Biography of Jules Bastien-Lepage
Childhood and Education
Jules Bastien-Lepage was raised in a close family unit that included both parents, his beloved grandfather, and a younger brother (Émile, who would also become a professional artist). His parents owned a modest farm in the idyllic village of Damvillers in Northern France, close to the France/Belgium border. This setting proved to be the key influence on his paintings of rural life.
Bastien-Lepage's father was a keen amateur artist, and nurtured his sons' aptitude for drawing. According to his biographer André Theuriet, his father "required that Jules should draw with pencil on paper the various articles in use upon the table - the lamp, the jug, the inkstand, etc. It was to this first education of the eye and of the hand that Bastien-Lepage owed that love of sincerity, that patient seeking for exactness of detail, which were the ruling motives of his life as an artist". That being said, his father was not comfortable with the idea of his son's interest developing beyond a hobby and was unhappy when he declared his desire to pursue art as a profession. To fulfil his father's wishes, and with a great strain being put on the family resources, Bastien-Lepage attended the College of Verdun from the age of eleven. It was hoped that the young Jules would harness his sublime drawing ability and pursue a career as a draftsman. However, Bastien-Lepage showed little aptitude for draftsmanship and preferred to fill his drawing pads with scenes of rural life.
Aged 19, his college education complete, Bastien-Lepage expressed his desire to travel to Paris to study art. His ambition was beyond the financial reach of the family and, on the advice of a family friend, he took up a job with the Central Postal Administration. Though he earned barely enough to live on, the post meant he was able to attend art classes at the École des Beaux Arts where he registered under his given name, Jules Bastien (he soon added Lepage, his mother's maiden name, as a way of sounding more distinctive). For six months he balanced both roles. He worked at the post office from 3:00 to 7:00 am in the sorting office, before delivering mail till noon. He attended school in the afternoons and, with the added burden of homework, his double life became impossible to maintain. After six months Bastien-Lepage resigned his post at the Post Office and entered art school as a full-time student.
Armed with a letter of recommendation from the academic painter William Bouguereau, Bastien-Lepage approached Alexandre Cabanel who took him under his wing and schooled him in the traditions of academy painting. Realizing his potential, Bastien-Lepage's supported their son as best they could. His mother sent him a small sum of money every month and this, with an allowance of 600 francs from the Council General of Meuse, covered his bed-and-board. Bastien-Lepage's threw himself into his studies, but his ambition was interrupted with the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 when he enlisted in a company of volunteers. According to Theuriet, "One day in the trenches a shell burst near him and sent a clod of hardened earth straight at his chest. He was taken to the ambulance, where he remained during the last month of the siege, while another shell fell upon his studio, and there destroyed his first composition, a nude nymph with her arms clasped over her blonde head, and bathing her feet in the waters of a spring". He would spend the majority of 1871 recuperating in Damvillers before returning to Paris in 1872.
Bastien-Lepage had first submitted work to the Paris Salon in 1870. In these early works he copied the landscapes of Jean-Antoine Watteau and inserted fashionable young women into the scenery. These pieces went largely unnoticed but in 1874 he painted his grandfather in the family garden. It proved to be a turning point in his career. His grandfather, with his proud beard and black velvet beret, was illuminated against a rich green backdrop of trees. The painting perfectly captured humble country life, and it delighted the Parisian public. It won him a third-place medal and the name Bastien-Lepage started to feature in Salon literature and reviews.
The following year, Bastien-Lepage entered The Communicant, and a portrait of the politician and industrialist Simon Hayem, to the Paris Salon. The Communicant in particular showed the artist's ability at revealing his subject with a frank realism that touched the public in a way that academic art could not. According to Theuriet, "this young girl's simple awkward bearing, as she stands out from a creamy background, with all the stiffness of her starched white veil, naively opening her pure hazel eyes, and crossing her fingers, ill at ease in the white gloves, is a marvel of truthful painting [...] It is interesting, as being the first of those small, lifelike, characteristic portraits, in a style at once broad and conscientious, which may be reckoned among the most perfect of this painter's works".
