THE THWARTED VOCATION
"I am very cheerful and very happy"
On the morning of November 2, 1862, Bazille arrived in the capital, after stopping for two days in Lyon, where he visited the museum "which contains beautiful things, but which is far inferior to that of Montpellier". His limited means did not prevent him from taking a room at the Pension Pillioud at 50 rue Jacob, a modest boarding house in the center of Paris and in the heart of the artistic life of the time. On the fifth floor, the room is small but bright and pleasant, with "very elegant red curtains, a secretary, a table and a chest of drawers". Bazille wrote his first letter to his parents barely half an hour after his installation and reassured his mother: "My dear mother, don't worry, I am very cheerful and very happy". His letter is lively and hasty, for the young man is in full effervescence, dazzled by his new life and by a future that appears to him rich in promise. His first concern, we can guess, is not to enroll in the Faculty of Medicine but to make contacts to study drawing and painting: he must enter a studio.
Among all those available to him, several have a large reputation. He could, for example, go to Couture's, a famous painter at the time, whose pupils included Puvis de Chavannes, Boudin, and Manet; or, to the Swiss Academy, attended by Courbet, Manet, Guillaumin, Cézanne, and Pissarro. But Gleyre's studio was also highly regarded. And if Bazille goes to him rather than to the others, it is not because of a preference, but by chance of his relations. It was Boucher-Doumencq, a friend of his classmate and fellow Montpellier artist Eugène Castelnau, who brought him to Gleyre. According to Douglas Cooper, Bazille was encouraged to enter this studio by his cousin Joseph-Auguste Rousselin, himself a student of Gleyre. Rousselin is credited with portraits, horses, and genre subjects [Cf. Douglas Cooper, Burlington Magazine, Sept.-Oct. 1959]. The presentation was made on November 8, only six days after his arrival in Paris: he had decidedly wasted no time... "We went to his private studio, he looked at me a lot from head to toe, but did not speak to me". Gleyre, however, must have talked to his presenter, because the affair was conducted smoothly: the same day, Bazille began to draw, probably for a test that Gleyre imposed on him. He made his official entrance the next day. "They will make fun of me", he wrote to his mother that very day. Yet, a new letter indicates that he has undergone "without too much trouble" the usual hazing: "I was made to sing; I was made to stand on one leg, etc., etc., all annoying things, but I will be left alone now".
At Gleyre's studio
A native of the canton of Vaud, Charles Gleyre passed through the studio of Hersent (1777-1860), attended the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, worked at the Swiss Academy, and from time to time practiced watercolor with Bonington. Then, for several years, he traveled through Italy and the Orient; finally, returning to France, he took over Delaroche's studio in 1843, when Delaroche gave up teaching to travel.
Five to six hundred students would pass through the Gleyre studio during its existence; some would become more or less famous, and among them were Gérôme, Mazerolle, Picou, Emile David, Anker, Heilbuth and Nanteuil, as well as Ludovic-Napoléon Lepic, son of Napoleon III's aide-de-camp; we also note on the list several Montpellier friends of Bazille, such as Eugene Castelnau, Auguste Toulmouche and Emile Villa; others finally, who will only make a brief stay at Gleyre, will not be among the least illustrious, since they are named Sisley, Renoir, Whistler and Monet - not to mention Bazille himself.
Gleyre devoted a true cult to drawing, and based his entire teaching on it. He invited his students to copy models in the studio, always the same ones, and they had to bend to this discipline for months before acquiring the right to paint. "He liked to have them draw for a long time and not start painting until late, convinced that it is drawing that is the basis of all art", writes Charles Clément [Clément, Gleyre, 1878, p. 174]. Moreover, he did not appreciate the liberties that draftsmen too often allowed themselves. As for painting, in his eyes it was only a second step; he had an almost graphic idea of it, so much so that, for him, it became a sort of extension of drawing, color being little more than an attribute of form. As Charles Clément explains, "he did not like the touch... and recommended to make tones in advance on the palette; one mixed the colors, one made packets of flesh color and one used them as one would have used a monochrome shade... Students whose preoccupation was too much with color to the exclusion of drawing irritated him". [Clément, Gleyre, 1878, pp. 175-176]. Thus we see what abysses separate him on the one hand from Delacroix and, on the other, from the future Impressionists. He remained very much influenced by the doctrines of the generation that preceded him, and by the example of David and Ingres. But by the time Gleyre began teaching, David was long dead and Ingres was an aging, intolerant and irascible academic. Sure of the truth, he admits only the classical heritage of the past, "despising Rubens and consequently Delacroix" [Rewald, 1986, p. 20]. However, while claiming to be a conservative, Gleyre was not; on the contrary, he was at the very heart of the aesthetic developments of the nineteenth century, participating in the most current research and striving to bring classicism out of its stagnation. He contributes to the creation of the neo-Greek movement which intends to integrate art with life; and thus moving away from any dramatic and mythological interpretation of history, he wants to show us in the Greeks and Romans, men similar to us, whose ideas and feelings can be actualized. "Thus, writes Albert Boime, the Neo-Greeks made the transition between Antiquity and the modern world... Under the influence of Gleyre, Auguste Toulmouche and Firmin Gérard would be the direct actors of this transformation" [Boime, Exposition Charles Gleyre, 1974-1975, p. 106]. Finally, it must be said that, even though the Vaud master favored studio work, he encouraged his students to come there to elaborate from memory sketches that they had first executed outdoors. This was already a step toward working from the motif, a step on that path that Georges Michel had opened up at the end of the previous century and that the landscape painters of the Honfleur and Barbizon schools had since taken.
