THE BROKEN CAREER
"Fish not very fresh"
On May 1, 1866, the Salon opened its doors; Bazille appeared there in the company of Degas, Monet, Sisley, and the Morisot sisters, but without Renoir and Cézanne, whom the jury had not wanted; and on this occasion, when for the first time he offered himself to the public eye, he presented himself as a "pupil of Gleyre", which confirms to us that he had not denied his former master. If he had been excluded too, he would have hastened to "sign with both hands a petition to ask for an exhibition of the refused". In writing this to his mother around March 20, he foresaw the protest movement that is now developing. Voices are being raised from all sides to demand the re-establishment of this parallel Salon; Cézanne made a written request to the Superintendent of Fine Arts, Comte de Nieuwerkerke, while Zola fiercely criticized the jury in his articles in L'Evénement and fought to "obtain the reopening of these rooms where the public will judge in turn, and the judges, and the condemned" [Zola, "Mon Salon, Le Salon de 1866", L'Evénement, 1866].
But in vain: the jury remained unmoved and, in a very dry response, declared that the opening of a new Salon des refusés would be "unbecoming for the dignity of art".
Bazille went to the exhibition to guide his cousins Pagézy, saw his painting and considered that it "made quite a good effect". The critics, however, hardly noticed it. Sarlat gave it in L'Avant-Scène a rather mixed praise; "It is solidly painted, but the air does not circulate enough... I urge M. Bazille to beware of black tones... The carp is of a very great truth: it is to want to seize it, so appetizing is it" [Sarlat (de), L'Avant-Scène, 21 June 1866, p. 3].
But, this appetite, Bazille's compatriot who signs J. Ixe is far from sharing it. In a rather perfidious article in the Journal de Montpellier, he expresses, on the contrary, his disgust at these two fishes, which he describes as "not very fresh," and he adds, "The qualities of drawing and modeling of this still life that is too still are not sufficient for the requirements of a genre that lives essentially on the strength of color and the spirit of the touch" [J. Ixe, "Salon de 1866. Les artistes montpelliérains", Journal de Montpellier, June 9, 1866].
Such reactions are obviously not likely to arouse very keen interest in the public, and the Still Life with Fish will not find a buyer. On the other hand, they attract enough attention from a visitor to earn their author a commission. This is the first opportunity he has to sell his painting, perhaps the only one he will ever have, and the only one, in any case, that is known to us. The affair takes an unexpected turn and Bazille tells his parents about it in a letter in which he lets his mischievous amusement shine through: "A lady, or a young lady if you like, very rich, has seen my Still Life with Fish at the exhibition... she wrote to ask me if I would make her two small paintings for her dining room, flowers and fruits, and what the price would be. Immediate answer, yes, 500 frs. At the same time I asked permission to go and see where they would be placed, which is quite important. This is what got me lost. I went to this lady's house and had the stupidity to let myself be invited to dinner. While we were talking, she asked me if I wouldn't do her portrait instead of the still lifes for the same price. I was forced to accept... I am afraid that... delicacy obliges me to refuse any payment... I do everything I can not to tie myself too much with my model". Gaston Bazille was also amused by this and spoke in his reply of "still lifes, later changed into living lifes". One can doubt, as he does, that the 500 francs agreed upon were finally "palpated"; as for the name of the lady or damsel, her son did not deem it necessary to deliver it to us...
This portrait, completed no later than July, is not the only work Bazille executed in this period. On the contrary, it seems that his half-success at the Salon stimulated him and that, after having been absorbed all winter in his preparation, he now took advantage of his regained freedom to launch into various creations. In all likelihood, it was in the spring of 1866 that he painted an important canvas: the Little Italian Street Singer. In addition, he writes to his parents in June that he is going to do a large nude study before returning to Montpellier; and in July, we see him busy doing the portrait of two friends. He did not paint them on rue Godot-de-Mauroy, for reasons we do not know, because he had crossed the Seine again and moved on July 15 to 20 rue Visconti, in a new studio that he declared "quite convenient, though very small, and with a very habitable room". Bazille thus rented only one studio, the one that was immediately available, of the two that, in her letter of June 1866, the landlady proposed to him to combine into one.