Like other exceptional students at the time, Bastien-Lepage was entered into the prestigious Prix de Rome competition. Having been tipped to win, he took his first defeat in 1875 to heart, but having failed to win on a second occasion (in 1876), he realized that he had no real interest in travelling to Italy to study and had only entered the competition because that was the path elite academy students were expected to follow. Indeed, Bastien-Lepage began to question the true value of academic training and vowed to produce a more personal body of work. He said later, "I learned my business in Paris, I shall not forget that; but my art I did not learn there. I should be sorry to undervalue the high qualities and the devotion of the masters who direct the school. But is it my fault if I have found in their studio the only doubts that have tormented me? When I came to Paris I knew nothing at all, but I had never dreamed of that heap of formulas they pervert one with. In the school I have drawn gods and goddesses, Greeks and Romans, that I knew nothing about, that I did not understand, and even laughed at. I used to say to myself that this might be high art; I wonder sometimes now if anything has resulted from this education".
Bastien-Lepage's preference for the sombre tones of Naturalism clearly distinguished him from the light and colorful Impressionists who were gaining popularity in France at the time. Indeed, historian William S. Feldman stated that Bastien-Lepage saw himself "as heir to the Realist tradition of Millet and Courbet" and espoused the philosophy that "'Nothing is good but truth [and] I come from a village in Lorraine [and] mean, first of all, to paint the peasants and landscapes of my home exactly as they are'". While he kept an apartment and studio in Paris, Feldman observed that the artist remained "True to his credo [and] conceived a continuing series of monumental plein air compositions focused in this direction, and executed in a highly personal, eclectic style". Even when he took on bigger subjects, such as his painting of French martyr Joan of Arc, he placed her in the Damvillers countryside and used a local teenager as his model. Historical figures aside, he conceived of a series of large plein air paintings that evoked his own upbringing and saw him produce what were arguably his most important works, Haymakers (1877) and Potato Gatherers (1878).
Both paintings were exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1879 where they attracted attention for their candid realism. Identical in size and shape, and featuring the same model, Bastien-Lepage's cousin, Marie-Adéle Robert, it was Potato Gatherers that drew direct comparisons with Millet, and especially his 1857 painting, The Gleaners. Both Potato Gatherers and The Gleaners celebrated the beauty of the land, and both exalted the virtues of manual labor, but Bastien-Lepage's painting was considered much less sentimental in tone. Both Haymakers and Potato Gatherers were a success but it was the latter that became the key attraction, winning over both the public and the Salon jury.
As the painter and writer Cathy Locke observed, along with Haymakers and Potato Gatherers, Bastien-Lepage also exhibited a portrait of the rising French actress Sarah Bernhardt. "Painted in high key values", Locke noted that "this small gem of a portrait" was made when both Bernhardt and Bastien-Lepage were rising stars, and since both were "making the rounds with the social elite of Paris, it would have been only natural for [Bernhardt] to sit for this portrait". Locke adds that at the age of just thirty-one, Bastien-Lepage was awarded the prestigious Legion of Honor for the three Salon entries, and thereby confirmed the painter's "official arrival on the French art scene".
Bastien-Lepage's rising star brought him financial security. According to Theuriet, "he took his mother to a large shop and had silks for dresses spread out before her. 'Show some more,' cried he. 'I want Mama to choose the best'", and even though she was disinclined to wear such finery, "She was obliged to give way". He was also comfortable enough to purchase land adjacent to the family farm. As Theuriet explains, Bastien-Lepage, "employed his gains in adding to the paternal domains. [including the purchase of] an orchard situated in the old moat of the town, which had belonged to an unfrocked priest".
While peasant and nature scenes brought him success and personal satisfaction, Bastien-Lepage had also made his name as a painter of beautiful, and highly realistic, portraits. His reputation spread beyond France to the English nobility and he received the important commission to paint the portrait of the Prince of Wales which he rendered in 1879. According to Crastre, "to Bastien-Lepage portrait painting was only a side issue, a form of relaxation between two landscapes; his predilection, his one object in life, so to speak was to return constantly to his peasants, his scenes of toil, his fields of Lorraine". That his work appealed to the young artists of the day can be seen in the friendship he developed with the Russian Maria Bashkirtseff in 1882. His influence is evident in the way she rendered both her portraits and her street scenes. While they shared a love of art, they were also both fated to tragically short lives with Bashkirtseff dying of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-five, less than two months before Bastien-Lepage's own death.