The fact remains that to enter the Gleyre studio was to find oneself subject to the will of an energetic and authoritarian man, a man whose fame, moreover, was brought by multiple official commissions. For example Le Soir or Les Illusions perdues (1843), purchased by the Luxembourg Museum; Le Miracle de la Pentecôte (1854) executed for the church of Sainte-Marguerite in Paris; Le Major Panel (1850), commissioned by the canton of Vaud, further strengthen its authority. He left little autonomy to his students and Viollet-le-Duc even went so far as to speak in this regard of an "atmosphere of constraint". Perhaps an excessive formula because, if there is constraint, Bazille, for his part, does not seem to have ever suffered from it.
Reassured from the moment of his arrival by the mediocre general level - "I saw with pleasure that there were many students of my strength, or rather of my weakness" he wrote - our newcomer effortlessly sank into the mold that Gleyre imposed on him. They wanted him to start by devoting himself exclusively to drawing? He puts all his ardor into it: "I draw as much as I can", we read in a letter of November 21 or 22, 1862; and at the beginning of February 1863, he writes again: "I take more and more taste for my works of the studio, which will make if not the honor, at least the happiness of my life... I have started drawing with determination". His work at Gleyre, therefore, makes him happy. In addition to heads, he did academies of men and women, classical subjects, usual for beginners; some are naive and clumsy, others are decent, some excellent. Remembering Baussan's lessons, he promises to send him one, for he is not indifferent to the opinion of his former master; he shows it in a letter to his father when he writes, about Baussan, that he hopes "to take advantage of his lessons at the next vacations with more intelligence than before". And in another letter, he adds, "I am very grateful to him for all that he has done for me, and I taste the price of it more and more every day".
So soon his life became organized, and it was to be one of great regularity; it was to be that of a studious and orderly young man, whose days were well filled. The Gleyre studio, which opened only four days a week, was at 70 bis of the rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, thus, for him, on the other side of the Luxembourg Gardens, which he crossed every morning to begin work at 8 o'clock. He leaves the studio "only at half past three... [with] a break for lunch in a student boarding house near the rue Serpente". After that, he changes his horizon and goes to his anatomy and chemistry classes.
He did indeed enroll in medical school as he had promised his father he would. On the first day of classes, November 17, 1862, the new dean, appointed by "the authority of the minister, and who was not even a professor", was greeted with a great deal of commotion and hostility by the students. Bazille tells us that "the booing only ended thanks to the intervention of a hundred city sergeants who led a dozen students to prison". Supreme reason for indignation - and one can feel Bazille's antipathy for the regime shine through here - "the newspapers did not dare to speak of this scene, it even seems that they were forbidden to do so".
At the university, Bazille found friends from Montpellier, but it was at the Gleyre studio that his most important relationships would be forged. Yet when he arrived there, the throng of his future comrades was not promising. Between 1845 and 1853, Gleyre's reputation was partly due to the salon he held at his home at 92 rue du Bac. There, according to Rudolf Koella, "he gathered every day at four o'clock in the afternoon, over a cup of Turkish coffee, a chosen circle... they talked not only about fine arts, but also about literature, music, religion, and politics" [Koella, Charles Gleyre ou les Illusions perdues, Cat. exp. Musée Cantini, 1974-1975, p. 40]. And this chosen circle was the entire intellectual avant-garde of the time; one saw the painters Nanteuil and Millet, the composer Berlioz, the men of letters Mérimée, Flaubert and Musset, the historians Edgar Quinet and Juste Olivier, the critics Charles Clément and Gustave Planche. Gleyre also welcomed many of his students there, but ten years later, when Bazille arrived, this high place of culture, which would have seduced him so much, had ceased to exist; all that remained was the studio, where people were quite unrefined and let off steam with all sorts of facetiousness of dubious taste. It was a place where the artist could meet and talk with his students.
Raffaelli, who described it accurately, tells us that "the unfortunate young men, for the most part coarse and vulgar, indulge in sickening jokes there. They sing stupid obscenities. They invent shameful masquerades... And never, never, in this meeting of men called to be artists, a discussion of art, never a generous word, never a high idea. Always and always, this filthy, stupid joke, always the trash" [Cited by Rewald, 1986, p. 59].
