Important Art by Frédéric Bazille
The Pink Dress
Bazille's milieu of avant garde painters, including Monet and Renoir and also Morisot, who had become an active figure in their circle, were inspired by the work of the Realists like Courbet and early Manet, which inserted contemporary figures into landscapes painted on site or en plein air. Bazille referred to this method as "painting figures in the sun" in a letter he wrote in December of 1863.
In The Pink Dress, Bazille isolates the figure of his cousin, Therese des Hours, who sits comfortably on a stone ledge, framed by the village of Castelnau-le-Lez. The village was in close proximity to the Bazille family's estate, Meric, outside of the city of Montpellier. The Bazille and Hours families spent summers on the estate, which was in the hills above the charming Castelnau-le-Lez with its sunbleached exteriors and terracotta tiled roofs so typical of the South of France.
Borrowing a compositional technique for landscape painting from the Barbizon painters, Bazille places trees in the middle ground to function as a kind of dividing line between the stone terrace and wall of the foreground and the village in the distance. The trees also filter the bright summer sunlight that illuminates the village. They cast shadows on the terrace and on the figure of Therese, who sits quietly in the shade of the terrace at one end of the estate's large garden, faces away from the viewer, seemingly introspective and relaxed in her stockinged feet; she wears a casual, light summer dress of pink and gray stripes and a black apron.
Despite the picture's radical departure from tradition, particularly with regard to the flat areas of barely blended color, the loose brushwork, and the blurring of details, Bazille places his model in a seated, three-quarters pose that is typical of conventional portraiture. In a preparatory sketch for the painting, Therese instead faces the viewer, creating a more pronounced connection between sitter and viewer. The adjustment emphasizes the artist's thought processes in terms of the overarching goal of figuring out how to integrate figure and landscape.
Four years later and still working out this formula that featured a sitter in the foreground framed by a landscape with a village in the background and trees in the middle ground, Bazille painted a similar picture called View of the Village (1868). Evidently, he had succeeded in his mission to create what was to become a standard Impressionist motif as, upon seeing the later picture exhibited, Morisot observed that he had "fulfilled the aspiration of [this] entire generation to place a figure en plein air."
Oil on canvas - Musée d'Orsay, Paris
The Fontainebleau Forest
In springtime of 1863, Bazille and a handful of other artists from Gleyre's studio accompanied Monet to the Fontainebleau Forest where they could paint en plein air. These artists were following a long tradition of painters before them, particularly those of the Barbizon school of landscape painting (c. 1830 to 1870) such as Rousseau, Troyon, and Corot. The school took its name from the small village of Barbizon, which was located on the edge of the Fontainebleau Forest. Major characteristics of the style that evolved with the Barbizon painters were their pictures' rich color and natural lighting, loose brushwork, and softened forms.
The new generation of painters that included Monet, Bazille, Renoir, and Sisley among others embraced the concept of painting en plein air (rather than confining themselves to their studios) but even the less hard-edged style of the Barbizon school, an offshoot of the Romantic movement, was too structured for them. They took their predecessors' fascination with the effects of light much further, establishing the foundations of what would become the Impressionist style. Less concerned with conveying emotion through dramatic, tonal paintings like the Barbizon painters, Bazille and the early, core group of Impressionists were interested in the science of the natural world.
Photography heavily influenced the way that they framed their images - something like snapshots with unusual cropping meant to imitate the spontaneity of a photograph. With this painting, Bazille shuns symmetry and instead provides a view that feels random, as though we are wandering among the trees in the shady forest. The rough, loose brushwork is ideal for describing the texture of the trees, the boulders, and forest floor scattered with debris and plants. The restrained palette is cool and inviting as must have been the feel of the forest itself.
Oil on canvas - Musée d'Orsay, Paris
The Improvised Field Hospital (Monet after his Accident at the Inn at Chailly)
In this painting, the artist Claude Monet lies on his back in a bed with his left leg propped on a folded blanket. Following their trip to the Fontainebleau Forest, Monet went to the town of Chailly near the city of Fontainebleau and asked Bazille to meet him there. Monet planned to begin painting his monumental picture, Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe (1865-66), a response to Manet's famous work by the same title, and requested that Bazille pose for the picture. Bazille arrived a day or two after Monet and checked into a hotel in Chailly, where he stayed for a few days there posing off and on for his friend's painting.
