Painter Frédéric Bazille is not an impressionist household name in comparison to luminaries like Degas, Gaugin, Monet, and Manet, but longtime art connoisseurs know that he was part of the original group of artists within the movement and that he participated in the first of eight exhibitions as a founding member. Bazille had close ties to his fellow artists and even shared studio space with Renoir. His artistic output and influence, however, were severely limited due to his untimely death during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. He was only 29 when he perished on the battlefield.

Two of his paintings speak to me. 

“Family Reunion” by Frédéric Bazille, 1870, oil on canvas (19 in x 26 in) Musée d’Orsay, Paris

“Family Reunion” (“Réunion de famille”) depicts his family during the summer of 1867 on his family estate near Montpellier in Southern France. It is formal and stilted. It’s like his family begrudgingly sat for it and much rather would have preferred to go for a hike through the winery grounds before the sun set later that day. Right now, it is midday, and the tree casts a welcome cool shadow while letting some light dapple onto the ground and dresses of the women. Bazille’s father, Senator Gaston Bazille, is seated beside his wife Marie-Louise, Bazille’s mother, on the left and looks out in the distance. Bazille’s self-portrait is squeezed at the left edge. Also included are a wonderful array of extended family: cousins and their husbands, aunts, and uncles.

I think about these people gathered here for this vacation, supporting Bazille in his dream of becoming a painter by modeling for him instead of insisting that he follow through with his medical studies, and then, just a few years later, having to gather again for his funeral. This same father sitting here quietly taking in the vivacious view of the stunning outdoors will have gone to collect his son’s dead body from the battlefield. 

Knowing the fate of the hand who painted this work of art gives the formality of this group portrait an incredibly moving air of solemnity. These people aren’t exactly in motion, but they still seem spontaneous. I am in the future looking back at these people who do not yet understand what is to come. This is the sort of time traveling I love in art and literature. We get to participate in something that goes beyond space and time. Immortality exists in art and art appreciation.

Another one of Bazille’s paintings I’ve been mulling over is titled “Bazille’s Studio” (“L’atelier de Bazille”). It depicts his friends in his Paris studio on the Rue de la Condamine in 1870. We get a glimpse of the place where his talent unfolded, the very studio he generously shared with Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Bazille’s painting career only lasted about seven years and only spanned maybe 60 or so paintings.

“Bazille’s Studio” by Frédéric Bazille, 1870, oil on canvas (19 in x 26 in), Musée d’Orsay, Paris

You can see Edouard Manet with the hat inspecting the canvas in the middle of the composition. Beside him is Claude Monet, combing his beard in contemplation. Strewn about the painting is also Émile Zola, who is on his way up the stairs as he finishes a conversation with Renoir below him, although these figures could possibly be others, like Alfred Sisley. There’s no definitive consensus due to their similar appearances as they all look rather similar in their suits and beards. The sketch quality of the brush strokes does not aid in the proper identification of the men either. At the very right is Bazille’s writer and pianist friend, Edmond Maître, and directly above him hangs a painting by Monet, which Bazille purchased to help him financially.

Poking around the wall, I recognize early renderings of Bazille’s other works, like “La Toilette” immediately above the sofa and “Fisherman with a Net” on the far left wall.

“La Toilette” 1869-1970, oil on canvas, (60 in x 56 in) Musee Fabre, Montpellier
“Fisherman with a Net” by Frédéric Bazille, 1868, (52.7 in x 32.6 in) via Wikipedia Images

Bazille himself is represented in the middle of the composition as the gawky tall (and slightly out of proportion) fellow chatting about his canvas, collecting notes from his fellow artists, but this is not a self-portrait. Manet painted Bazille’s figure, which I find an absolutely adorable way of collaborating with one another. I just love this snapshot of friendship over art, and the fact that it really isn’t an actual snapshot but a thoughtful painting made possible with the help of Bazille’s friends, who served as models themselves, makes this an all-the-more-rewarding viewing experience.

Both paintings are incredibly modern for their times, subversive of what was accepted as traditional and proper. We get hints of what would later become full-blown signatures of Impressionism: the outdoor settings, the appreciation of different qualities of light, and the way speed is accomplished with coarse brushstrokes, giving the work a sense of liveliness and action.

I’ve come to realize that my fascination with paintings extends beyond their visual appeal to the stories behind them. It’s no wonder I am engrossed in studying art history, particularly the biographical context surrounding artworks. In fact, I often find myself at least equally intrigued by the creators and their narratives, if not more than the actual artwork or literature itself. Isn’t it curious how I know more about Hemingway’s days in Paris than his actual long list of literary works? And isn’t it Frida Kahlo’s painful love story with muralist Diego Rivera that genuinely resonates with me rather than her paintings? It’s akin to getting to know someone you’re dating; while their physical appearance may initially captivate you, the deeper understanding that comes over time truly binds you to the work. 

To me, the art experience must be supplemented by these narratives. What meets the eye is the starting point, but it’s the implied discourse that reaches into my imagination.

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