Bazille remains silent on this aspect of things and, if he expresses regret that he cannot easily send studies to his parents, because of the caricatures with which his comrades cover his sheets, he never mentions their "sickening jokes" or their "shameful masquerades". But we should not be surprised to see him at first not very optimistic about the possibility of establishing relationships worthy of the name at Gleyre. "I only made acquaintances at the studio; I don't think I'll find any friends there" he wrote only a few days after entering.
In time, however, the situation changed: in March 1863, he spoke of Lepic and a man named Monet as his "best comrades among the rapins"; and at the beginning of April, he alluded to "two or three comrades from the studio" with whom he proposed to spend a week in the forest of Fontainebleau for the Easter vacations. This time again, it is Monet, but also Renoir and Sisley; and the place they will hold - the first two especially - in his life as an artist as well as in his life tout court will be such that we must stop for a moment to consider the past of each of them.
The first meetings: Monet, Renoir, Sisley
The son of a grocer in Le Havre, Claude Monet, unlike Bazille, did not have too much trouble getting his father to accept his vocation as a painter. Boudin, whom he had met a few years earlier in Le Havre, pushed him to follow this path and the young Monet's ideas spontaneously agreed with those he was inculcating in him: "Everything that is painted directly on the spot always has a strength, a power, a liveliness of touch that one does not find in the studio... It is not a piece that must strike in a painting, but the whole" [Rewald, 1986, p. 37]. When Monet, aged 19, arrived in Paris in May 1859, he first went to the Salon. He rejected Monginot (a pupil of Couture and a friend of Manet's) as well as Hamon, "who has no idea of nature", but he appreciated Troyon's great animal compositions and Rousseau's landscapes, and admired Corot and Daubigny above all. He asked Troyon and, despite his criticism, Monginot for advice on the choice of a studio. At first he opted for Couture's studio. But the time of the conscription had come; and as his father stubbornly refused to buy him out, Monet enlisted in the chasseurs d'Afrique and left for Algeria. Seriously ill, he served only two years and it was after his return that he finally decided on the Gleyre studio.
Auguste Renoir, on the other hand, was the son of a tailor from Limoges. He wanted to be a painter, but had to work as an apprentice in a small porcelain factory, then at a manufacturer of piety pictures, before he had enough savings to come to Paris to realize his dream. He, too, hesitated as to what to study: "What attracted me to Gleyre" he said later, "was that I was going to find my close friend Laporte. We had become close as children. How grateful I am to Laporte for having decided me to make a resolution which not only made me a painter, but to which I owed, moreover, to enter into contact with future friends, such as Monet, Sisley and Bazille" [Vollard, "La jeunesse de Renoir", La Renaissance des Arts, May 1918, p. 16]. Renoir was luckier than Monet at the time of conscription and drew a good number, which spared him seven long years in the army.
Finally, Alfred Sisley, of a more discreet and self-effacing character than the other two, was born to British parents. His father, a successful merchant based in Paris, sent him to London when he was 18 to familiarize him with the practice of commerce. But he hated business and wanted to take up painting. He returned to Paris in October 1862 and his father, far from opposing the project, agreed to finance his artistic studies. This is how he enters the Gleyre studio, a few weeks after his future friends.
Nothing is less like love at first sight than the birth of their relationship. We have seen that it was not until the early spring of 1863 that Bazille mentioned it, and their shared friendship would not really consolidate until the following months, as they had to overcome the difference in their backgrounds. A social and cultural gap separated Bazille from Monet and Renoir, and their correspondence bears witness to this. While the latter write their letters as they speak and often even as one speaks among the people, Bazille's letters have ease and style; they reflect his multiple intellectual and human interests, they recount in detail with verve and humor all his Parisian and social life, his visits to friends and family.
What, then, can be the glue of their budding friendship? They certainly shared their hostility to the Second Empire; and Bazille marked his by assiduously frequenting the salon of his cousin, Commandant Lejosne, notoriously opposed to Napoleon III. But republicanism was too commonplace in the Gleyre studio to single out four of his students, and there was a more immediate and precise convergence of views between them; they agreed in castigating the institutions and practices that governed the fine arts at the time, that determined the choice of exhibitors at the Salons and the awarding of prizes, in short the whole spirit of official painting and its submission to the power in place. We certainly touch here on what will, more than anything else, create between them a solidarity, an intimacy: their common passion for painting and their common refusal of academism. They are united by the same desire to paint, and to paint differently.