An anecdote from those few days describes how, when Bazille was just preparing to leave the outdoor setting where the painting was staged, a group of English students were playing a game involving flinging a fairly heavy metal disk through the air. A poorly launched attempt apparently went sailing toward a group of children; Monet intervened and was injured, his leg gouged by the disk. Bazille's medical skills are said to have saved the day as he applied a tourniquet to the wound, cleaned it thoroughly, and then remained in Chailly to care for his friend while he convalesced. During the convalescence, Monet also painted a portrait of Bazille - a portrait that became quite well known.
Here, the bedridden, immobile Monet looks out toward the viewer. A sort of traction device that Bazille rigged is suspended above the bed to the right of the patient. The reddened calf of the injured man is apparent as is his convalescent state, including the chamber pot sitting on the floor by the bed, an intimate detail that makes the scene feel quite private, the viewer an intruder. The style is more Realist than Impressionist, as though the seriousness of the circumstances and the bond between the two friends demanded a more careful, naturalistic, and detailed handling of the picture.
Oil on canvas - Musée d'Orsay, Paris
The Family Reunion (Family Portrait)
The Family Reunion commemorates the birthday celebration of Gaston Bazille, the artist's father, who gathered the family together for the occasion on August 27, 1867. Rather than seeming to pose for the picture, the Bazille family members seem to have been abruptly interrupted, surprised even and looked toward the viewer as though at a camera. The setting is once again the family's estate, Meric, outside of Montpellier. Ten in all, the Bazille clan sit or stand here and there on the terrace, enjoying the shade under the large tree. The mostly shaded ground of the terrace is dappled here and there with sunlight that filters through the leaves of the tree. In contrast, the bright summer light illuminates the clothing, connecting the many blues and whites of the sitters' attire with the extraordinarily blue sky and the smattering of clouds that seem fixed in it.
Rather than turning away, Bazille's family members face the viewer and each figure constitutes an individual portrait. The stiff postures of the figures convey a sense of disapproval; they are all rather stiff and formal. The style falls somewhere between Realism and Impressionism and it is said that Bazille reworked the canvas extensively throughout the winter. After completing the large painting, he submitted it to the Salon Jury for the 1868 exhibition and, to his delight, it was accepted. That same year, the Jury rejected his friend Monet's submission, one of his most radical yet, Women in the Garden (1866). Surprised by the news, Bazille very modestly suggested that the Salon Jury had accepted his work "probably by mistake."
Oil on canvas - Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Fisherman with a Net
Bazille was eager to demonstrate his capability as a figure painter and, in keeping with the Realists and early Impressionists efforts to situate the figure in an outdoor setting and to accurately depict the effect of light and other atmospheric phenomena, he chose this very unusual subject of a naked fisherman. Depicting nudes in landscape settings was not new; in fact, the motif dates back at least to the Renaissance. What was novel was, as art historian Gary Tinterow explains, "making the relationship between the naked body and its setting as accurate as possible in terms of proportion, depth and light."
The results of Bazille's efforts are two expertly constructed male nudes that conform to the exacting principles of the academy in terms of construction of the human figure. The contours of their bodies are sharply defined, unlike an Impressionist work and, while Bazille locates them in the outdoors, he places them in the shade while still demonstrating his prowess at depicting natural light as the sun pierces the canopy of the woods here and there.
The male figure in the foreground stands with his back to the viewer, looking for all the world like a classical sculpture. He holds a net, which is preparing to cast into the river, a practice that was evidently common along the Lez River outside of Montpellier.
Bazille wrote to his parents about this work, telling them how his friends complimented him on this painting. He submitted it as well as another painting, A View of the Village (1868), to the 1869 Salon but it was refused. Years later, at the 1910 Paris Salon, the painter Suzanne Valadon saw Fisherman with a Net and produced a similar version of the painting.
