Frédéric Bazille - Biography and Legacy
Montepellier, Hérault, Languedoc-Roussillon, France
Biography of Frédéric Bazille
Childhood and Education
Frédéric Bazille, born Jean-Frédéric, was born into a wealthy family with ancient roots in the South of France. He was born on the family's estate, Meric, outside of Montpellier on December 5th (some sources say the 6th) in 1841. The Bazille family had settled in the area at least as early as the 13th century. He came from a family of artisans, including an 18th-century ancestor who was a master arquebusier, "a renowned weapons specialist and producer of luxury works of art ... who worked for the king." Eventually, the family channeled their artisanal skills into goldsmithing with which they earned a reputation for excellence as well as their fortune. One of the family treasures, which had eventually made its way to his mother, Camille Vialars Bazille, was a famously beautiful and extravagant ring "of diamonds with seven rosette stones" designed by Daniel Bazille in 1720.
The affluent and influential family were members of the High Protestant Society but Bazille's father, Gaston, a vintner and agronomist and eventually a senator of the Hérault, was still apparently liberal enough to allow his son to be somewhat self-determining. Evidently, the young Bazille had decided very early in life that he wanted to be a painter and, by 1859, had declared his intentions to his parents. At that time, he had begun attending lectures on drawing and painting at the Musée Fabre in Montpellier and took drawing courses from local sculptors, the father and son, Joseph and Auguste Baussan. He became a skilled draughtsman and copyist, reproducing works by old masters such as Veronese. However, while his father had for years encouraged his son's pursuit of painting as a hobby, he insisted that Bazille should receive a formal education for a more worthy profession that would allow him to live comfortably. Therefore, the young man agreed, evidently very reluctantly, to study medicine.
In 1862, Bazille moved to Paris; he enrolled at the Faculty of Medicine. During his leisure time, rather than studying, he painted. Quickly, he began neglecting his studies and instead attended the artist Charles Gleyre's drawing workshop. Gleyre was a well-known academic painter who specialized in history painting, still considered by the art establishment to be the most noble of genres. He had taken over the studio of the famous history painter, Paul Delaroche. Some of his best-known students were Monet, Renoir, and Sisley, all of whom Bazille met when he attended the workshops at Gleyre's studio. Ironically, none of them remained for long under Gleyre's tutelage, as they did not agree with his academic approach to teaching art.
By 1864, Bazille had failed his medical exam, largely due to disinterest, and at last his father reluctantly agreed to provide him with support so that he could pursue painting full time. Bazille had received plenty of encouragement both from Gleyre and his avant garde artist friends, Monet, Sisley, and Manet. In turn, he was a generous friend who often provided his struggling artist friends with support - sometimes with money and most often by lending them materials and studio space.
By the time Bazille was 23, in 1864 and really only beginning his artistic career, he had already painted a number of successful works. Like his fellow avant garde artists, Bazille enjoyed the Paris nightlife, making the cafés, bars, and bistros of the slightly seedy New Athens district of Paris (located between the bustling Grands Boulevards and the Place Pigalle in the 9th arrondissement) his haunts. In particular, Bazille and his crowd - then still aspiring artists and writers - populated the cafés including Tortoni, Baudequin, and Guerbois. It wasn't unusual in the early years, the early 1860s, for Bazille to pick up the tab for his friends like Monet, who were still struggling financially.
Bazille painted almost feverishly from 1863 to 1870. After leaving the workshop of Gleyre, he established his own studio. He occupied a total of six studios through the years, with three of them - one on rue de Furstenberg, one on rue de Visconti, and one on rue de la Condamine - documented via his paintings, which have been characterized by some art historians as "indirect self-portraits." As he received a generous monthly allowance from his parents, Bazille could maintain a comfortable apartment, which he sometimes shared with friends, and also shared studio space with fellow artists. In 1864, he and Monet shared the rue de Furstenberg studio. He shared his space on rue de Visconti in 1867 with Renoir, and sometimes Sisley and Monet. From time to time, he would also pay for models for the group of artists to draw and paint, when money was tight they'd also model for one another. By 1868, Bazille had acquired the large studio on rue de la Condamine in the Batignolles district.