"A few days ago, I made my first daub"
On the threshold of the year 1863, it should be remembered, Bazille does not paint, he draws. On March 1, he still obediently accepted Gleyre's directives, as he wrote: "I still have an enormous amount of work to do in order to draw properly, and I haven't yet touched color, besides I don't expect to get there until I draw very well". And yet, all of a sudden, in the weeks that followed, a complete turnaround occurred; in a letter of March 22, he announced that he had taken the plunge: "A few days ago I made my first daub, a copy of a painting by Rubens in the Louvre. It is atrocious, but I am not discouraged". Curiously, it is also in this letter that he mentions Monet for the first time... Did Bazille start painting with Gleyre's consent, or did he disobey him? Was he pushed by Monet, who had been painting for a long time, who had a rebellious temperament and did not have a high opinion of Gleyre? We will probably never know. The fact remains that a few days later, he went to spend a week in Chailly and that, there, alongside Monet, he painted again. "I will try to make some studies of trees", he said. Are these drawings in his mind? This is unlikely, as none have come down to us, while a painting survives that was done then and is aptly called Trees, Study. Moreover, on April 22, a few days after returning to Paris, he wrote to his mother: "I was with my friend Monet, from Le Havre, who is quite strong in landscape. He gave me advice that helped me a lot. I worked a lot and in August I will be able to show you my first paintings; there are six or seven of them. Two or three are not finished. I will spend a few Sundays in Chailly to finish them. Only one of these paintings is known to us, but the quoted passage shows us that Bazille painted abundantly, that he painted from the ground up, and that Monet was now both his friend and his advisor.
While it may be that Monet pushed Bazille to paint, it was surely not Monet who sent him to plant his easel in front of a Rubens in the Louvre, for the idea of copying someone else's work horrified him. But, impregnated as he was with nature and initiated by Boudin into plein air painting, it was he who led the little group to Chailly. In his letter of April 22, Bazille speaks enthusiastically of his stay and of the beauties of Fontainebleau: "The forest is really admirable in certain parts; we have no idea in Montpellier of such oaks. The rocks are less beautiful, despite their great reputation. He thus added his name to a long list of followers, for it was already a long time ago, in 1863, that the forest of Fontainebleau, the village of Chailly and the hamlet of Barbizon seduced writers and artists. They returned from there extolling the splendor of the forests and deep gorges, the incomparable solitude that could still be enjoyed there in their time - and all this, some fifty kilometers from Paris.
First visit to Fontainebleau
It was in the 19th century that landscape painting for its own sake took off in France, and Fontainebleau was one of its high points. Among the initiators of this vast movement, a place of choice goes to Valenciennes who, as early as the end of the previous century, taught how to paint beautiful trees, focusing either on their details or on their mass effects. For example Caruelle d'Aligny, Cabat, Fiers, Harpignies. If Valenciennes' influence reached beyond his students to later generations, it was through writings such as Elements of Practical Perspective for the Use of Artists, followed by Reflections and Advice to a Student on Painting and Especially on the Landscape Genre (1800). On Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1750-1819) see L'Ecole de Barbizon, un dialogue franco-néerlandais, editors John Sillevis and Hans Kraan, Ghent, The Hague, and Paris, catalog of the exhibition organized in these three cities in 1985-1986, pp. 11-17. Through some of the artists he trained, Bertin and Michallon for example, his influence reached Corot and later, through his writings, others. He recommended to his students to go and work in the forest of Fontainebleau, as he himself sometimes did; and so, little by little, many painters discovered it in their turn, Corot, Rousseau and Diaz as early as before 1830, Millet and Jacque in 1849, Courbet in 1861, followed soon by Huet, while Daubigny stayed at Marlotte and Dupré at Chailly. Among the Impressionists, Sisley seems to have been the first to frequent the forest, for he came to Barbizon as early as 1861, then to Chailly in 1862, before being brought back by Monet the following year. As for Renoir, it was with Bazille that he had his first experience of painting in the open air there in 1863.
It is therefore not surprising that our group was able to make fruitful encounters there. It has been told many times how Renoir came to know Diaz. When he was painting in the forest, the old porcelain decorator's smock that he insisted on wearing drew attention to him. One day, passers-by who were laughing at him were threatened with his cane by a man with a wooden leg. It was Diaz who, having chased them away, looked at the young artist's canvas and said to him, "It's not badly drawn, but why on earth are you painting so black?"
This anecdote illustrates the relationships that formed spontaneously between painters at the time, and the chance influences that developed between them. As newcomers, Renoir and Bazille were able to learn from Diaz, who had long practiced Bellifont landscape painting and who, more than any other with Rousseau, heralded Impressionism. When he painted undergrowth, Diaz observed "the effects of the sun piercing through the foliage and streaming its patches of light onto the stems of tall grass" [Daulte, 1952, p. 22]. Now, we find these spots of light in the Languedoc works of Bazille who, thanks to him, understood the revealing power of a ray of sunlight, the life that light brings to the landscape. However, in his first painting, he is not yet there. Perhaps the lost works were different, but in the single Trees Study that we know of him now, the light remains muted; it is far removed from that which, two years later, will make the foliage vibrate in his Landscape at Chailly. In 1863, Bazille had not yet tackled the problem of light and its vibrations. He did see Monet working, but despite the friendship that began to bind them, Monet's painting would have only a very fleeting influence on his own. At Fontainebleau, each found the inspiration that suited him; as Rewald says, "Sisley was most impressed by Corot; Renoir oscillated between Diaz, Corot, and Courbet, while Monet's admiration carried him toward Millet" [Rewald, 1986, p. 79].
