Lot 209
  • 209

Frédéric Bazille

150,000 - 250,000 USD
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  • Frédéric Bazille
  • Portrait de Paul Verlaine à l'âge de vingt-trois ans
  • Signed F. Bazille, dated 1867 and dedicated à mon cher ami le poète Paul Verlaine (lower left)
  • Oil on canvas
  • 22 1/2 by 17 3/4 in.
  • 57.2 by 45.1 cm


Paul Verlaine (a gift from the artist)
Madame Verlaine (mother of the poet; acquired from the above)
Collection Herrera (acquired in 1886)
Private Collection, Belgium
Galerie Chichio Haller, Zurich
Private Collection, Switzerland
Acquired from the above


This work is in overall very good condition. The surface is clean and richly textured. The canvas has an old French liner. There is a thin line of craquelure running parallel to the lower edge. Under UV light: some retouching is visible to the old tacking edge and in the background toward the edges of the composition. The lower left quadrant fluoresces under UV light indicating the area that was cleaned during the removal of the apocryphal 'Courbet' signature.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

We would like to thank Michel Schulman for his assistance in cataloguing this lot.

This striking portrait of the poet Paul Verlaine aged twenty-three has a uniquely fascinating history as it was long believed to be by the hand of Gustave Courbet. The recent professional removal of an apocryphal signature has revealed the authentic signature of Frédéric Bazille concealed beneath and detailed analysis has confirmed the younger painter to be the true author. The motivations of the forger are easy to understand: at the turn of the last century Bazille’s tragically short career remained largely unknown (he died aged 28 in the Franco-Prussian War) whereas there was a well-established market for paintings by Courbet, the great master of nineteenth-century Realism. It was only in 1910, when a retrospective of his work was organised at the Salon d’Automne, that Bazille’s paintings were discovered by a wider audience.

Like Courbet, Bazille rubbed shoulders with Verlaine in the bohemian circles around his studio in Batignolles after he moved to Paris to pursue his career in art. It is likely that the two young men met around 1867, the year this portrait was painted, through their mutual acquaintance, the poet and novelist François Coppée. By all accounts, Bazille was instantly captivated 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 painted of his friend is remarkably candid, stripped of any décor 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 suggesting 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 or 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 (see fig. 1), showing the influence of the older painter and no doubt contributing to the confusion perpetuated by the erroneous addition of his signature.

Interestingly, the existence of an early portrait of Verlaine by Bazille is mentioned in the inventory of possessions written by the poet when he left his wife in 1871 to flee to Brussels with Arthur Rimbaud, depositing his personal effects with his mother and father-in-law. The inventory, addressed to his mother, clearly lists “un portrait de moi (à l’huile) par F. Bazille" (quoted in Edmond Lepelletier, Paul Verlaine, Sa Vie, son oeuvre, Paris, 1907, pp. 301-02). This oil also bears remarkable similarities with the Portrait charge or caricature of Verlaine created as a lithograph by Jules Péaron in 1867 (see fig. 2); the only other 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 Verlaine would grow a thick beard and his baldness advanced rapidly, and that was the countenance immortalized in later portraits by Fantin-Latour and Eugène Carrière. Visual documents of the poet before this year are rare indeed. Here Bazille offers a privileged and poignant insight into his friend’s psychological development, aged just twenty-three, not yet married, before his infamously tumultuous affair with Arthur Rimbaud. Demonstrating his precocious skill as a portraitist, Bazille succeeds in capturing the raw, embryonic genius of one of the most influential personalities of his era.