quem di diligunt, adolescens moritur
“Whom the gods love, die young.”
The aphorism comes from the Roman playwright Plautus, who flourished around the end of the 3rd century and actually based his story on a Greek legend about a mother and her two sons. The point of bringing up this saying is that it unhappily could refer to my featured artist of the day, who was so talented and yet was taken from us at such a young age by war.
Jean Frédéric Bazille was born in Montpellier in 1841. His father was a senator and the head of an affluent and cultured middle-class Protestant family. In Montpellier, Jean became acquainted with a friend of his father, a local art collector Alfred Bruyas. Bruyas was a close friend of Gustave Courbet and he owned a large number of expensive paintings by Millet, Corot, Eugène Delacroix and many by his friend Courbet. Young Frédéric Bazille was fascinated and inspired by the collection and this was the start of his love affair with art. He loved to paint and sketch but his father told him that if he wanted to continue with his art he had to agree to continue with his medical studies. He agreed to his father’s terms and in 1860 he started studying art.
In 1862 he moved north to Paris to continue with his medical studies but spent most of his time sketching and painting. Later that year he joined the studio of Charles Gleyre, the Swiss artist. It was whilst there that he met and became friends with fellow aspiring artists, Monet, Renoir, Sisley and Whistler. Gleyre’s studio closed the following year and Bazille decided to leave Paris and follow his friends whilst he waited on the results of his medical exams.
During his journeys around Normandy with Monet in 1864 they stopped off at Honfleur, which was at that time a special meeting place for the en plein air painters. It was here that he met up with Monet’s friends, the French marine and landscape painter, Eugene Boudin and the Dutch landscape and seascape painter, Johan Jongkind. These two artists would later be instrumental in the development of Impressionism. In the autumn of 1864 Bazille returned with Monet to Chaillyen-Bière, near Fontainebleau. It was around this time that he finds out that he had failed his medical exams but fortunately for him, his father did not press him to re-sit them and instead allowed his son to concentrate solely on his artistic career. In 1865 he put forward two of his paintings to the Paris Salon, Young Girl at the Piano and Still-life with Fish. Annoyingly for him only his still-life was accepted for the exhibition by the Salon jury.
Monet, who had a competitive streak, knew about Édouard Manet’s work Déjeuner sur l’herbe (See My Daily Art Display December 23rd) and knew of the masses of publicity it had received (not all good of course!) when it was exhibited at the 1863 Salon des Refusés. In the spring of 1865, he decided that he too would embark on his own version of Déjeuner sur l’herbe. This idea of figure painting in the open air was a new venture for Monet. He began sketches for his new large-scale painting (4metres x 6 metres) which he planned to finish back in his Paris studio. The reason for huge size for the proposed work was mainly down to Monet being inspired by Courbet’s recent large scale paintings. The figures in Monet’s painting were life-sized. It was almost a group of portraits set in a landscape. Bazille and Monet’s girlfriend Camille posed for part of this work. This preparatory oil painting of the two of them exists entitled Bazille and Camille (Study for “Déjeuner sur l’Herbe”) and can be seen at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. However, only fragments of Monet’s completed grand scale painting survive. Monet left it with a landlord to cover a debt, and it was ruined by moisture and neglect. At the same time Bazille himself completed a painting The Pink Dress, which was part of the study for Monet’s open-air mammoth portrait/landscape.
Bazille having come from a wealthy family never had any financial problems unlike his newly found artist friends and he would often help them out by sharing his studio with them and providing them with artistic materials when they couldn’t afford to buy them. He actually bought some of Monet’s paintings, including a large work entitled Women in the Garden, just because the artist needed money. His friendship with the soon-to-be Impressionists was recorded in a series of paintings he did one of which was set in his Paris studio where they would all meet and it is this work which is My Daily Art Display’s featured painting of the day.
At the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war in August 1870, Bazille enlisted in the Zouave, which was the title given to certain light infantry regiments of the French army. His friends had all tried to dissuade him from this patriotic gesture but to no avail. In a battle close to the village of Beaune-la-Rolande, his commanding officer had been killed and he took control of his men leading an assault on the Prussian position. He was hit twice by enemy fire and died on the battlefield. His death on November 28th 1870 was just a few days before his twenty-ninth birthday. His father was devastated by the news and a week later came north from Montpellier to the scene of the battle and took his son’s body back home for burial.
Today I am giving you The Artist’s Studio in the Rue de La Condamine, which Frederic Bazille completed in 1870, the same year he went off to fight and die for his country. The painting currently hangs in the Musée d’Orsay. One can imagine a group of friends nowadays doing the same as Bazille has done – recording for posterity a gathering of companions in a photograph but of course in Bazille’s day, it had to be a sketch or a painting. The setting for the painting is Bazille’s studio at 9 rue de la Condamine, which he shared with Renoir from the beginning of 1868 until May 1870. Some of Bazille’s works are scattered around the room. To the left, on the wall, we have his Fisherman with a Net and his painting entitled La Toilette can be seen hanging just above the white sofa. The small still-life above the head of the piano player is a still life by Monet which Bazille had bought in order to support his friend. We see three men standing at an easel discussing the painting on display. The man with the hat standing in the middle is Édouard Manet and behind him we think is Monet. The tall man to the right of the easel, palette in hand, is Bazille himself. On the staircase is the journalist, writer and art critic, Emile Zola, who is in discussion with Renoir, who is seated below the staircase. At the piano is Bazille’s musician friend Edmond Maitre. The National Gallery at Washington houses a portrait of Maitre by Frédéric Bazille.
Frédéric Bazille was considered to be the most gifted of the soon-to-become Impressionists and, if he had lived, he might well have become one of the leaders of that group. Camille Pissarro described him as one of the most gifted among us.