As for Bazille, the main interest of his Trees, Study is to show us that he is indulging in the influence of Corot. Here he offers us the simple image of a bare tree and a gray rock, a purely natural landscape, without artifice or subject matter, far removed from the historical landscape of the 18th century. It was an experience he would repeat in Barbizon, but also in Honfleur and Languedoc.
"I am fed up with walls and streets"
It is in Languedoc, precisely, that he longs to be in this spring of 1863. A letter of March 1 already ended with this confession: "I'm a bit homesick at this moment, I really want to see you and my friends and the countryside, I am fed up with walls and streets."It is not surprising, therefore, that upon his return to Paris, he turned his gaze to Montpellier and especially to Méric. During the vacations at his family's home, he intended to "draw and paint a lot"; and as the Gleyre studio was to close for two or three months in the summer, he could hardly see what could keep him in Paris. Between July 1 and 15, he had only to register at the Faculty of Medicine, in view of an examination that he would have to take at the end of the year. The dates of his stay in the South are indicated to us with relative precision by the stop he causes in his correspondence: he probably leaves for Montpellier on July 2 or 3. We also know that his family does not think of settling with him in Méric until the second half of August. Then, on September 25, a note from the painter ded up (a member of the Bruyas cenacle) to Courbet recommends Bazille to him, who is on his way to Paris: "He very much desires to make your acquaintance and deserves it. But Courbet was in Ornans when Bazille returned to Paris, so Bazille would not meet him until later. Finally, on the 29th, Bazille, back in Paris, wrote again to his father.
In Paris, he found Gleyre, who had not waited for the vacations to tell him that he was making progress in drawing. But we know that he was now painting with the blessing of the "boss", though we do not know when he got it: "More than ever I am working on painting, I have not yet missed my studio a single day", Bazille wrote in October; and we read in a November letter, "Mr. Gleyre complimented me out loud in the studio, which rarely happens to him". The fact is that he was able to paint with the blessing of the "boss.
Certainly, it was a drawing that earned him this praise, but he added: "I must be able to draw and paint outside the Gleyre studio if I am to make progress. Mr. Gleyre advised me to do so himself" [In this letter #53 in Schulman, 1995, pp. 329-330].
The patron probably did not think he was saying so well, for his advice only confirmed Bazille in an idea that had been working on him since the beginning of the year: that of setting up a personal studio. All the artists who had already embarked on their careers had one; he was eager to follow their example in order to have free rein in his work and thus affirm his vocation. But this implies additional funds and he will not obtain them overnight, because the floods have caused serious damage to the farm in Saint-Sauveur and the paternal finances are going through a difficult period. It was at the end of January 1863 that, not without caution, he broached the subject in a letter to his father: "The layout of my room does not allow me to draw at home. If I could find a small convenient room not too far from my friends, it would be very useful for the progress I want to make later on. But the answer was not forthcoming and his letters of February came back to him. If he had his own studio, he could, he said, draw at times when he was not at Gleyre's. And the need for space increases when he starts to paint. However, he would have to wait until November before a mutually satisfactory solution was found: Bazille would share a studio with Villa, a Montpellier native and a student of Gleyre, and each would pay for half of the space. Louis-Emile Villa (1836-1915) had been a pupil of Matet in Montpellier and then of Courbet in Paris when the latter ran a studio on rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs in 1861. They took possession of it on January 15, 1864. Located at 115 rue de Vaugirard, this studio had no room; Bazille would therefore remain at the Hotel du Berri, 24 rue de Seine, where he had been staying since his return to Paris.
The first studio
By moving into a studio, even a shared one, he has certainly taken a big step toward the life he dreams of, but he is still bound to pursue medical studies. He does not talk enough about them for his father's liking, and we have to wait until mid-October of 1863 - almost a year, therefore, after his entry into the Faculty of Medicine in Paris - to learn that he pays a teacher to attend anatomy rehearsals "every day from 2 1/2 to 4 1/2" and a micrography lesson "every evening from 8 to 9". Thus, he hoped to be accepted in January for a first exam that he had promised his father to take earlier. The latter, moreover, while showing a lot of interest in his artistic work, insisted that he complete his medical training: "I don't need to recommend your medical lessons", he wrote to him on October 31, 1863, "attack your exam vigorously, and don't give us the harsh blow of a failure. But if his father spurs him on by thinking of what is to come, of the other exams that will follow this one, he does not scold him for the delay he has taken. On the contrary, he tries to comfort him, to share his emotions, telling him that he too has been through it: "Your fears about your exam, I have experienced them like you on similar occasions, but they left me in the school yard, and once I was sitting in the chair, there was no question of it and I had all my presence of mind. I wish it were so for you". In general, moreover, it should be noted the gentleness and understanding of Gaston Bazille in his correspondence with his son; even when he reproaches him - as not writing enough, or spending too much, or conducting his work poorly - he always expresses himself with sympathy and delicacy, he is never violent or breaking... The date of the examination was delayed several times, and the young man was finally summoned only for March 31, 1864. The same day, he announces his failure to his father, accusing in his letter the dissection of having "made him refuse".