In addition to mixing and in some cases establishing close friendships with less-established artists (at the time) such as Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, and Cézanne, Bazille connected socially with artists such as Corot and Courbet, who had already made a name for themselves. He also associated frequently with more academic-style painters like Henri Fantin-Latour, who in his painting A Studio in the Batignolles (1870) included Bazille in a group portrait of notable, anti-establishment artists of the period. Additionally, the young artist was at least a fringe associate of contemporary avant-garde literati - important figures like Charles Baudelaire and Paul Verlaine - who were influential adjudicators of avant-garde tastes at the time and who also frequented of the cafés and bars popular with Bazille's artist friends.
It is thought that Monet and Bazille were close friends but there are indicators, based on gossip of the day and accounts by people from the cultural inner circle, that Monet may have regarded his wealthy friend as a sort of "piggy bank." While that may have been the case, Monet did honor Bazille by making him the godfather of his son, Jean. Bazille is depicted in Monet's monumental painting, Luncheon on the Grass (1865-66), a direct response to Manet's controversial work by the same title from 1863. Bazille appears at the bottom center of the painting.
Bazille's friendship with patron of the arts, Edmond Maitre, was also evidently very close and persisted until the end of the artist's life. The two shared a passion for music, which they both regarded as "sacred." Bazille is said to have had some talent, probably inherited from his mother, who was an accomplished pianist. So immersed in this love for music was the enthusiastic young aesthete that he sought out a professor of piano to "give him lessons in harmony." In 1863, he acquired a piano for his home and, while awaiting its delivery, wrote to his mother in Montpellier, saying, "I am very impatient for my piano to arrive safely and beg you to send me music as soon as you can, my symphonies for four hands, Chopin waltzes, Beethoven sonatas and the Gluck score..." He and Maitre were especially fond of the work of Berlioz, Schumann, and Wagner, although the latter two were still somewhat obscure in France at that time.
Bazille first displayed his work at the official state exhibition, the Salon, in 1866. To his great disappointment, a painting he'd hoped would be accepted, Girl at the Piano (1865-66), was rejected. Instead, the Salon Jury agreed to include a small still life in the annual exhibition. Bazille had written a letter to his parents in March of that year discussing the painting, which Courbet himself had praised, and describing his nervousness painting in the radical new style inspired by Manet and Courbet. "Not being able to undertake a grand composition," he wrote, "I have tried to paint, as best I can, as simple a subject as possible." This choice, to represent a mundane subject rather than one favored by the academy, particularly the most favored genre of history painting, was a direct consequence of the influence of Courbet and more emphatically Manet, whose work bridged the gap between Realism and Impressionism.
Apparently, so disappointed was Bazille in the rejection of the painting, that he reused the canvas, painting over the work that for him symbolized rejection and failure. Originally, Girl at a Piano was thought lost but then rediscovered via x-ray technology underneath a later painting, ironically of a biblical subject, Ruth and Boaz (c. 1870). It wasn't unusual for an artist to reuse a canvas if they were unhappy with a painting or were running short on money. Bazille is known to have done so on a regular basis.
Bazille is said to have visited his family's estate, Meric, outside of Montepellier frequently, particularly during the winter months. He found it a refuge from city life and would go there to read and paint. It was there in 1867 that he produced what is probably his most masterful painting, La Reunion de famille (The Family Reunion). Like his Impressionist friends, Bazille painted often en plein air, in the outdoors, and one place he most enjoyed doing so besides Fontainebleau and thereabouts, was at Meric.
Art critic, Edmond Duranty commented in 1870 on Bazille's productivity during his winters in the South of France: "Every spring Monsieur Bazille returns from the South with summer paintings [...] full of greenery, sunshine and simple assurance." Zacharie Astruc, a painter, sculptor, poet, and art critic praised Bazille's role in the early Impressionists' endeavor to capture "the astonishing fullness of light and the unique impression of the outdoors and the power of daylight." Perhaps ironically, as his good friend Monet was painting in a similar style, Bazille's work was accepted a number of times by the Salon Jury. Monet's never was.