His parents urged him to return to them, for they were worried about a cholera epidemic that affected Paris while sparing Montpellier; and he missed their society because, he wrote to them, "I have my moments of sadness, alone at home like a bear". But, held up by his nude study, he did not join them until around August 15. He planned to cut short his stay to go to Aigues-Mortes where he would like to do some landscapes, but he would not realize this project until the following year. It was therefore in Méric that he took up his summer quarters late in the year. He did not remain inactive there, as he completed The Little Gardener begun a year earlier and painted the Potted Flowers as well as another of his paintings, The Terrace of Méric. He did not return to Paris until around November 20.
At the studio on rue Visconti
He began by completing his hitherto sketchy installation in his studio on the rue Visconti. He brought there his latest painting, The Terrace of Méric, and his painter friends who came to see it complimented him so highly that he proposed to send it to the next Salon. Moreover, he went back to work: in December, we see him painting "a head", making a portrait of Mrs. Rolina's dog, and getting ready to undertake a nude woman - three works now lost. Certainly, he did his share of his customary amusements, spending his evenings with Maître to dine together, then whistling or playing the piano; certainly, he attended a performance of Gluck's Alcestis, heard with admiration the violinist Joachim, and began in December to attend fortnightly concerts at the Conservatoire for which Maître had procured him a subscription. But suddenly his vocation seems to seize him with a power hitherto unknown. He wrote to his father that he would absolutely have to "do the nude figure" during the whole winter; and at the beginning of January, he described his days in the studio to his mother as follows: "I have two models a day, one from eight to noon, the other from noon to four. I eat lunch on the go in between. I don't lose half an hour... I must admit that this dose is a little strong for me, in the morning I have trouble getting to work. In eight days I will have only one model in the same day". He might add that then other paintings will also absorb him.
Why, then, does he now put this relentlessness into painting without a break from morning to night? Is it because of the next Salon, in view of which he is going to work on a portrait of Maître and retouch , which satisfies him much less than the friends to whom he shows it? But however important the Salon is for him, however great the agony with which he sees it approaching, it seems that another torment inhabits him, more secret and deeper, and that by dint of painting, he seeks to master its obsession. At the beginning of March, a letter to his mother, who was planning a trip to Paris with her husband, contained a somewhat mysterious passage about a matter that had obviously been preoccupying him for some time: "I hope you will not let this opportunity to come and see me slip away. I would be very happy to talk to you about a thousand things that I cannot write about, that I am constantly thinking about and about which I beg you to keep me well informed. What is it about? A corner of the veil is lifted for us when we read what he writes, still to his mother, around April 1, 1867: "Dad's last letter made me very unhappy, more so than you can imagine, I spent some sad days. Now it's over, the ideas of marriage have received a hard blow in me. It will probably take some time for them to recover. It is better that I am completely free to work at my ease and as I want. That's what I'm doing right now, more than ever. The link between the emotional life and the relentlessness to paint is evident here; and this correspondence, part of which escapes us, seems hardly susceptible of but one explanation: Bazille nourished towards a person unknown to us a love keen enough for him to want to marry her; he instructed his parents, first to study the situation, then to ask for him according to the rules the hand of the young girl, and he was spurned.
With Renoir ... simple and cordial relations
During the months of anxious waiting that would lead to this failure, it is conceivable that often his long hours in the studio weighed on him and that he would welcome a familiar presence, especially that of a fellow worker. And this is precisely what a happy circumstance brings him, as he writes to his parents towards the end of January: "I don't think I have told you yet that I am giving hospitality to a friend of mine, a former student of Gleyre, who has no studio at the moment. Renoir, as he is called, is very hard-working, he takes advantage of my models and even helps me to pay for them. It is very pleasant for me not to spend my days completely alone. No diversion could have been more welcome than this one, for if Bazille was no closer to Renoir than to Monet, his relations with him were much simpler, easier and more cheerful. There were no money problems between them that could cause tension and misunderstanding. Bazille's letters to Renoir were rarer, but also much more cheerful than those to Monet, and the straightforward camaraderie that united them was expressed in a familiarity that contrasted with the "vous" that he and Monet would never get rid of. When he wrote to Bazille, Renoir willingly used the turns of phrase and the incorrectness of the most popular spoken language for fun. Sometimes he even lets himself go as freely as a potato to his penchant for farce, as in this letter in which he asks Bazille to embrace for him his father, mother, and a whole family that he does not know, as well as a little one "who will go far", although he does not exist [At the time this letter was written (September 1869), Bazille's brother had only one child, a daughter born on June 29, 1868. He would not have a son until the spring of 1870]. Before concluding with this very wise advice of prudence: "Be careful with the cars". The arrival of such a joker in Bazille's studio can only transform the atmosphere joyfully, for his contagious verve amuses and stimulates his host, who is usually more serious and more discreet in the expression of his sense of comedy. Finally, let us add that, without being a musician himself, Renoir was interested in music: in February 1867, having too many tickets, Bazille took him to a concert at the Conservatoire; he also took him to the Opera, and Renoir started liking it; sharing with the other avant-garde painters a lively admiration for Wagner, he would even go later to Bayreuth...
