NEW YORK – This strikingly candid portrait of a solemn young man has a uniquely fascinating past. The pensive youth so expressively depicted is none other than Paul Verlaine, the Symbolist poet, whose notoriously passionate and tumultuous affair with Arthur Rimbaud would enter the annals of literary history, becoming one of the most analysed liaisons in all of literature. Their brief liaison, ending when Verlaine shot and wounded his lover in a hotel room in Brussels, has been immortalised numerous times in song and film.
For over a century, this painting of Verlaine was long believed to be the hand of Gustave Courbet because of a large, rather crudely applied signature in the lower left that remained unquestioned. Recent scientific analysis has revealed this signature to be both apocryphal and counterfeit, and it has been professionally removed, uncovering the authentic signature of one Frédéric Bazille concealed beneath, today clearly visible in the lower left, in spite of the forger’s attempts to scrape it off. On the basis of this evidence and further research, specialists have now confirmed the younger painter to be the true author of this work.
FRÉDÉRIC BAZILLE, PORTRAIT DE PAUL VERLAINE, 1867, OIL ON CANVAS. TO BE OFFERED IN THE
IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART DAY SALE ON MAY 6TH 2015, ESTIMATE: $150,000-250,000.
The motivations of the forger, who added the false autograph, are easy to understand: at the turn of the twentieth century, Bazille’s tragically short career remained largely unknown (he died aged 28 after volunteering to fight in the Franco-Prussian War), whereas there was a well established market for paintings by Courbet, the great master of nineteenth-century Realism. Bazille sadly did not live to see the success of the Impressionist movement, and it was only in 1910, when a retrospective of his work was organised at the Salon d’Automne, that his paintings were discovered by a wider audience and hailed “importante” and “significative” by Guillaume Apollinaire for prefiguring the influential art of his peers.
Frédéric Bazille was born in Montpellier in 1841 to an affluent family, and he was inspired to paint after discovering the work of Delacroix. His family urged him to study medicine, as well as painting, and for a while he agreed, moving to Paris in 1862 to pursue his dual curriculum. Before long he would abandon his anatomy textbooks and devote himself full-time to painting, enrolling in the studio of the academician Charles Gleyre, where his fellow students included Monet, Renoir, and Sisley. Being of relatively comfortable means, Bazille’s generosity to his less fortunate artist friends became well known: he would often let his colleagues use his studio and borrow his materials. Renoir would move in with him around 1868, and Bazille’s letter to his parents to relay this news is revealing of his charitable nature: "I've extended my hospitality to one of my friends, a former student of Gleyre's, who lacks a studio at the moment. Renoir, that's his name, is a real worker, he takes advantage of my models and helps me pay for them" (quoted in Frédéric Bazille, Prophet of Impressionism (exhibition catalogue), Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn & Dixon Gallery, Memphis, 1992-93, p. 38).
The Batignolles neighbourhood, where Bazille’s studio was located, was a hotbed of artistic activity in the 1860s, and fellow residents included the poet Stéphane Mallarmé and Edouard Manet. Bazille’s rooms on the Rue de la Condamine became a meeting-place for painters and writers, as immortalised in one of his most famous paintings, now housed in the Musée d’Orsay, depicting himself with Renoir, Zola, Manet and Monet engaged in an intense discussion about a canvas.
FRÉDÉRIC BAZILLE, BAZILLE'S STUDIO; 9 RUE DE LA CONDAMINE, 1870, OIL ON CANVAS, MUSÉE D'ORSAY, PARIS. FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: PIERRE-
AUGUSTE RENOIR (SITTING), ÉMILE ZOLA (STANDING ON THE STAIRS), ÉDOUARD MANET AND CLAUDE MONET NEXT TO BAZILLE, TALKING ABOUT ONE
OF HIS PAINTINGS.