Oil on canvas - Rau Foundation for the Third World, Zurich
Bathers (Summer Scene)
Bazille's painting, Bathers, more commonly referred to as Summer Scene, depicts a group of young men clad only in bathing suits either swimming, reclining in the sun, or, in the case of the figures in the background, wrestling. It is thought that he first began the work in his studio in Paris but finished it during a stay in Montpellier using the landscape and the Lez River for references. Sources for the male figures include figure groups by the Renaissance artists, Sebastiano del Piombo and Andrea Mantegna. A likely literary source was a contemporary novel by the Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, Manette Salomon (1867), in which a brightly lit scene of youthful male bathers is described in great detail.
This work, considered by some as Bazille's "final masterpiece," was exhibited at the Salon of 1870. In some ways, argues art historian Michelle Facos, the work conformed to the standards of the academy: the degree to which it is finished and the way in which it is evocative of the traditional formula for classical landscapes "with its flanking rows of trees leading the viewer gradually into the picture." Further, it is symmetrical and it is emblematic of the long-standing academic tradition of studying the male nude. Where it deviates, however, is that such scenes of outdoor bathers typically featured female nudes. Thus, a large-format painting of nude and mostly nude male bathers was quite unprecedented. The shape of the painting, a square, was definitely not the standard format for a landscape painting, which was almost always horizontal; likewise, paintings featuring figures tended to be vertical. Summer Scene, a hybrid of the two genres, is therefore a fairly radical departure from convention. The painting reveals in a roundabout way the legal reality of the period: an 1835 law forbade nude bathing in public; men could do so in bathing suits but women were forbidden even that allowance and were required to bathe "in a single-sex, indoor facility."
Facos also asserts that the poses of the bathers on the left are more typical of the poses of nude females rather than exemplary of, she elaborates, "the heroic virility of associated with ancient sculpture." For centuries, scenes of women bathing or otherwise frolicking nude in natural settings was the standard. In fact, femininity was conjoined with the natural world. In contrast, argues art historian Tamar Garb, "images of unclothed contemporary men stripped of the uniform of masculinity which inscribed them within the realm of culture, made them seem rather vulnerable and decidedly unheroic."
Given the many unconventional features of the painting, it is therefore somewhat surprising that the Salon Jury accepted it for the annual exhibition; this suggests that, by 1870, Bazille had achieved considerable success, bridging the gap between radical, avant garde painting and academic art.
Oil on canvas - Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Cambridge, MA, Cambridge, MA
Bazille was working on this painting at the same time he was painting Bazille's Studio (1870) with a mind to submit The Toilette to the 1870 Salon. This painting, smaller than most of his works, can be seen in the studio painting; it is unfinished and hangs on the far wall of the studio above the small white settee. He described the work in progress in a letter to his mother written in January 1870; in the letter, he first expresses doubts about Summer Scene being accepted by the Salon Jury and then goes on to describe The Toilette: "I am starting another [painting] which I think will be accepted; it is however very difficult to do. There are three women, one of whom is entirely nude, another nearly so. I have found a ravishing model who is going to cost me an arm and a leg: 10 francs a day plus bus fare for her and her mother who accompanies her."
Preparatory sketches indicate that Bazille originally planned to depict only two figures and later added the third, the standing woman on the right. This additional figure was very likely Lise Trébot, Renoir's frequent model and companion. Bazille probably based the pose of the black servant on that of a figure in Renaissance painter, Veronese's Mystical Marriage of Saint Catherine (c. 1575), which he had copied in the Louvre.
This work emphasizes the extent to which Bazille was willing to adapt his work to the preferences of the Salon Jury. He deliberately chose to represent a scene straight from the Orientalist galleries of the Louvre knowing that one of the deciding votes of the jury would be cast by the famous Romantic painter, Jean-Léon Gérôme, who was the jury president at the time. According to art historian Gary Tinterow, this was an excellent strategy because "It enabled a painter to paint nudes, to depict elaborate decors and rich fabrics, to demonstrate his ability to render flesh, fur, silk, and satin." It had worked for Renoir, whose stunning, Realist Odalisque (1870) had been accepted by the jury. Ironically, while The Toilette was rejected, Bazille's Summer Scene was accepted by the jury. The decision seems to have been, not surprisingly complex and political and it remained a frustrating conundrum for Bazille.