Soon, moreover, Bazille had not only one companion, but two, to take him away from his worries; he announced this to his mother in early March: "Since my last letter, there has been news on Rue Visconti. Monet has fallen from the sky with a collection of magnificent canvases that will be very successful at the Exhibition. He will stay with me until the end of the month. With Renoir, here are two painters in need of accommodation. It is a real infirmary. I am delighted, I have enough room, and they are both very cheerful. Despite what he says, one can imagine the crowding this causes, as Monet is forced to stuff his paintings under his bed...
Throughout the winter, however, Bazille continued to work steadily. In January, he painted a nude woman, expecting to put another one in the works as soon as the first one was completed. But what naturally preoccupies him most is the planned submission of two paintings to the Salon. One of them, we know, is The Terrace of Méric, which he is not happy with: he has added two small dogs, he says still in January, and he has redone the heads of his two cousins "who were not well." As for the second painting, it is a portrait of his friend Maître, executed during the winter; he is not happy with it either, since he will cut it out to keep only the face. "I would do them much better if I had to do them again," he wrote. But of the two, it is the one of Méric that gave him the most trouble, the most fear too, and he tells his mother: "You can't believe all the business and worries I had to finish my painting... At last I have finished and my paintings have left for the Exhibition. I hope they don't come back too soon. I am not as happy as I was two weeks ago. I fear I have worked too hard on my canvas". As unhappy with The Terrace of Méric as he is with Portrait of Edmond Maître, so it was without much hope that he knocked in 1867 at the door of the Salon, and he did not even expect to see a repeat of his half-success of the previous year.
The deadline for submissions was March 20, and the jury spread its responses over several days. Bazille still knew nothing of his fate when he learned of the rejection of Monet's two "magnificent canvases" - the Femmes au jardin and the Port de Honfleur. But it was not long before he was set: in the last days of March, at the same time as the announcement of his sentimental failure, he received another piece of bad news: "My paintings are refused at the Exhibition."
At the 1867 Salon, Bazille, Cézanne, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir... all refused
By the grace of the jury, he thus found himself in very good company since, with himself and Monet, were eliminated Renoir, Pissarro and Cézanne. He was fully aware of the tribute thus paid to him and, far from being discouraged, saw this decision as proof of his own merit: "There is nothing discouraging about it, on the contrary," he said, "I share this fate with all that was good at the salon this year. Although the jury was presided over this time by one of its former victims, Théodore Rousseau, it proved to be more conservative and intransigent than ever. The Salon of 1867, Zola wrote, "closed the door to all those who take the new road" [Zola to Valabrègue, April 4, 1867, quoted by Rewald, pp. 113-114. See also E. Zola, Correspondence (1858-1871), Paris, 1928, pp. 299-300]. Bazille could only note the result of this backwards selection: "The Salon is the most mediocre I have yet seen".
As in the previous year and with the same failure, a petition called for the opening of a Salon des refusés. This time, it was Bazille himself who drafted it and who, before sending it to the Comte de Nieuwerkerke, had it signed after him "by all the painters of Paris who have some value." The last decisions of the jury were communicated on March 29 and the petition is dated the 30th. The first signature is that of Bazille, who accompanies it with his address. Then come those of many painters, among them Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Manet, Jongkind, the two Daubigny and Corot. The first signature is that of Bazille, who accompanies it with his address.
