Jean-Frédéric Bazille (December 6, 1841—November 28, 1870) was a French painter, soldier, and one of the key proponents of Impressionism. His distinctive style of figure painting is highly influential.
Though Frédéric Bazille’s work generally focused on landscapes, portraits, and still lifes, his main aim was to examine human forms in the open air and their connection to their surroundings and landscape.
Many of his most important works are examples of en plein air, or outdoor paintings, in which the subject figures are placed within prolific landscapes.
A true adherent of plein-air painting, Frédéric Bazille is tragically known as ‘the artist that could have been’. As a painter, Bazille was not afraid to use unconventional Impressionist painting techniques, experimenting with light and nurturing his unique painting style.
He died in the Franco-Prussian war just before his 29th birthday. If it wasn’t for his conscription in the army, he would have had far greater reach and involvement in Impressionism and would have lived to see his work in full bloom ahead of this already popularized movement.
Early Life and Aspirations
Born on 6th December 1841 in Montpelier in a Protestant middle-class family, Frédéric Bazille was an aspiring medical student, and also showed a promising penchant for painting.
By 1859 Bazille began studying drawing and painting at the Musée Fabre in his hometown and had the chance to marvel at Eugène Delacroix and Gustave Courbet’s works that were exhibited in a private museum which was near his family’s house.
The young Bazille moved to Paris in 1862 and enrolled both in a medical school and an art school. After failing his medical exam in 1864, his father began funding his painting career.
Frédéric Bazille’s family was fairly wealthy with their goldsmithing and luxury manufacturing trade, and they owned a lot of lands where Bazille would have the opportunity for en plein-air painting that involved his own childhood landscapes.
Meeting the Greats
As a student of painting, Frédéric Bazille studied at Charles Gleyre’s studio, and there he met future greats like Claude Monet, Pierre Auguste Renoir, and Alfred Sisley, and the four quickly became friends.
The aspiring painters charred the same belief of creating art that was based on human forms, immediacy, and everyday life in contrast to the bland and lifeless artworks that were the standard at the time. Inspired by the ordinary, this like-minded group was a vanguard of the blooming movement of Impressionism.
Thanks to Bazille’s wealth and land, he was also a source of financial support and provided the group materials and space in which they painted their landscapes. It was in fact Monet that would inspire Bazille to paint landscapes, and his father’s land proved very valuable to his works, especially the forest of Fontainebleau. He and Monet would also paint around Honfleur, Monet’s native Normandy areas.
Monet and Renoir would gossip about Bazille that he was quite the character. A tall and well-dressed young man with a solid temperament, and though he would fit the ‘rich young snob’ trope, Emile Zola, who he knew, would call him “haughty, formidable in argument, but essentially good and kind.”
Renoir says about him: “He had a great deal of talent, and courage, too. You need plenty of it when you have money if you want to avoid being a society man.” Bazille was well-liked in his group of contemporaries and was never hesitant to introduce like-minded individuals like himself.
Frédéric Bazille’s Style of Painting
Although one would describe Bazille’s paintings as Realist, Bazille’s heavy experiments with en plein-air painting contradict this.
In contrast to Monet, Renoir, and Sisley, there’s a certain hesitancy and conservative realism that’s present with sharp textures, anatomy, human expressions, and keen details that can be seen instantly.
This might have been a hindrance to him, and he has never succeeded in completely eradicating this from his works, as can be seen in how his paintings have progressed.
It’s evident that Frédéric Bazille’s main point of interest is his masterful techniques in figure painting in landscapes, paving the way for most of his contemporaries to follow suit in this novelty and groundbreaking movement.
It quickly became a key stylistic motif in Impressionism, and this is owed a lot to Bazille.
The Importance of Setting
It’s notable that Bazille has been trying to move away from showcasing forced detail from his paintings and steered towards a more free-flowing texture in his subjects.
One can say that he highlights the subject as the main point, judging by the details. However, the background, setting, and landscape are what Bazille took great care of.
The overall setting had an immense effect on his works, and this is what made them his. There’s a certain way in which Bazille effortlessly portrayed natural light.
His works often covered the summertime, and there are many of which his family is portrayed, not sparing a copious amount of palette and vibrant colors. It’s clear that he favored the summer rays and shades.
Frédéric Bazille’s Major Works
Frédéric Bazille actively painted from 1863 to 1870. After leaving Gleyre’s studio he established his own, and he had a total of six ateliers, one of which is on rue de la Condamine, in which he painted himself.
His painting,‘Family Reunion’, is regarded as one of his most important works. He painted it in 1867, the work was exhibited at the Salon in 1868, and there were several re-works of the original. It was well-received, much to Bazille’s surprise, saying that he thought it was probably a mistake.
The work was exhibited at the Salon of 1868, and Monet helped him with this piece. It’s a large group portrait of his family on the terrace of their summer house in Montpelier. The figures in the painting are seen as almost statuesque and formal, in a calm manner, and he is seen on the far left-hand side.
What makes this painting his magnum opus is Frédéric Bazille’s use of bright colors, sunlight, and shades of blue and green, and this certain shading adds immense depth to the figures.
The bold experimenting with poses in Bazille’s nude paintings is what makes him stand out from his contemporaries.
’Fisherman with a Net’ was painted in 1868 on the banks of the Lez River. It was rejected, most likely because of how Bazille captured the fisherman’s stature which was highlighted by romantic, female poses. Male nudes were rare and uncommon at the time of the French art world.
Additionally, the men in ‘Bathers’ held poses that were typical of female nudes, and the painting was on a square canvas which further translated Bazille’s experimentation to close the gap between traditional horizontal landscapes and the portrait genre.
‘Bathers’ had a mixed reception, but unlike ‘Fisherman with a Net’ it was accepted. The painting showcased Bazille’s courageous and innovative sense of motif.
Enlistment and Death
Bazille experimented with a wide array of many different subjects, flower and still life compositions, and historical portraits that hinted at further painting technique experimentations. Unfortunately, Bazille had an unkind fate.
By the summer of 1870, Bazille was well-known and garnered respect and recognition from his peers and the art world of France. However, he was drafted in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, in which he enlisted in an infantry regiment.
His friends and family were shocked by Bazille’s brash and unexpected decision to enlist. Allegedly, Renoir joked that Bazille joined the Zouaves regiment because “they didn’t require shaving, and he wanted to keep his beloved beard”. He constantly received strongly-worded letters from friends and family that were displeased to hear about his decision, begging him to reconsider.
Historians argue that Bazille joined the army because he stopped painting due to harsh headaches and personal discontent.
Bazille took command of his unit because his commanding officer was injured. He was shot and killed by a sniper on the battlefield at the age of 28, and his body was buried under snow and his body was brought home in a cart. This was during the time when the movement of Impressionism began to bloom.
Frédéric Bazille paved the way as a Realist artist for the Impressionist movement with his contribution. His en plein air figure painting combined the essential motifs of tradition were meshed together and he successfully highlights how carefully they complement each other.
He, along with established colleagues like Renoir and Monet was regarded as spearheads of Proto-Impressionism. Their less academic and unhinged art style from the 1860s and 70s went on to become a prominent element of Impressionism. The intricate and well-balanced nature of the paintings is a visible marriage of the traditional and the modern, as can be seen by his best of works.
The stylistic contributions are only limited to his early works, and one can only wonder which path Frédéric Bazille’s style would take.