Enlistment and Early Death
By 1870, Bazille had achieved considerable renown and respect for his work. However, fate stepped in when France declared war on Prussia on July 19, 1870. As the Prussians moved further into French territory later in the summer and a full-scale invasion of France was inevitable, the passionate young Bazille went to a military recruitment office on August 10, 1870 and enlisted in the 3rd Zouaves light infantry regiment.
His friends and family members were stunned by Bazille's decision to join the Zouaves. Renoir is said to have joked that his friend had elected to join that particular regiment "to keep his beloved beard" as they "did not require shaving." One historian has argued that Bazille's hasty decision to join the fighting may have in part been due to his discontent at the time; he had stopped painting prolifically as he had done for nearly ten years and evidently wrote shortly before joining up, "I have constant migraines; I am deeply discouraged." Upon hearing that his dearest friend had enlisted, Maitre wrote to Bazille, "My dear, my only friend. I received your letter in which you told me you have just signed up. You are crazy..! Why didn't you consult your friends? May God protect you." Renoir also wrote to him, "You are an imbecile to make this commitment because you have neither the right nor the duty! Merde! Merde! Merde!"
Bazille first spent several weeks in Algeria training with the Zouaves and then his battalion returned to France. The war and siege touched everyone and artistic production came to a standstill for the most part. Around the same time that Bazille was ordered to return to France to fight, Renoir was conscripted and commanded to join a Chasseur regiment; Monet went to London to avoid fighting and Cézanne essentially hid out in the South of France. Later, both Manet and Degas joined the National Guard and were stationed in Paris.
On November 28, 1870, Bazille's unit was engaged in combat at the Battle of Beaune-la-Rolande in the Val-de-Loir about 100 km south of the capital, which had been waged by France in an attempt to end the Siege of Paris. The unit's commanding officer was injured so Bazille took command, leading an assault during which he was shot twice. He died on the battlefield. A few days later, his grief stricken father traveled to Beaune-la-Rolande and retrieved his son's body. Bazille, who died at age 28, was buried in Montpellier.
Two years after his death, in 1872, Duranty published a fictional story, "The Painter Louis Martin," about a visionary artist who had died prematurely in the Franco-Prussian War. Duranty named his character "Louis Martin," but it was clear that the protagonist of the story was based in part (with some deviation and invention) on Bazille. In the story, the fictional painter found himself disillusioned by the staid, academic artistic scene of 1860s Paris. Not content to go to the Louvre and copy great works of art, he followed the examples of Manet and Courbet, going outside and painting everyday subject matter disdained by the tradition-steeped art establishment.
As the story progresses, Martin convinces other artists who share his discontent to shun the annual Salon, the official exhibition, and to establish an alternative exhibition where they could show their work. The dream went unfulfilled as the young Martin was killed in battle. "In Duranty's eyes," explains art historian Diane Pitman, "Bazille seems to have epitomized the vitality that the young Impressionists brought to painting, and his early death underscored the freshness and poignancy of their art."
The Legacy of Frédéric Bazille
Bazille made his mark as a Realist artist whose most lasting contribution was through paintings featuring figures situated in landscapes, produced en plein air. By working out the process of combining two very traditional motifs - the landscape and the portrait - and allowing neither to usurp the other in importance, he helped establish along with close colleagues like Renoir and Monet, one of the core motifs of Impressionism: the genre scene of a figure or group relaxing in an outdoor setting. These outdoor scenes are produced in a less academic style that is anticipatory of the Impressionist style and Bazille has been referred to as a "Proto-Impressionist." Until some of his paintings appeared in the Universal Exhibition of 1900 in Paris, Bazille's work had not exerted much influence on artists who followed the Impressionists. By 1910, when a modest retrospective of his work was presented at the Salon d'Automne (Autumn Salon), avant garde artists like Picasso began to take notice thanks to critic and writer Guillaume Apollinaire's recognition of Bazille's modernism, including his direct link to Manet and the way in which the two artists radically reimagined the nude, both male and female.