All these fruitless efforts caused him to lose time for his work as a painter, but he did not allow himself to be defeated because, in this area at least, he felt that he was fulfilled. Moreover, even if his artistic and medical studies keep him busy, they do not prevent him from leading a very pleasant life. He goes out a lot, visits his family, in particular the Mamignards, where he dines every Saturday night and meets "a very amusing society, but not the most distinguished". Some days, with Alphonse Tissié and other friends from Montpellier, he went to the races of La Marche, near Villeneuve-l'Etang, where famous steeplechases were held. As for the Lejosne family, they were at the center of his relations, and yet it was only four months after his arrival in Paris that Bazille paid his first visit to Madame Lejosne, with a delay that he admitted was caused by his "long neglect. Full of spirit, eager to discover a Parisian world he did not know, he indulged in a hectic life rich in cultural activities.
Passion for music
Music, in its various aspects, holds a privileged place. He rents a piano as soon as he arrives in Paris; and as soon as he has retained the studio on the rue de Vaugirard, his mother offers to send him one, which he accepts "with transport" for he will thus be able to play, either alone or with his friend Frat. He asks his mother for his "four-hand symphonies, Chopin's waltzes, Beethoven's sonatas, Gluck's score..." and, as soon as he has money, proposes to buy Mendelssohn's Romances without Words. This variety gives us a glimpse of his musical culture, and when he says he played "for two hours Beethoven symphonies", he gives us reason to think he must be a good pianist. He goes to concerts and to the Opera to listen to famous singers. At the Théâtre des Italiens, he goes to hear Patti; she has, he says, "a very sonorous and well-tuned voice, with a timbre that is rather metallic and piercing than sympathetic, and with an enormous range". Bazille thus has the practiced ear of a connoisseur. Not to lose an opportunity to hear music, he subscribed to the Pasdeloup concerts and those of Félicien David, which were cheap, and thus, he said, he began to be "very well versed in the symphonies of Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, etc."
Literature and theater also attracted him. He attended the classes of Philarète Chasles at the Collège de France and those of Saint-Marc Girardin at the Sorbonne. He saw all the best plays in which the actor Samson appeared at the Comédie-Française. But he was not content to go to the theater whenever he could; he did some himself at the Gleyre studio. "We are going to play the Tour de Nesle at my studio", he wrote to his mother on January 18, 1863... "I am in charge of a part, that of the Sire of Pierrefonds. Régamey would, moreover, publish a caricature of this performance in Le Boulevard of February 8.
In December 1863, Bazille was again asked to play in Macbeth. This was obviously not Shakespeare's drama but a burlesque forgery qualified as a comedy and ballet; Bazille played a dancer, in a pink lustrous costume! But he would miss an essential element of his cultural life if he lost an opportunity to see a museum or an exhibition. The 1863 Salon opened on May 1; he noticed Flandrin's Portrait de l'Empereur, Fromentin's African paintings; and he came to know it "inside and out" because he went "more than twenty times", so thirsty was he to study the work of others and to explore current trends in painting.
Finally, while he deepened his knowledge in the areas that affected him closely, Bazille also enjoyed himself, as one normally does at his age. He went from time to time to the ball at the Closerie-des-Lilas, which he found cheerful, whereas he had been greatly bored at the one at the Opéra; and in early 1863, probably on the occasion of New Year's Day, the Mamignards gave one: "There were many pretty women; I had fun, I danced. Our cousin Sonard's brother introduced me to his wife and daughter, a very pretty person with whom I am in love for the moment; it is likely that it will not last."
Thus, Bazille divides his time between study and leisure. He clearly did not want to miss anything of Parisian life: were we not to see him at the funeral of Cardinal Morlot as well as at the ascent of Nadar's balloon? In short, the multiplicity of his occupations and interests is such that when reading him, one sometimes wonders how all this can fit into the twenty-four hours of each day. To speak only of his work, to combine as he does the courses of medicine with the learning of painting as well in the Gleyre studio as in his own looks like a tour de force and could not be sustained for long. His failure in his exams is proof of this. But the course of events would soon decide Bazille to simplify his situation: before the summer of 1864 was over, we would see him abandon both the Gleyre studio and his medical studies.
A tradition that has been repeated many times in the past is that Bazille's work is not just a matter of painting, but also a matter of learning.
A tradition repeatedly repeated by art historians and biographers holds that Monet, repudiating Gleyre's teachings, led Bazille, Renoir, and Sisley to leave with him. But it has no other source than some very late statements by Monet and does not stand up to examination of the facts. Whether Monet entered the Gleyre studio in the autumn of 1862, according to some, or only in March 1863, according to others, is of little importance: if he stayed there, as he says, for only two weeks, it is difficult to see how Bazille could have left with him, since he was still working there in April 1864 [Cf. Pays, "A Visit to M. Claude Monet in his Hermitage at Giverny", Excelsior, Jan. 20, 1921; Bazille, letter no. 74, 2nd fortnight of April 1864; and for a comprehensive discussion of the problem, William Hauptman, Studies in the History of Art, Nov. 1985, pp. 107-109].
