Often when I am driving down a large highway and see that the traffic flow in the opposite direction has stopped resulting in a formidable two or three mile tailback and I go further on, past the hold-up, around a bend in the road, and see cars heading towards the stopped traffic, the drivers of which are completely oblivious to what is around the bend. They are happily driving on. Life for them is good. Maybe they are heading home or heading for a destination they have been counting down time to reach. They have great plans with regards what they will do when they reach their destination. It is at times like these that I think about life and death and the way we, like the driver and passengers of the cars heading unwittingly towards the tail-back. We are happily going about our business, completely unaware of what is about to happen to us in a few minutes, or a few hours, or a few days or a few months hence.
So why do I start my art blog in such a fashion? The reason is that for my next two blogs I am featuring works by two young artists who had their whole lives ahead of them and who must have believed theirs was to be a successful and happy future and yet because of a conscious decision they both made, their lives would end suddenly in the theatre of war. Today I am going to once again look at the life and works of the nineteenth century French painter Frédéric Bazille and in the following blog I want to introduce you to an artist, who you may not have come across before, the English Victorian painter Brian Hatton.
Jean Frédéric Bazille was born in Montpellier at 11, Grand’rue in 1841. His father was Gaston Bazille and his mother was Camille Victorine Bazille (née Viliars). Gaston Bazille was a wine merchant, senator and president of the Agricultural Society of Herault. He was the head of an affluent and cultured upper middle-class Protestant family. He and his wife had three children, Suzanne the eldest, followed by Jean Frédéric and Claude Marc. Whilst living in Montpellier, Bazille became acquainted with a friend of his father, a local art collector Alfred Bruyas. Bruyas was also a close friend and patron of the artist Gustave Courbet and, over time, he had built up a sizeable art collection with works by Jean-François Millet, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Eugène Delacroix and of course, many by his friend Courbet. Young Frédéric Bazille often had the chance to examine these precious works and was fascinated with and inspired by the collection. This was to be the start of the young man’s love affair with art. He began 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 studies. He graduated from high school in Montpellier, where he obtained a degree in 1859, and as he would do anything to continue with his art, he went along with his father’s wishes and began his medical studies at the Faculty of Montpellier.
To continue with his medical studies, Bazille had to move to Paris and so in November 1862 he travelled to the capital. Whilst in Paris, Bazille, unbeknown to his father, spent more time sketching and painting than getting on with his medical studies. In late 1862, Bazille enrolled at the private art studio of Charles Gleyre, the Swiss historical painter. Whilst at this atelier he met and became friends with fellow aspiring artists, Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley and James McNeil Whistler. Monet and Renoir would become close friends of Bazille’s and they were to influence his artistic style and approach toward art, particularly through the practice of en-plein air painting and directly observing life and nature. During this time, a frequent meeting place for these artistic friends was the Café Guerbois in Paris, where new ideas and theories were discussed passionately. Bazille, unlike Monet, had no money problems. He came from a well-off family and he would often pay for many a round of drinks. Bazille also paid for studio rent and art supplies and always helped ease the financial worries of the likes of Monet by buying some of their paintings and by doing so ensured that his new-found friends would be saved from complete financial despair.
When Gleyre’s studio closed the following year Bazille decided to leave Paris and follow his friends whilst he waited on the results of his medical exams. In 1863 he went and lived alongside Monet at Chailly and learnt the en plein air painting technique in the Forest of Fontainebleau. In 1864, he found out that he had failed his medical exams, much to his father’s disappointment. Bazille gave up any idea of entering the medical profession and, from this time on, he concentrated all his efforts on his painting.
