Frederic Bazille was one of the founding figures of Impressionism in France. If his colleague Alfred Sisley restricted his scope of subject to painting nature and outdoor sceneries, Bazille was quite the opposite. He was known for his landscape paintings admixed with figure(s), making it look similar to the works of classic Flemish and Dutch landscape painters. He painted his landscapes en plein air, and sometimes he would do it together with the other Impressionists of his era.
Bazille grew up to a rich and comfortable life for his parents were successful wine makers in France. However, he wanted to devote himself fully to painting instead of succeeding his father in the business. It is thought that his first apprenticeship was with Gleyre and it was through him that he was introduced to formidable figures of the movement such as Claude Monet and Pierre Auguste Renoir. These artists must have also influenced him to commit to plein air painting.
For the French artist, plein air painting allowed him to observe people as they move around their natural environment. He would paint them within the landscape in the most realistic way possible. The Pink Dress (1864) is a fine example of his figure within a landscape painting alongside his masterpiece, The Family Reunion (1867) which depicts how French families gather together to unwind over the afternoon. What made Bazille distinctive among other artists was the fact that his paintings look like had been taken from a camera lens. From composition, perspective, and height, everything was well-structured with wide brushstrokes.
His other important works include Bazille Studio (1870), Portrait of Renoir (1867), Aigues Mortes (1867), Fisherman with a Net (1868), La Toilette (1870), and Scene d’ete (1869).
Jean Frederic Bazille was born on December 6, 1841 in Montepellier near Languedoc-Roussillon, France. He was brought up by an affluent religious family. He developed his early interest in painting when he had seen the works of Eugene Delacroix, and he knew by that moment that he wanted to become one as well. However, his family was the first to refuse to let him to do so because art for them was just good as a hobby, and they’d be happy if their son would take up medicine.
In the medical school, Bazille wasn’t really doing well as he failed twice and on his third attempt he came in late for the exam. This series of events finally convinced his parents to let him pursue what he was passionate about. So in 1862, he entered the studio of Charles Gleyre, a Swiss painter. He visited the studio in formal attire that gave off a very good impression to his master, including to his would-be colleagues Renoir and Monet.
His elite manners and his articulate manner of conversation made him quite popular among the group. French writer, Emile Zola, would even describe the enthusiastic Bazille as “haughty, formidable in argument but essentially good and kind”. Since then, everybody raised their expectations of him and he began painting out in the open air with Monet around 1863.
Bazille’s close association to Monet made him the artist’s subject for Dejeuner sur I’Herbe of 1866. Bazille was standing at the left side and another figure of him was lying on his elbow to the right corner. The Montpelier-native returned the favor when he painted Monet lying down on his bed surrounded by pillows as he was recuperating from a foot injury. This was actually to keep Monet quiet because he kept ranting about his condition furiously.
In 1867, Bazille transferred to a new studio tagging Renoir along with him. His companion painted him while working in his studio and entitled it Frederic Bazille at his Easel, to which Bazille responded with a portrait of Renoir of that same year. He developed such great relationships with his colleagues that they had nothing to say about each other but good things. It was also him who invited Alfred Sisley to join their company of Impressionists as well as Camille Pissarro.
Around 1865, Frederic Bazille would sit beside Monet while painting the view of the Le Havre beach. They even came up with almost the same horizon image; the expansive shore and the sea meets the sky and on the sea are small boats traversing the water. This was one instance when he was really captivated by Monet’s art work and he did not think twice about buying one of his paintings which called Women in a Garden in 1866.
The duo would always help each other out as they develop the fundamentals of Impressionism. One time, Monet helped Bazille in finishing a portrait because it had to painting in a colossal size as it was a group portrait of his family. The subjects posed on the terrace of their Montpelier manor house. As a result, Bazille produced a masterpiece in the form of The Family Reunion (1867) and it was exhibited at the Salon one year later.
The Salon invited him again to exhibit his View of the Village painting in 1869. The painting shows an adolescent girl adorned with red sash. She was seated under a tree watching over the small village before her. This particular work was groundbreaking for Bazille had achieved something non-existent in his work before, in which the figure was painted naturalistically in a landscape setting.
He painted another outdoor painting called the Summer Scene of 1870, in which a small group of younger men was taking a bath in a pool. This was one of Bazille’s nude paintings and it could be that he was experimenting with nude art at the time. The Summer Scene was then exhibited at the Salon in that same year. Bazille was quickly becoming popular among the landscape painting circles plus he became known for his mastery of scenic naturalism and drawing figures.
During the last few years of his life, the influence of Delacroix on Bazille had been very evident. Delacroix pioneered “exotic romanticism”, from which he gained inspiration for his own Black Woman with Peonies. Art historians see this painting as comparable to Monet’s Olympia (1863) though, wherein the black maid holds a bouquet of flowers and this very subject and theme were adopted by Bazille.
Starting a Fraternity of Impressionist Painters
The 1870’s was a lucrative time in Bazille’s career. After attempting to make his own interpretation of exotic romanticism, he painted the Artist’s Studio and several portraits. He had also written letters to his friends and family that entail his ideals and vision of the current artistic movement. In his 1867 letter, he told his family that he does not want to send more paintings to the Salon.
He wanted to give way to his friends who were as good as him when it comes to landscape painting and style. He also expressed in the letter his desire to recommend Gustave Courbet, Charles Daubigny, and Camille Corot to the Salon. He was actually aiming at having a group exhibition at a gallery he planned to establish so that everybody would benefit from the exposure equally.
His colleagues expressed agreement to Bazille’s proposition so they made all necessary efforts to raise funds to set up their own studio where they could display their paintings and share similar ambitions. However, the group failed to raise funds. Nonetheless, Bazille started a fraternity of Impressionist artists that would come to fruition later on. The group expanded consisting of painters with different level of skills and personalities but more importantly they were off to changing the art scene of France.
The group held exhibitions and as they lay the foundation of Impressionism, the more French art do away from classical and traditional art and medium. The differences that those artists had were set aside just to fulfill the common goal that the group was trying to achieve. Consequently, Impressionism flourished in France and the rest was history.
Bazille was critical about his art because he seemed quite hesitant about leaving conservatism behind. He was a naturalist painter and so his works displayed a kind of freshness, well-composed structure (anatomy), and faithful representation of human emotion through facial expression. But ironically, he had no idea that the group he formed in the 1870’s would change the way French artists paint.
In 1870, Frederic Bazille joined the army to defend the country against the Prussians. While on duty at Beaune la Rolande near the Fontainebleau forest, he was shot by a sniper. His fellow soldiers then buried his dead body under the snow. His father looked for his body and brought it to back to Montpelier to receive proper burial rites. Bazille died prematurely at the age of 28.