After his failure, his first reaction was to turn his back on the official exhibition from now on: "In any case, the unpleasantness that happened to me this year will not be repeated, because I will not send anything before the jury. It is too ridiculous, when you know you are not a beast, to expose yourself to these administrative whims, especially when you have no interest in medals and prize-giving. It is that, in his head as in that of the other artists of his group, "a dozen of young people stray", took shape another idea, that of a private collective exhibition: "We thus resolved to rent each year a large studio where we will expose our works in as great a number as we will want it. We will invite the painters we like to send us paintings". He adds, to reassure his parents, that this is a very reasonable project that has nothing to do with a schoolboy revolt. Still, to carry it out, it would be necessary to gather an important sum. The group, alas, would not succeed in doing so and, at the beginning of May, Bazille announced to his people that he had to "return to the fold of the administration," that is, to continue to try his luck with the jury.
The failure he had just suffered in no way slowed down his activities as a painter; on the contrary, he was barely rid of his Salon submissions before he was working on new canvases and planning more for the summer. By early April he was doing a portrait of Monet along with a large painting, "Two Women of Natural Size Arranging Flowers," which he planned to finish in the peony season. [This is not the Young Woman with Peonies previously referred to as the later Négresse aux pivoines, but a missing painting] and, in early May, he is busy painting his studio in the Rue Visconti.
As soon as he finishes it, he plans to go to the Midi for six months - thus, to leave much earlier and for much longer than usual. He is anxious to get there, both because after these months of overwork and worry he wants to get away from the whole Parisian painting scene, because he wants to go first to Aigues-Mortes to do some landscapes, and then, for Méric, he has in mind two or three important canvases, one of which, very large, could well absorb him all summer. When the month of May opened, it seemed certain that his parents' trip to Paris would not take place. [Gaston Bazille wanted to accompany to Paris some dairy cows from his Saint-Sauveur farm that were to be shown at the Exposition Universelle].
Nothing would hold him back, then, if Courbet and Manet, each on his own, were not about to exhibit their works at their own expense; but he finally gave up seeing them and left Paris on May 18. He only passed through Montpellier and, thus fulfilling his wish of the previous year, settled for a month in Aigues-Mortes, where he did three or four landscapes, and then, on a large canvas, "the walls of the city reflected in the pond at sunset." These are the Remparts at Aigues-Mortes. The whole thing, he wrote to his mother, could be completed around June 12.
Monet...an uncertain future
Never have his projects been so numerous, nor so ambitious, nor so fruitful as in this year 1867, during which will see the birth of paintings that are among the most beautiful of all his production. Above all, it was during the months he spent in the heart of his native Languedoc and in the midst of his family that this creative impulse showed itself to be most fruitful and finally revealed to us the artist he was in his fullness: in Méric, that summer, Bazille did not only paint the Oleanders, but he gives us the work that marks the pinnacle of his brief career, The Family Gathering. It has been said of this painting that it is "an admirable gallery of portraits" [Focillon, 1928, pp. 211-212] and that it constitutes "the most extraordinary psychological document of a social class under the Second Empire." [Poulain, 1932, p. 90]. This is rightly so. But if we consider it in its deepest and most moving aspect, it is even more a portrait of Bazille himself, a document on his most intimate personality. Surely without seeking it and perhaps even without knowing it, he expresses in it his "hereditary gravity, joined to his moral honesty" [Poulain, 1932, p. 90]; he reveals in it the unique quality of the gaze he casts on the world; and in an infinitely delicate mixture of affection, modest reserve, and respect, he manifests in it all the strength of the bond that attaches him to his loved ones.
All the strength, too, of the bond that binds them to one another; for all that is best in a family is there, in this group that is both natural and dignified, such that it forever immobilizes it, thus giving this inspired work the value and dimension of a symbol.