Threats on Gleyre studio
The truth, even if we can only summarily establish it, is quite different. Bazille, who quickly adapted to the atmosphere of the Gleyre studio and enjoyed great popularity among his comrades, obediently followed the directives of his "boss" for whom, moreover, he felt great sympathy. One can be convinced of this by reading what he wrote to his father on January 21, 1864: "Mr. Gleyre is quite ill, it seems that the poor man is threatened to lose his sight, all his students are very distressed, because he is loved by all those who approach him. Nothing resembles revolt less than the tone of this letter. But Bazille is aware of the threats posed to the studio by the state of his boss, especially since the material circumstances are also very worrying, and he continues: "The studio itself is sick, I mean it lacks funds... In any case, we will go on for another six months because we have two terms paid in advance. If, at this time, it was necessary to close store, I would go to a free academy, because they call so studios usually held by former models, where one is under the direction of anyone. In his reply, Gaston Bazille expresses his concern at the idea that his son could be led to do without a guide: "Work without a director, without some good advice, must not be very fruitful. But in writing to him again on January 27, his son affirmed even more clearly his confidence in himself: "I do not share, my dear father, your worries in case I would be left to my own devices in my painting studies. What Mr. Gleyre teaches me, the craft, is learned very well everywhere; I hope, if I ever do anything, to have at least the merit of not copying anyone."
We can see, then, how the idea, if not yet the desire, to pursue his progress in painting alone and thus be an independent artist germinated in Bazille. Such was his disposition of mind, when his failure in an examination which he had doubtless prepared seriously, but without the heart being in it, occurred. And the immediate effect of this failure seems to be to precipitate an evolution in him, to exacerbate together his aversion for medicine and his will to be a painter. On March 3, 1864, the very day he had just been rejected, he wrote to his father: "I only regret one thing, that I have wasted so much time that I would have needed to spend on painting for studies that will never serve me. One could not be clearer. After having cloistered himself to prepare his exam, he returned to the Gleyre studio and threw himself wholeheartedly into painting. Between the father and the son, it is then a period of tension. Towards the end of April, Bazille wrote again and this time asked his father the crucial question: "I fear, my dear father, that you will not like to see me devote myself completely to painting, and I would like you to give me your formal opinion on this subject. The answer is not long in coming and it is a call to order: "Your medical studies are the reason for your stay in Paris, do not neglect them if you still want to stay away from us."
In this letter of May 15, 1864, Gaston Bazille, to tell the truth, does not quite rebel; but his son has just asked him for permission to take a walk with Monet in Honfleur, and, without objecting, he puts it as a condition that he prepare again for his exam to retake it before the summer vacations. In this rather heavy climate, made of thwarted desires and uncertainties, the stay, which should last two weeks, is a happy diversion; it brings like a breath of fresh air. The two friends take a day to make the trip, stop for a few hours to visit Rouen, then go to Honfleur by boat. And in the one letter that tells us about this journey, Bazille shows himself to be amazed by the novelty of the landscapes, quite different from those of his native Languedoc.
It was to his mother that he wrote, on June 1, 1864: "The steamboat brought us to Honfleur by the Seine, whose banks are very beautiful. As soon as we arrived in Honfleur, we looked for our landscape motifs. They were easy to find because the country is paradise. One can't see greener meadows with more beautiful trees. There are cows and horses running free everywhere... The sea, or rather the Seine, which is excessively wide, gives a delicious horizon to these green waves. We stayed in Honfleur at a baker's who rented us two small rooms. We ate at the farm of Saint-Siméon, located on the cliff a little below Honfleur. That's where we work and spend our days."
The sea breath
At the time Bazille discovered them, Honfleur and the Toutain mother's farm in Saint-Siméon saw an influx of painters. For a long time already, landscape painters had been frequenting the Normandy coast and the estuary of the Seine as much as the forest of Fontainebleau. Bonington was the first to paint watercolors there, soon followed by Dupré, Isabey, Corot and Huet. Courbet came here in 1859 and, from 1865 on, stayed here every year. It was here that Boudin and Jongkind set the example of plein air painting, that they taught it to the young Monet, among the same landscapes that he and Bazille now come to paint side by side. In the only known letter he wrote to Honfleur, Bazille merely states that he and Monet work and eat at Saint-Siméon. If they had met other artists there, he would surely have said so, for his enthusiastic letter abounds in details of all that he does and sees. The two young men were therefore the only painters to frequent the farm of the Toutain mother. The fact remains that Bazille's stay continued after this letter was sent, so that the possibility of such encounters cannot be totally excluded. On these very long days of the spring that was ending, Bazille worked without respite but also without too many illusions: "I get up every morning at five o'clock and I paint all day until eight o'clock in the evening. But you shouldn't expect me to bring back good landscapes, I make progress and that's all. That is all I ask, I hope to be happy with myself in three or four years of painting."