At the beginning of 1881, Bastien-Lepage made painting excursions to Switzerland and Italy. Sadly, serious illness would make these the Frenchman's last overseas tours. In 1883, Bastien-Lepage developed intense kidney pains and, as Crastre describes, "he became melancholy, nervous, irritable; he shut himself up in his studio [...] and even his best friends could not gain admittance". Eventually his doctor was able to convince him to travel to the coastal region of Brittany in the hope that it might aid his recovery. For a brief period the beautiful nature and sunshine helped him to forget his troubles and he was able to paint freely. Soon, however, his condition worsened and he was forced to return to Paris to receive treatment. Writing to a friend, he complained that his, "digestive tube is always kicking up a row".
The Paris doctors informed the artist of the gravity of his situation and this time encouraged him to travel to Algeria believing that the North African climate might help his condition. He was in such poor health that he could not make the journey alone so his mother accompanied him in the capacity of his nurse. At first he seemed to be on the road to recover and, inspired by the new sights and sounds, he began painting in earnest. Focused only on his art he stated, "I am not afraid of death. Dying is nothing - the important thing is to survive oneself, and who can be sure of establishing a claim upon posterity? But there! I am talking nonsense! So long as our work is true, nothing else matters". Sadly, his health continued to deteriorate and, as Crastre put it, "before long the ravages of the disease began to make headway; the kidneys no longer performed their function, and he suffered atrocious agonies which stretched him for days at a time on his back. Even the burning heat of the African sun no longer had strength enough to animate his shattered physique; the brush, which the artist from time to time attempted to take up, fell from between his fingers".
A seriously ill Bastien-Lepage returned to Paris in May of 1884. He still longed to paint and, as Crastre describes, "as long as he could hold a brush, Bastien-Lepage continued to work, in spite of the sufferings which racked him". He eventually grew so weak that he could barely hold a brush. He stated, "If I was told: They are going to cut off your two legs, but after that you will be able to paint again, I would willingly make the sacrifice". Having put up a brave fight, Bastien-Lepage succumbed to his illness six months after returning to Paris. He was aged just thirty-six. The Musée d'Orsay records on its website that "The day after Jules Bastien-Lepage died at his Paris studio on rue Legendre, on the 10th December 1884, the world press announced his premature death and burial in the family cemetery in Damvillers in the Meuse region of France. In just ten productive years, this son of a modest farming family had won an eminent place in the French and international art scene".
The Legacy of Jules Bastien-Lepage
Although his career lasted no more than a decade, Bastien-Lepage made a profound impact on the French art world. Referred to as "the grandson of Millet and Courbet" by French novelist Émile Zola, he captured the beauty of the French peasantry and countryside by rendering his subjects with an authentic realism. Speaking of the impact of his work, author George Clausen acknowledged the artist's, "love of nature and resolute determination not to depart from the strict literal truth as he saw it", and in so doing, "he brought to us what was in some ways a new view of nature - one whose truth was at once admitted".
Bastien-Lepage offered a challenge to the prevailing Impressionist style though this was not a conscious move on the part of the artist. As author Fr. Crastre explains, "as painter of the open air, he became in a certain sense the founder of a school, without meaning to be; for his conception of the painter's art won over a whole group of young artists who united in hailing him as their master". Author William S. Feldman added, "for a younger generation of painters disenchanted with the excesses of both conservative and radical camps, the 'juste milieu' ['middle ground'] approach of Bastien-Lepage represented the viable alternative. Consequently, a school of Bastien-Lepage followers emerged virtually overnight, attracting practitioners from France, Great Britain, and throughout Europe".
He had (albeit inadvertently) suggested a new way for future generations and directly influenced artists such as James Guthrie, John Lavery, and William York Macgregor who, as members of The Glasgow Boys, followed Bastien-Lepage's lead in painting rural Scotland. His style was also influential on a group of Australian Impressionist artists who adapted his techniques to capture the beautiful nature of their country and included artists Charles Conder, Fred McCubbin, Tom Roberts, and Arthur Streeton. His influence can still be felt today in the work of contemporary artists such as John Felsing, Steve Kestrel, and Ron Kingswood all of whom work in the style of Naturalism.
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
First published on 20 Feb 2021. Updated and modified regularly