Sunday 6 December 2015

Intimate Friends by Lydia Syson

Today I want to celebrate the birthday of Frédéric Bazille, who was born on December 6th in Montpellier in 1841.  A medical student turned painter, who wore wonderful checked trousers, he was at the heart of the circle of artists who became the Impressionists. He volunteered to fight in the Franco-Prussian war and was killed by a sniper's bullet on 28th November 1870 in the Battle of Beaune-la-Rolande during a disastrous attempt to relieve the Siege of Paris.  If you've never heard of him, that's why.

Portrait of Fréderic Bazille by Etienne Carat, 1865

Here he is in 1867, full of concentration at his easel, one red-ribboned, espadrille'd foot curling gently over the other.  He was a tall young man, as you'll see. This painting is by Renoir.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919)
Frédéric Bazille
Oil on canvas
H. 105; W. 73.5 cm
© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

On the wall behind Bazille's head hangs a snow scene by Monet. (See yesterday's post by Joan Lennon for more on snowy landscapes.) A fourth friend who shared the studio, out of sight in the image above, was tackling the same still life at the same time. Here's what Alfred Sisley painted.

Alfred Sisley, Heron with Outstretched Wings, 1867
Musée Fabre, Montpellier

Here's Bazille's version.  Presumably Sisley decided to leave out the fourth avian corpse.

Bazille, The Heron, 1867, Private Collection

And at some point the same year, Bazille produced this portrait of Renoir:

Bazille, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1867, Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Unstudied and informal, Renoir's rakish pose reveals not just his elastic-sided boots (something I learned from the sumptuous exhibition catalogue in which I first came across the picture: Impressionism, Fashion & Modernity, The Art Insitute of Chicago, 2012) but also, perhaps, something about the friendship that existed between the two artists.  I've looked at this painting a lot, though only in reproduction.  It lives in the Musée Fabre in Montpellier, where an exhibition devoted to Bazille and his place in Impressionism will open next summer. It made me very curious about the relationship between Renoir and Bazille.  

Bazille, Scène d'été, 1869, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Mass.

Like his distinctly homo-erotic Summer Scene (above), which Bazille painted two years later, and his Fisherman with a Net (below), Bazille's painting of his friend fed into my thinking while I was writing Liberty's Fire and trying to clarify the relationship between two young men, one rich, one poor - just like Bazille and Renoir, as I now discover - sharing an apartment in Paris in 1871. In The History of Sexuality, Foucault identified 1870 as the year in which the concept of homosexuality was 'invented' - although obviously I'm giving you a drastic oversimplification of a much-debated and often-quoted argument - and I found myself wondering about the relationship between this and the emerging figure of the 'flâneur'.  What might it have been like to have been gay at a period when this was just beginning to be conceptualised as an identity, I wondered, in a country where it wasn't a crime?  I didn't know then that 2015 would turn out to be the year of LGBT novels for Young Adults, but I had been concerned that this was an aspect of diversity that certainly doesn't often feature in YA historical fiction.   

Bazille, The Fisherman with a Net, 1868,
Foundation Rau pour le Tiers-Monde, Zurich, Switzerland

When I realised that my last History Girls posting date of 2016 fell on Bazille's birthday, I was full of good intentions.  I'd investigate further, I decided, and find out (if I possibly could) whether Bazille really did have unreciprocated feelings for Renoir as his paintings had led me to suspect.  I'd find out more about his political views, and also about the incident during the Paris Commune when Renoir, out painting en plein air, was nearly executed as a spy, but his life was saved by Raoul Rigault.  But time has run away with me. Writing deadlines. Teaching. Christmas coming. I've left it too late.  I'm very sorry. I've made very little progress with this and all I can do today is leave you with these thoughts and one more enticing image.  

Frédéric Bazille (1841-1870), Edouard Manet (1832-1883)
Bazille's Studio
Oil on Canvas
H. 98; W. 128.5 cm
© RMN-Grand Palais-Grand Palais-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
Bazille - the tall, gangly figure standing by the painting on the easel near the centre - was actually painted in by Manet.  Bazille has painted Manet wearing a hat and standing in front of the canvas. Monet is thought to be standing behind him, if he isn't the young man looking down from the stairs, who might be Zola.  On the far left, the artist sitting on the table with one foot swinging could be Sisley or Renoir. At the piano is their friend, patron and companion at the Café Guerbois, Edmond Maître, who was devastated by Bazille's death later that year, and wrote: 'Of all the young people I've known, Bazille was the most gifted and likeable.'  



Joan Lennon said...

This is fascinating - I knew nothing about him - thank you so much for this post!

Lydia Syson said...

It followed on rather beautifully from your own, I thought! Sad that Bazille didn't live to paint more snowy scenes.

Joan Lennon said...

I agree!

Penny Dolan said...

What a beautifully linked series of paintings - so often we see just a solitary image but these create a very vivid world of the time and of longing.