While he was working on it at Meric and making only slow progress, Monet was at his aunt's house in Sainte-Adresse, where he had retreated to survive, and his situation was becoming almost desperate. Bazille tried very hard to help him, however, before both of them left Paris. He wrote to Monet's father to try to improve his friend's relationship with his family, and seems to have been partially successful. Then he bought his Femmes au jardin for 2,500 francs payable in monthly installments of 50 francs, his means not allowing him to do more. Now, if Monet's relatives agree to house him, they do not want to give him money and he does not earn any; moreover, he had to leave Camille, his mistress, in Paris, who is also penniless and is expecting a child from him. Monet, torn with anxiety, harasses Bazille with letters which remain unanswered and which, at first suppliant, become full of bitter reproaches. Camille had no food, he had no means to join her when she gave birth; the newborn child would be deprived of everything. On July 16, after having finally received a letter with the 50 monthly francs which do not solve anything, Monet launches an appeal more than ever pathetic: "I have only you". Little Jean Monet was born on August 8 and his father continued to harass Bazille, but in vain. The latter had not written since mid-July and, on August 20, a last letter reveals a Monet in distress: "I no longer put your silence down to an oversight... I need you more than ever... I am sick of it. If you don't answer me everything will be broken. I'm not sure if I'll be able to answer you."
There will be no break. Monet will go so far as to write to Gaston Bazille to obtain an answer from his son, who will put him squarely in his place after this indiscreet approach. But as the correspondence between the two painters has not been preserved in its entirety, it is impossible for us to know how this dramatic crisis was resolved. Bazille's work is not enough to explain his silence; his inability to help Monet - and with him two other people - is perhaps responsible. For precisely around August 20, if he does not write to Monet, he writes to Maître, with whom his relations are at a good level, to invite him to come to Méric. The stay will take place in early autumn.
Maître landed in Montpellier on October 6 and soon gave his father news: "The next morning, I triumphantly entered Bazille's land. It is there that I have been living since Monday with the greatest well-being and the best company". Bazille showed his friend Montpellier and the Bruyas collection, and took him to see Arles and Nîmes. After a week's stay, Maître went to his family in Bordeaux and, in the last days of October, it was Bazille's turn to be welcomed at his friend's house: "I was perfectly received by Maître and his family," he wrote, "I found a charming family, good and intelligent bourgeois; in short, they live like us. He thus spent four pleasant days, greatly admired the city, its theater and its museum, drank "claret as one does not drink it" and returned to Paris on November 3.
As soon as he returns, he asks his parents to send him his summer studies and especially The Family Gathering, which is not yet finished. It was probably during this autumn that he painted the portrait of Sisley and that of Renoir. For he still housed the latter, in a studio where he began to feel cramped; he therefore quickly began to look for another, and found it in the Batignolles district, which was very quiet at the time and frequented by artists; it was at 9 rue de la Paix - which would become rue La Condamine at the end of 1869. "I rented a huge studio in Batignolles. It costs 200 francs more", he writes to his parents, which is far from pleasing them. They disapprove of their son's perpetual instability and let him know on November 28. It is his mother who uses the most vivid terms to tell him: "I am very angry that you are leaving the rue Visconti. You are never happy with what you have. You are always looking for embarrassment and expense. Since there are two of you in your studio, it must be quite large... if you write that you are coming back, you will please me. But nothing happens; Bazille moves in during December and he is all the happier with his installation as his landlord's cook does his housework and lunch for him: 'I am very happy with my new home,' he writes, 'and hope not to change it again, unless great events occur.
Bazille in love?