France declared war on Prussia on 19 July 1870 but the other German states quickly joined on Prussia’s side and France was soon defeated. In August 1870, at the age of 28, Frédéric Bazille, against the wishes and advice from his friends, enlisted in the Third Regiment of the Zouave. Zouave was the title given to certain light infantry regiments in the French army which trained in Algeria. One must remember that Bazille was a wealthy man and could, if he had so wanted, not have gone to war, for in those days, even if he had been drafted, he and his family could have paid for another person to substitute for him. However Bazille chose to serve his country. Bazille died on November 28th 1870 at the Battle of Beaune-la-Rolande, near Orléans. Bazille’s biographer, François Daulte wrote about the incident:
“... The company halted on the top of ridge overlooking Beaune. It was greeted with a hail of Prussian bullets. The first of the men advancing toward the town fell like flies …….. In the general chaos women and children were escaping from the town and running towards isolated farm buildings which would offer some protection …….. Bazille’s turn came and he charged, crying: “Don’t shoot! Women and children!” He was hit by two bullets to the arm and chest. He fell, face down in the earth, fifty metres from the château where Corot had painted one of his masterpieces…”
Bazille died on the battlefield just eight days before his twenty-ninth birthday. His family was devastated and his father travelled to the battlefield a few days later to take his body back for burial at Montpellier.
My featured painting today is probably Frederic Bazille’s most famous work, entitled Réunion de famille also called Portraits de famille (Family Reunion also called Family Portraits) which he completed in 1867 and altered slightly two years later. It is a large painting, measuring 152cms x 230cms. The subject of the work is an extended family gathering at Bazille’s family’s country estate at Méric, near Montpellier during the summer of 1867. The sun is shining brightly but the people are safeguarded from the harsh rays of the sun by the very large tree on the terrace, the foliage of which filters the sunlight, which allows the artist to cleverly depict the very sophisticated light and shadow effects against the subjects, their clothing and surroundings. Look at the strong contrasts of the bright colours between that of the landscape and the sky in comparison to the shaded areas under the tree. As the sunlight manages to filter through the leaves it manages to light up some of the pale clothing contrasting it against the darkness of the jackets, shawl and apron. It illustrates how Bazille’s liked painting in the light of the South of France.
In this painting, Bazille has depicted various figures in a tableaux-type style. Although there is a peaceful feeling about this depiction, it is just a group of figures. There is a lack of interaction between the family members with all the figures stiffly-posed and all, except the father, looking towards us as if we were the photographer recording this family get-together. The photographer aspect of this painting may not be as far-fetched as it seems as it is known that around about this time Frédéric’s brother Marc married Suzanne Tissié and it could well be that Frédéric was in some ways recording the family get-together a few days after this wedding. There is an air of confidence about the demeanours of the people depicted, which probably came with their affluent status in society. In the picture Bazille has included ten extended family members and he even added himself in the painting. He is not in a prominent position. He has squeezed himself into the far left of the painting, which may infer that he was somewhat reluctant to include himself. Next to him stands his uncle by marriage, Gabriel des Hours-Farel. Seated on a bench with their back to him is his mother, Camille, and father, Gaston, whilst at the table is his aunt, his mother’s sister, Élisa des Hours-Farel and her daughter Juliette Thérèse. Standing by the trunk of the tree with their arms linked are Bazille’s cousin Thérèse Teulon-Valio, the married daughter of Gabriel and Élisa des Hours-Farel, and her husband, Emile. On the right of the painting, standing by the terrace wall is Marc Bazille, Frédéric’s brother with his wife of a few days, Suzanne Tissié and his sister Suzanne. The Bazille and des Hours families used to spend every summer on the magnificent estate of Méric, in Castelnau-le-Lez, a village near Montpellier. The house and its grounds were slightly higher up, overlooking the village.
Two years later, after it was shown in the Salon, Bazille re-worked parts of the painting, replacing little dogs, which had been in the foreground, with a somewhat contrived still life made up of a furled umbrella, a straw hat and a bunch of flowers.
The painting was accepted by the French Salon of 1868, which slightly embarrassed Bazille as his friend Monet had failed to get any of his works accepted by the Salon jurists that year. Bazille didn’t gloat much about his inclusion in the Salon, stating that his being chosen over Monet was “probably by mistake.” Bazille’s is often now looked upon as a dilettante, an amateur who flirted with avant-gardism but lacked application and so remained a follower rather than a leader. However some of his contemporaries would disagree, Camille Pissaro described him as: “one of the most gifted among us.”
Bazille produced many beautiful works of art during his short lifetime and who knows what he may have accomplished if he had not patriotically decided to fight for his country and sadly, within a year of painting today’s picture he was lying dead on a battlefield.