It is impossible for us to make an overall judgment of his works at that time and even to know the exact number of them because, during his return trip, an accident spoiled some of his landscapes. Two at most have come down to us, the Courtyard of the Auberge du Cheval blanc in Chailly near Barbizon and the Beach at Sainte-Adresse (the latter prepared perhaps during a visit to Monet's family). One uncertainty remains for the Marine à Sainte-Adresse: the only letter Bazille wrote in Honfleur recounting the beginning of his stay mentions only a brief visit to Le Havre and Sainte-Adresse made the day before and partially devoted to various interviews. It is not conceivable that Bazille could have done more in such a short time than take notes for such a painting. Did he have other opportunities to go and paint in Sainte-Adresse? Since the same sea, seen from the same point, was also painted by Monet, some have suggested that Bazille executed his painting later, starting from his friend's and interpreting it in his own way. And two still lifes, the Two Herrings and the Soup Cover Bowls, are still attributed to this period. There is no doubt - and his letter testifies to this - that Bazille is deeply sensitive to the beauty of the landscapes both marine and leafy that surround him, to the changing quality of their light, to what Poulain describes as "the soft fluidity of their wadded skies" [Poulain, 1932, p. 42]. And letting himself be invaded by the charm of things, he gives himself over entirely to the joy of painting. But he was far from having the profession of Monet, who had been practicing for longer than he had, who had been taught by Boudin and Jongkind in the open air and in front of the motif, and who had sometimes also worked with Courbet. All of Bazille's experience of the landscape is based on his stay the previous year in Chailly and the one he is currently making in Honfleur. He does not have the pictorial maturity of Monet. And the respectful glances he casts, beside him, at his friend's work obviously explain his present modesty, the three or four year delay he gives himself before he is satisfied with him.
But if he sometimes forgets what awaits him in Paris, he does not always forget it, and his letter shows us the persistence of a real anguish: "It will be necessary to return to Paris and put myself to this awful medicine that I hate more and more. There is no dissection at this time, so I will not be stronger than before. If I am received, I will have the pleasure of finding myself in front of an examination for which I will need at least six months of hospital, that is to say six months of disgust, if nothing else."
The irresistible slope
Monet extended his stay in Honfleur, and returned to Paris alone, on a date that is not known to us, but which should be placed before the end of June. A little more than a month separates him from the exam he has to take again; he should therefore devote most of his time to revisions. But what does he do? A letter to his mother, written shortly after his return, tells us: "I work all day long, a little on my exam that I will never know, and a lot on a woman's study, of natural size". He is thus carried along on an irresistible slope and hardly tries to fight; on the contrary, an idea takes shape in his mind - an idea which, moreover, could well be already a decision, and to which he tries diplomatically to prepare his father: "I fear it well, my dear father, to know my examination a little less than the last time, and I have well desire not to present myself there, I would be ashamed to be refused a second time". And things are even clearer when he adds: "If you want, I will stay in Paris as long as necessary to finish as well as possible the painting that I started". We are then in the second half of July. The conclusion is self-evident; it comes in a letter of the beginning of August and, this time again, he preferred to address his mother: "I have more or less finished the study I want to show you, and there is nothing to keep me in Paris... Dad is going to be very unhappy with me, I have spent too much money and have not passed my medical exam."
Shortly thereafter, he arrives in Montpellier; he soon receives there, duly framed and shipped by Villa's care, his Reclining Nude - the study he wants to show his parents, for he relies much to make up for his progress in painting. But he still has to get the approval of his father who, let's not forget, provides him with all his means of existence. We have no record of this decisive confrontation, for Bazille no longer wrote when he was with his family, but it is clear that it took place during the month of August, for on the 26th he received a letter from Monet who said to him: "I hope you are working hard. You must get down to it altogether, and seriously since now your family is abandoning medicine for you".
The crucial decision was thus made as a family, in the peaceful atmosphere of Méric, and no doubt the Reclining Nude helped to bring everyone to agreement. In all likelihood, it was at the same time and in the same way that Bazille gave up on following Gleyre's teaching. But on this point, his father's assent must have been easier to obtain, for it was dictated above all by circumstances: the situation of the Gleyre studio was such, in fact, when it closed its doors for the summer of 1864, that no one knew whether it would be able to reopen. In fact, it seems that, not without interruptions, the Gleyre studio operated until 1870. In any case, after that time, there will never be any mention in Bazille's letters of his presence in this studio.
Nearly two years have now passed since he set out for Paris, two years during which his vocation was affirmed and then finally released. Nothing prevents him from devoting all his efforts to painting, if he wants to. He certainly still has progress to make and he knows it. But he also knows that he is now capable of doing without a master. So he puts an end to his apprenticeship and, free to paint, he is also free to paint alone.