WHILE Frederic Bazille is certainly not as well known as Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir, he played a vital role in the history of art in the l9th century, contributing greatly to the movement that became known as Impressionism.
In 1862, three young artists, born within a year of each other, entered the atelier of a successful academic painter named Charles Gleyre who was associated with the prestigious but conservative Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. Although of different temperaments and backgrounds, the three shared aspirations and quickly became best friends and painting companions.
Auguste Renoir, a Parisian, came from a poor family and had worked since he was 15 painting porcelain, blinds, and performing other decorative chores to save enough money to study art. Claude Monet came from a grocer's family from Le Havre on the northern coast of France. While his family was opposed to his chosen profession, his father had consented to his son going to Paris on the condition that he earnestly study with an accepted painter. Frric Bazille's father was a wealthy and prominent citizen of M ontpellier in the south. His family had wide cultural interests, and it was the custom of their set to send their sons to Paris to study and acquire social polish. Young Bazille was to study medicine but wangled an agreement from his indulgent father to study art on the side.
The names Monet and Renoir are virtually synonymous with Impressionism, but Bazille is less well known. This is perhaps because he was killed in the Franco-Prussian war only eight years after beginning his studies in Paris. (Neither Monet nor Renoir painted the works for which they are most famous in the first eight years of their careers.)
But in 1862, the three students at the Gleyre studio were full of zest for painting. Bazille, though, had some catching up to do: Monet had already experienced some success in Le Havre as a caricaturist and had caught the eye of a fine seascapist, Eugene Boudin; Renoir had been taking drawing lessons for six years, and in the course of his porcelain painting, had made copies of paintings by earlier French masters.
Bazille worked hard but never hard enough to satisfy the obsessive and authoritarian Monet. In the correspondence between these two close friends, the formal word for you, vous, was used. A month after their meeting, Bazille wrote home, "I spent eight days in the little town of Chailly near the Fontainebleau Forest, I was with my friend Monet ... who is rather good at landscape, he gave me some advice that was very helpful to me."
But with Bazille and the cheerful, nonchalant Renoir, the informal tu was standard.
Within a year of going to Paris, Bazille gave up his medical studies and convinced his parents to allow him to rent a studio. He would eventually occupy six different locations. In 1865, he moved into his second studio, which he shared with Monet. One time the two of them watched, awestruck, as the great Romantic painter Eugene Delacroix painted in the garden below while his model moved around freely rather than posing motionless.
Delacroix also painted a small study of a corner of his studio featuring a jerry-built stove that glowed red hot. Bazille followed suit with a much more elaborate view of his own studio, which was upstairs from the one Delacroix had occupied. Bazille included his own glowing cast-iron stove as homage to Delacroix.
A painting of a later studio (1870) shows how much a part of the Parisian avant-garde culture Bazille had become. In a lofty, commodious space, he painted Renoir in casual conversation with the novelist Emile Zola, while a musical friend played the piano in a far corner. In front of an easel was Edouard Manet, who was probably offering advice, and behind him Monet. The figure of Bazille beside his easel, his height exaggerated, was added to the canvas by Manet - a mark of friendship and honor by the most
discussed painter of the period.
This painting is typical of Bazille's work, featuring one or more figures in the environment in which they lived or worked. Only two years after his arrival in Paris, he painted his cousin seated on a stone wall with her back toward the viewer, looking over at the village from the family's country place in Meric. Bazille painted large paintings of members of his family gathered on the terrace there, and in 1868 he painted one of his best and most charming works - "View of the Village."
HE used the young daughter of a gardener as his model, and with a truthful eye he noted the child's unease at having to sit still and be scrutinized by the painter. It was accepted for exhibit at the Salon of 1869. Berthe Morisot, one of Impressionism's staunchest and most constant supporters and the only woman member of the group as it formed, commented in a letter to her sister, "The tall fellow Bazille has done something I find quite good: It's a young girl in a very light dress, in the shade of a tre e beyond which one sees a village. There's a lot of light, sunlight. He's trying to do what we so often attempted, to place a figure in the open air: This time it seems to me he's succeeded."
His painting was noticed by art critics and was also depicted in a satiric caricature of the Salon. Considering several thousand paintings could be hung in a Salon, any notice, satiric or otherwise, would likely have meant great satisfaction to an artist.
Despite the criticism, Bazille was never as sorely tried as was Monet, who desperately needed the financial stability successes at the Salons could bring. Monet turned to Bazille for aid of all sorts, financial and otherwise.
In 1867, which saw the young painters' canvases rejected by the Salon, Bazille wrote a letter to his mother that is the basis of the claim that he was the prophet of the Impressionist movement: "So we have resolved to rent a large studio each year where we will exhibit as many of our works as we please. We'll invite the painters we like to send their paintings. Courbet, Corot, Diaz, Daubigny, and many others perhaps unknown to you have promised to send paintings and approve of our idea. With these people
and Monet, who is stronger than all of them put together, we're sure to succeed. You'll see that people will talk about us."
Another letter soon followed, "Bleeding ourselves as much as possible, we were able to collect the sum of 2,500 francs, which is not sufficient. We are therefore obliged to give up what we wanted to do...." There was nothing for the struggling artists to do but to keep on painting, even though there were times when Monet and Renoir had no materials to paint with. Renoir was the first of the three to have been accepted at the Salon of 1865, but he destroyed the painting, presumably because he considered i t too academic. Later he suffered the uncertainties of the Salon jury's verdicts like the others.
A painting from the year of Bazille's death, 1870, that shows Bazille's maturity as an artist is "African Woman with Peonies." This is a fully realized painting that combines the color and grace of flower painting with the strength of a vigorously modeled, interesting figure painting.
The last year of his life, Bazille had a painting, "Summer Scene," accepted at the Salon. He wrote to his brother, "I am enchanted with my exhibition. My painting is very well placed, everyone sees it and talks about it; many say more bad than good, but finally I am launched...." "Summer Scene" was more informally referred to by the artist as "The Bathers" and features several young men wearing swimming trunks. The highly colored landscape is also formally conceived and painted. Yet it resonates as a for erunner of the great paintings of bathers by both Paul Cezanne and Georges Seurat.
The first extensive showing of Bazille's paintings did not occur until 30 years after his death when, in 1910, a retrospective was included in the Salon d'Automne in Paris. In Montpellier, his birthplace, he was remembered only as a war hero until 1927, when the Musee Fabre also presented a retrospective of his work.
* "Frederic Bazille: Prophet of Impressionism'" is at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis, Tenn., until April 25.