, a breeze will shift the leaves and scatter the petals of the roses. Monet’s rapid, loaded brush keeps pace with the implied transience of his subject. Bazille’s painting is oddly static and self-conscious. Ten out of the eleven full-length figures—the artist’s family and that of his aunt and uncle, plus a self-portrait—confront the viewer, some, like Bazille’s cousin, who looks over her shoulder, with a certain amount of effort. The light is diffuse, with none of the brilliant, outdoor contrast of Monet’s picture. Family Gathering is like a snapshot in which everyone is asked to turn and face the camera. In its rigidity it seems an example of a much older, less immediate tradition of figure painting, yet at the same time it is reminiscent of Courbet’s solemn figure groups, those stiffly posed men and women apparently trapped in his dense brush strokes.
What, then, of Renoir? His closeness to Bazille is manifest in the softened model- ing and more delicate touch of one of the lapsed medical student’s most ambitious (and most conservative) compositions, La Toilette (1870, Musée Fabre). Neither Manet’s nor Monet’s attachment to scenes of modern life nor their forthright attack have had any influence on this Oriental fantasy. A set-piece evidently aimed at the Salon, La Toilette plays a creamy-skinned nude, invitingly relaxed on a fur-covered couch, against the gleaming back of a black woman stripped to the waist, a fully dressed woman who looks on appreciatively, and an assortment of Persian rugs, Chinese silks, and African stripes. (Despite the familiarity of the Orientalizing subject, the precedent provided by Delacroix, and the conventionality of the handling, the Salon rejected the offering.) It is a less than inspiring painting—far less seductive than the brushy little picture of the two golden herrings floating in a sea of dense paint, silly as that may sound—but it is an immeasurable improvement over Bazille’s other large female nude, painted in 1864 (Musée Fabre). There, a life-size reclining figure, foreshortened to accommodate the demands of academic standards, sprawls across the bottom of the canvas on a patterned carpet, the difficult juncture of abdomen and hip decorously covered by a length of vaguely Japanese fabric. This early effort is distinguished by its general ineptness of drawing and dry laboriousness of paint application. Whatever you think of La Toilette, it must be admitted that Bazille had made great progress in six years.
He seems, however, to have been better at the male nude than the female, so much so that Champa has even suggested that Bazille had homosexual tendencies that reveal themselves in the relationships of his male protagonists. Whatever the artist’s preferences, it’s clear that Fisherman with a Net (1868, Rau Foundation for the Third World, Zurich), with its heroic male nude, improbably about to cast his net into a lily pond, is a far less predictable picture than La Toilette, although less accomplished in traditional terms. The fisherman, whose buttocks would be noticed on the training floor of any health club, is convincingly and easily rendered, as is the sun-patterned riverbank; it’s just that he appears to have been pasted onto the outdoor scene.
The same is true of the near-surreal Summer Scene (Bathers) (1868, Harvard University Art Museums). A group of young men, at least four of them clearly posed by the same mop-haired model, occupy a sun-struck glade and a shady riverbank. Their postures range from casually observed attitudes of swimming, climbing out of the water, wrestling, and undressing to quotations from Renaissance martyrdoms and Classical rivergods. The young men are oddly dislocated, disconnected from one another; only the climbing figure in striped trunks and the half-clad bearded man who pulls him up the bank exchange glances. Yet while the men seem detached from their fellows and from the landscape, the cumulative effect of the large and small studio figures disposed around the patch of sunlit grass is to define the ample space of the setting and fill the picture with air. It’s a peculiar painting, not the least because it seems to be striving for fairly academic verisimilitude, complete with a bolstering of historical convention, even though the subject appears to be a response to the Impressionists’ (or even proto-Impressionists’) desire to paint modern life. Summer Scene was accepted and received favorably in the Salon of 1870. (The catalogue’s essay on perceptions of the painter, “Bazille and the Art Criticism of His Time,” is extremely informative.)
The unanswerable question provoked by this exhibition remains, of course, what kind of painter would Bazille have been had he lived? Would he have participated fully in the admittedly rather wide-ranging movement we loosely call Impressionism? How good was he really? It is impossible to tell. Certainly he painted a few good pictures in those brief eight years, but no great pictures. Perhaps that is asking too much. Yet even when you compare Bazille to other notable painters dead at painfully young ages, the issue remains clouded. Unlike Masaccio, who died at twenty-seven, in 1428, Bazille did not radically alter our notion of what painting could be. Unlike Seurat, who died at thirty-one, in 1891, Bazille left no sheafs of extraordinary drawings, no brooding images that transform our standards of draftsmanship, nor did he formulate a theory of technique. But where could Seurat have gone with his meticulous, obsessive method? There is evidence in the work he managed to produce in his short career that he had become so adept at “applying his method” that his pictures risked becoming technical tours de force, mannered demonstrations of a system and little else. Géricault, dead at thirty-three, left proof of more raw talent and more penetration of feeling than Bazille’s work suggests, to say nothing of greater inventiveness in putting a picture together, but Géricault lived four years longer and we’ve seen what strides Bazille made between 1864 and 1870. Another four years might have made a considerable difference.
I admit that the apparently increasing naturalism, the suppression of painterliness, in Bazille’s “late” works is troubling, since it appears to be at odds with Modernist aspirations. (Is Renoir’s innate conservatism to blame here?) Bazille’s paintings of 1870 make the exhibition’s subtitle, “Prophet of Impressionism,” seem utterly beside the point. Still, it is useful to remember that if Matisse had died at Bazille’s age, we would have no inkling of what he would become. Had Matisse not lived past his twenty-ninth birthday, we would have a few early still lifes of books, some copies of works in the Louvre, some vaguely expressionist landscapes, a few interiors and still lifes that suggest a burgeoning awareness of Impressionism and Cézanne, and a few tentative plein-air paintings made in Corsica whose rather sour, overheated color barely hints at what was to come. The prescient monochromatic view of Moreau’s studio, with its standing, faceless model juxtaposed against a classical statue, would not be prescient at all, since the great figure compositions of 1907-9 would not exist. Bazille and Matisse started painting at about the same age—around twenty. If Matisse had not had his long, productive life as a painter, his most ambitious picture would be that large, thickly painted interior of a maid putting a flower vase on a table covered with elegant plates, gleaming silver, and crystal—the one that is all creamy whites, pale rose, and half tones. Makes you think, doesn’t it?
- “Frédéric Bazille et ses amis impressionnistes” was on view at the Pavillion du Musée Fabre, Mont- pellier, from July 9 through October 4, 1992. The American version of the show, “Frédéric Ba- zille: Prophet of Impressionism,” was on view at the Brooklyn Museum from November 13, 1992, through January 24, 1993, and will travel to the Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Memphis (February 14 through April 25, 1993). A catalogue, with essays by Jean-Patrice Marandel, Dianne W. Pitman, François Daulte, and others, has been published by the Brooklyn Museum (176 pages, $22 paper).
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 11 Number 6, on page 28
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