J ust in time for the groundbreaking examination of Frédéric Bazille’s sweeping body of work at the National Gallery in Washington D.C. running through 9 July 2017, Sotheby’s is featuring a rare and intimate portrait by the artist in the upcoming Impressionist & Modern Art Day sale on 17 May 2017.
Born in Montpellier to an affluent family, Bazille was inspired to paint after discovering the work of Delacroix. His family urged him to study medicine in addition to painting and for some time he agreed, moving to Paris in 1862 to pursue his dual curriculum. Before long Bazille would abandon his anatomy textbooks and devote himself entirely to painting, enrolling in the studio of the academician Charles Gleyre, where his fellow students included Monet, Renoir and Sisley. “Gleyre,” art historian John Rewald notes, “was a modest man, disliking to lecture, and all in all rather indulgent; he seldom took up a brush and corrected a student’s work. Renoir afterwards stated that Gleyre had been ‘of no help to his pupils,’ but added that he had the merit ‘of leaving them pretty much to their own devices.’ Gleyre did not even have preferences in subject matter and let his students paint what they wanted” (John Rewald, The History of Impressionism, New York, 1961, pp. 72-74).
Being of relatively comfortable means, Bazille was generous to his less fortunate artist friends; he would often let his colleagues use his studio in Batignolles and borrow his materials. The neighborhood was a hotbed of artistic activity in the 1860s, and fellow residents including the poet Stéphane Mallarmé and Edouard Manet. Renoir would move in with Bazille 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). He later wrote to his mother in February of 1967, “Monet has popped up out of nowhere with a collection of magnificent canvases… With Renoir, that makes two hard-up painters I am putting up. It’s quite an infirmary here” (quoted in Michel Schulmann, Frédéric Bazille, 1841-1870, Catalogue raisonné: peintures, dessins, pastels, aquarelles; sa vie, son oeuvre, sa correspondence, Paris, 1995, p. 354, translated from the French). Bazille’s rooms on the Rue de la Condamine became a meeting place for these artists among so many others, and the space is immortalized 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, THE STUDIO ON THE RUE LA CONDAMINE, 1870, MUSÉE D'ORSAY, PARIS.
The subject of the work featured in the upcoming Impressionist & Modern Art Day Sale, Thérèse lisant dans le parc de Méric, was Bazille’s cousin and primary subject for many of his best known canvases, including La Robe rose and his most famous Réunion de famille, both also in the collection of the Musée d’Orsay. The Bazille and des Hours families summered together at the Méric estate, a magnificent homestead in Castelnau-le-Lez near Montepellier. Méric was of central importance to both families, serving not only as their summer residence but also a source of income, given the thirty acres of vineyards encompassed within its sweeping grounds. As Gabriel Sarraute once wrote, “Méric for him would always be synonymous with the heavenly long vacations” (Gabriel Sarraute, Rétrospective Bazille, La Peinture de l’été languedocien” in Arts, June 9, 1950, p. 8). It was here that he painted many of his greatest contributions to the historical canon of Impressionism, with its gardens serving as the backdrop for many masterworks including Réunion de famille, which was painted there in the same summer as Thérèse lisant dans le parc de Méric.
FRÉDÉRIC BAZILLE, RÉUNION DE FAMILLE, 1867, MUSÉE D'ORSAY, PARIS.
Bazille’s tragically short career remained largely unknown (he died aged 28 after volunteering to fight in the Franco-Prussian War), and he did not live to see the success of the Impressionist movement. It was only in 1910, when a retrospective of his work was organized at the Salon d’Automne, that his paintings were discovered by a wider audience and hailed “importante” and “significative” by Guillaume Apollinaire for the extent to which they prefigured the influential art of his peers. As Paul Perrin writes in his essay for the current Bazille retrospective on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., “Fréderic Bazille, who was killed before reaching the age of twenty-nine, painted only just over sixty pictures in less than eight years. During his lifetime, he sold not a single one and exhibited only five at the Salon. His early demise prevented him from taking part in the flourishing of impressionism and sharing the success of his friends Monet and Renoir, and any attention his paintings were getting, nearly all kept at his parents’ home in Montpellier, was exclusively from his family and their visitors. Everything seemed to be conspiring to condemn the artist to the limbo of art history, and yet, a hundred and fifty years on, we find Bazille’s work in the world’s most famous museums, and being celebrated once more” (Paul Perrin, “Frédéric Bazille’s Fame has Only Just Begun” in Frédéric Bazille (1841-1870) and the Birth of Impressionism (exhibition catalogue), Musée Fabre, Montpellier, Musée d’Orsay, Paris & National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2016-17, p. 203).