It was in this Bohemian milieu that Bazille first rubbed shoulders with Paul Verlaine. It is likely that the two young men met around 1867, the year this portrait was painted, through a mutual acquaintance, the poet and novelist François Coppée. By all accounts, Bazille was instantly captivated by the expressive features and intense regard of the Symbolist poet, who had recently achieved fame in 1866 through the publication of Poèmes saturniens. The portrait Bazille would paint of his new friend is remarkably candid, stripped of any pretension or accoutrement. The artist’s perspective, suggesting he is standing at the easel and gazing down on his seated subject, contributes to this sense of familiar spontaneity. The poet’s raised eyebrows suggest an intimate dialogue between the two men. The bold, swift brushstrokes and the fact that X-ray analysis has uncovered a still-life originally painted on the same canvas, all indicate that this work was not a commission nor a planned portrait, but rather the result of an impulsive desire on the part of Bazille to capture his friend’s likeness, using the nearest available canvas, working quickly without preliminary sketches. The resulting portrait exudes an intensity that certainly evokes Courbet’s mythical self-portrait (Autoportrait, Le déséspéré, 1843-5) showing the influence of the older painter and no doubt contributing the confusion perpetuated by the erroneous addition of his signature.
Interestingly, the existence of an early portrait of Verlaine by Bazille is listed in the inventory of possessions written by the poet when he left his wife in 1871 for Arthur Rimbaud, depositing his personal effects with his parents-in-law, as he fled to Brussels with his lover. The inventory, addressed to his mother, is mentioned in the biography of Verlaine written by his childhood friend Edmond Lepelletier (Paul Verlaine, sa vie, son oeuvre, Paris, 1907, pp. 301-2). It clearly lists “un portrait de moi (à l’huile) par F. Bazille”. The same inventory also lists a landscape by Courbet, but no portrait. Though it has been proposed that this inventory could refer to another portrait attributed to Bazille, Portrait dit de Verlaine(1968, Dallas Museum of Art), iconographic comparison with other images and descriptions of Verlaine at this period suggest that he may not necessarily be the true subject (indeed both Michael Schulman and Valérie Bajou, having examined the extensive evidence, have raised questions concerning both the attribution and subject of the Dallas portrait (see Bajou, Frédéric Bazille, 1940-1870, Aix-en-Provence, 1993, p. 142 and Michel Schulman, Frédéric Bazille, Paris, 1995, p. 41). It, therefore, seems fairly certain that the present work is in fact the one mentioned by Verlaine to his mother.
We are able to precisely date this oil because of its remarkable similarities with the portrait charge, or caricature, of Verlaine created as a lithograph by Jules Péaron in 1867, until now, the only certain visual representation of the poet from this year. Both portraits depict a young man with a high forehead, flowing dark hair already receding at the temples, heavy brows that almost meet in the center, a pronounced moustache, cleft chin and very light, shadowy goatee. From 1868, the poet would grow a beard, and his baldness advanced rapidly, and this was the image immortalised by well-known portraits by Fantin-Latour and Eugène Carrière: that of a troubled veteran of the Parisian avant-garde, his countenance ravaged by personal torment.
This newly attributed picture is thus an extremely rare, perhaps unique, painted document of the poet in his youth, offering a poignantly different image from later portrayals. Bazille offers us privileged, tender insight into the psychological development of the poet, some years before his decisive encounter with Arthur Rimbaud. In this haunting testament of a meeting of two kindred spirits, we see both Verlaine and Bazille at the moment of the first flourishing of their talent; both filled with bohemian idealism and youthful aspiration. The sitter is aged just 23, while the man behind the easel is only 25. Both were unmarried at the time this portrait was painted (and Bazille would remain a bachelor until the end of his fatefully short life), and the intimate gaze that passes between subject and artist may offer an indication of the strength of their bond. Demonstrating his precocious skill as a portraitist, Bazille succeeds in capturing the raw, embryonic genius of one of the most influential artistic personalities of his era.