While reaching our thirties might come with a dose of dreadfulness that forces us to set more serious and realistic goals for ourselves, it seems to be the complete opposite for the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Currently celebrating its thirtieth anniversary, the institution isn’t ready to settle for the same patterns. The museum’s latest exhibition, Frédéric Bazille, The Youth of Impressionism, rather suggests a farewell tribute to its blooming years and a masterful embrace of self as the caretaker of the biggest collection of impressionist art in the world.
Fréderic Bazille was a major actor in the birth of Impressionism. While today his name might not echo as loudly as Manet’s or Renoir’s, his status as the fifth Beatle of the impressionist movement is wrongfully given. Unlike Stuart Sutcliffe or Pete Best, Bazille didn’t leave before the band became all the rage. His lack of recognition is rightfully explained by his premature death in battle during the Franco-Prussian War at only age twenty-eight. Therefore, it is more his lack of work and absence from the golden time of Impressionism than his lack of talent and general appeal that makes him less renown.
The exhibition’s aim is setting the record straight, and (spoiler alert) it does so successfully, proving right the art historian Henri Focillon, one of the first people to later recognise Bazille’s talent when he wrote, “He belongs […], not as a talented beginner but as a master, to this history of the rebirth of French painting which restores the link between man, nature and light […] He bears in his soul and in his art, mixed to his delicious charm and his painterly audacity, a sort of severe quality, a pride of retained youth he might hold from his protestant education.”
Youth is indeed a recurring theme when it comes to Bazille, adding another dimension to the title of his retrospective. The Youth of Impressionism is about a young artist at the beginning of his career, during the heart of one of the most important movements in art history. This very theme also resonates in Frédéric Bazille’s work. He was part of that generation of painters devoted to representing figures in outside settings with a perfect balance between those two elements.
If we take a look at La vue du village (View of the Village), the foreground is occupied by a young girl clothed in a large and mostly white dress with stripes of a pink lighter than the shade of her cheeks. The scarlet tone of her face sharpens the gaze she’s holding with us while posing with flowers she must have freshly picked, as little girls do. Accepted into the Salon of 1869, the painting received admirable reviews by critics and artists alike for perfectly fulfilling their aesthetic desires.
A year later Scène d’été (Summer Scene) was displayed at the Salon of 1870, but was welcomed with mixed comments. This painting presents a view of an exclusively masculine dolce far niente moment near a lake. While its overall conception might somehow recall an antic glorification of the ephebe, the idle of a careless sunny afternoon spent with friends prevails on what could be interpreted as an homoerotic atmosphere. In both these paintings the warmth of the season is as tangible as the lightheartedness only youth is capable of expressing.
Even though he wrote in a letter to his parents, “The subject doesn’t matter to me, as long as what I do is interesting from a painting point-of-view” three years before painting La vue du village, it’s easy to wonder if Bazille’s success in meeting the primal standards of Impressionism hadn’t something to do with the the age of its participants. As if their characteristic carefree aura and innocent ways were the secret to harmoniously merging the delicate and primitive beauty of nature with the more imposing presence of the human body.
Such paintings had a great influence on Cézanne and Morisot, but Frédéric Bazille had more concrete relationships with the birth of new artistic genres while in the spring of his life. Well-integrated into the Parisian social circle of artists and intellectuals of the late nineteenth century, he is represented in L’atelier des Batignolles (A Studio at Les Batignolles), Henri Fantin-Latour’s famous portrait of this avant-garde group who rejected the rules set for art making at the time.
Bazille also practiced painting views of his many studios, sometimes including other artists in it, like his dear friends Renoir or Manet (for whom he posed as a subject for his well-known Déjeuner sur l’herbe or Luncheon on the grass) but mostly focusing on making great examples of mise en abyme — pictures within pictures, stories within stories. These paintings are shown in a room of the exhibition next to some of his own and his colleagues’ work, allowing visitors to enjoy the real paintings next to their representations in Bazille’s work when they were hung on the walls of his studios.
Another section of the exhibition is dedicated solely to the relationship between Bazille and Monet, displaying a selection of landscapes they painted side by side on trips they would take together along with other painters.
This concept of painting directly in the outdoors would later become a key element of Impressionism. On those travels, Monet took on the role of a mentor to Bazille, helping him shape his artistic ways. Though it is very interesting to note that even when Monet himself, the John Lennon to-be of Impressionism, struggled to see his work accepted at the salons, Bazille’s compositions were heartily welcomed there. It does not necessarily mean that one was a better artist than the other, but that Bazille surely had something of a conformist prodigal that managed to please the artistic expectations of his time while also presenting more forward ideas. This capacity and the environment he was evolving into would have, without a doubt, raised him to the same rockstar status his friends and colleagues who lived longer enjoy today.
At the end of a stroll through the retrospective, viewers are certainly meant to sense the artist’s brutal ending. When standing before his final two paintings, it’s impossible not to notice the change of style between everything just seen and the unfinished Ruth et Booz (Ruth and Booz), inspired by a Victor Hugo poem. After the lukewarm reviews received by Scène d’été earlier in the year, Bazille told his parents he didn’t mind the negative comments as long as he was talked about. Could those be the words of a proud man hiding his pain?
Nevertheless, this following piece translates a loss of desire to represent realistic subjects in luminous settings, and he instead turned to a more symbolic art form. As it is the last work he began before his death a few months later, it’s hard to say if he was simply going through an artistic crisis or about to take a drastic turn in his career; but it surely does show that Bazille never had the chance to reach his artistic maturity.
His short active period makes this exhibition a more in-depth look at a painter’s talent in its pubescence. What would usually be a less-developed part of any other retrospective of artists in league with Bazille becomes an opportunity to admire the beauty in the struggle of a young painter finding his way during a revolutionary period of art history.
Though not much can compensate for the frustration you feel in the last room, ready to yield to the urge to raise a fist to the sky and scream, “Why? Why would you take such a talented being in its prime?” and get promptly escorted out by security, you might, after all, feel a sense of satisfaction and gratitude towards the Musée d’Orsay for bringing justice to Bazille’s art.
First shown last summer at Montpellier’s Musée Fabre, Frédéric Bazille, The Youth of Impressionism runs through the 5th of March 2017 at Paris’ Musée d’Orsay before flying over to the National Gallery in Washington D.C. in April 2017.