Without a doubt, Bazille meant to represent the interior of a harem or at least the sensual overtones of such a setting. With his inclusion of the black servant, he was also very likely referencing Manet's Olympia (1863), an iconoclastic take on the odalisque motif. According to art historian Joan DelPlato, there was a rash of paintings representing the motif of the harem produced between 1868 and 1870. The long popular theme, which had been represented by artists such as Ingres. Gérôme, and Delacroix, the latter of whom Bazille admired deeply, persisted as a favored theme but had become politically problematic, to a considerable extent representative of privilege (of both painter and patron).
While this Realist work, with roots in a favored theme of Romanticism, is an erotic tribute to Orientalism, it reinforces the standard spectatorial dynamic. The viewer is presumed to be male and is titillated by this scene with arguable lesbian underpinnings, which had long been a component of the erotic charge of such works.
Oil on canvas - Musée Fabre de Montpellier Mediterranee Metropole
Bazille painted scenes from three of his different studios but this one is the best known of the trio. A later work, this large painting nevertheless is far more Realist than Impressionist in terms of style. Indeed, Bazille's most experimental, Impressionist-style works are those which he has painted en plein air and in which his use of Impressionist techniques such as loose brushwork, softened edges, and light-infused tonalism is most apparent.
Probably inspired in part by Courbet's enigmatic, allegorical, The Painter's Studio (1854-55) but far more convivial, Bazille's Studio, also known as Studio on the Rue de la Condamine, features portraits of five of his friends as well as a portrait of Bazille himself painted by Manet. The brightly lit studio in the Batignolle district of Paris, which Bazille shared with his friend Renoir between January 1, 1868 until May 15, 1870 "records," writes Dianne Pitman, "the material and social conditions of his last winter in Paris: the collection of paintings by himself and his friends that spurred continual self-evaluation; the piano that occupied many of his moments of leisure; the group of friends - painters, critics, and amateurs - who provided encouragement and friendly rivalry."
In contrast to Fantin-Latour's group portrait of several artists of the Batignolle circle surrounding Manet, which included Bazille, this painting is distinctly informal. A large expanse of open floor space divides the viewer from the group of men who are gathered at the far end of the studio. We can have a glimpse into the world of these radical artists but we can only observe them from a distance; while technically we've been admitted to the studio, we are still on the outside looking in. In a letter written to his parents in December of 1869, Bazille referred to the pleasure he was taking in producing this painting: "I have been amusing myself recently with painting the interior of my studio with my friends. Manet is helping me with it..."
In the center of the picture, near the easel, the unusually tall Bazille stands holding a palette in his hand, which marks him as the owner of the artist's studio. He is speaking to Manet (the figure with the reddish beard closest to the easel) and Astruc (some scholars) have identified this figure as Monet instead) regarding the work in progress. On the far right, Bazille's close friend with whom he shared a passion for music, Edmond Maitre, is seated at the piano. According to art historian, Terry Strieter, the figure on the stairs is the writer and critic, Emile Zola but others have suggested it is Renoir with Sisley seated on the table below; alternatively, the person seated on the table is said to be Renoir. We'll probably never have definitive identifications but suffice to say the painting features members of Bazille's cherished inner circle.
The paintings displayed on the walls of the studio have all been identified by scholars and include The Toilette (1869-70), which had been rejected by the Salon Jury in 1870 and is hanging on the wall just above the small white settee. Another one of his rejected paintings, Fisherman with a Net (1868) featuring a nude male, can be seen on the far left. The small still life painting near Maitre has been identified as a work by Monet, which Bazille had purchased to assist his friend financially - a fairly common occurrence. The large painting of the nude in the gilt frame above the settee is a work by Renoir that was rejected when he submitted it to the Salon of 1866. Its inclusion here probably amounts to a veiled condemnation of the academy, which Bazille and his friends found exasperating in its inconsistency.
Oil on canvas - Musée d'Orsay, Paris