What is he thus alluding to? It is not difficult to guess: his parents are still thinking of marrying him and think they have found a party likely to suit him. But he, scalded a few months earlier, considers this idea with caution. He has two examples before his eyes, that of Monet who shows him exactly what not to do, and that of his brother Marc who, very well married since September 18, now lives "like a rooster in dough". He weighs and reweighs the reasons that could push him to take a wife. There is the loneliness he sometimes suffers: "It is true that the life I lead, very happy in some ways, is not cheerful in any case. I admit that the idea of marriage, from which I was very distant some time ago, takes hold of me from time to time. There is also the financial question, and his reflections prove to us that he does not expect to be able to ever live from his painting, that he does not believe to be able to ensure his material future otherwise than by a rich marriage: "I said to myself... that a hundred thousand écus are not under horse's hooves, that I would be quite happy to have in front of me the certainty to live quietly and largely, with the chance to fall on a pleasant woman". On the one hand, the certainty, on the other hand, only the chance. However, he was offered a young girl who was well endowed but whom he did not know. "She is rich, and it is impossible for me to take a poor woman. He is thus plunged into a perplexity where interest - for a person, certainly, and not only for his money - competes with anxiety: "I believe well that it is necessary to follow the ordinary road. However, I find it horrible to close one's trunk one day with a young girl". In fact, he is much more worried than interested. Would the offer be a threat for him? The more the opportunity that is proposed to him becomes clear, the more he recoils and tries to keep it away. Nothing allows us to know the secret causes of this defensive attitude. We can only note the fear with which he welcomes the approach of his parents: "I almost want to see a little of what it is all about. The sight costs nothing". Or: "I'm afraid of committing myself a little... and this business that smiles at me from afar, scares me a little as it gets closer". Twice, the word fear is dropped: Bazille, who, he declares, "does not feel a violent love for anyone", is therefore afraid of marriage. In any case, the way in which he designates the stranger who is ready to be given to him, "this Miss Machin", does not testify to a burning desire to meet her. We will not be surprised that the whole transaction remains without follow-up, after reading the instructions he gives to his father in January 1868: "Always keep your letter, you will send it when I have asked you to do so twice in a row at a fortnight's distance. If this young lady gets married before, too bad."
Bazille and Parisian life
This more untimely than desired episode did not divert Bazille from his daily life. He took the omnibus every day to dine with Maître in a small restaurant, returned to the Conservatoire concerts, spent an evening at the Italians, and went every Sunday to the Lejosne's, from whom he had arranged to buy a still life by Monet. For he also found Monet, a penniless Monet who now lives in Paris with Camille and little Jean, and often lacks the bare necessities. The letters they exchanged around January 1, 1868 show us that their relationship was still difficult, that their sensitivities were raw, that they nevertheless cared for each other and that Bazille helped Monet to the best of his limited means. He certainly has reason to be irritated when Monet accuses him of having bought his Femmes au jardin from him out of charity; he retaliates by accusing him in turn of ingratitude. And yet, it is friendship and generosity that take over at the end of his reply: "I do not blame you for your bitter letter; I am very unhappy to know you in such a sad situation, but I do not want to suffer you to accuse me of indifference or ill will when I support you as much as I can." On April 8, 1868, we will have moreover the proof that their mutual affection survives all the turmoil: that day, in Sainte-Marie-des-Batignolles, Bazille will hold the little Jean Monet on the baptismal font.
The main part of his activity naturally remained painting. As soon as he was installed on Rue de la Paix, he worked on a new painting, a vase of flowers on a console that he was to give to the Teulons, as well as The Family Gathering still unfinished. He has his own person in the corner, which, he says at the end of December, will keep him busy for another month. He wants to present this painting at the next Salon, and intends to attach to it a portrait of a woman in full dress. But the model he would need is difficult to find and this work will never be done. To please the Lejosne to whom he gave them, it is finally Potted Flowers dated 1866 and probably painted in the greenhouse of Méric that he will submit to the jury at the same time as The Family Gathering. By the end of January, this one was quite finished after giving him a lot of trouble; he also completed the Vase of Flowers on a Console and then sets to work on another still life - Still Life with Heron which his friend Sisley also comes to paint alongside him. In March, finally, as usual, the two paintings he had chosen were sent to the Salon.
Waiting for the verdict, he is as always pessimistic. The Family Gathering has earned him compliments from the friends to whom he showed it. But he was not satisfied with the portrait of himself that he had added to it: 'I am not at all like myself,' he wrote, 'but that does nothing for the exhibition, especially to be refused. As usual, the jury staggered its responses and it was only on April 16 that he was able to announce to his parents his double success: "My two paintings are received. Almost all my friends are refused."
Bazille could only be happy to have been admitted; but he retained too low an opinion of the jury not to be surprised at a decision he believed to be due to a mistake: "My paintings," he wrote to his mother, "will have gone through the cracks, I don't know how; it is likely that they will have been mistaken." But such is not the opinion of his parents who, now, have completely accepted the vocation of their son and are very proud of his talent: "It is with the greatest pleasure that we learn at the moment your success before the jury of the Salon, writes his father on April 17. You are too modest to think that your paintings have passed through the cracks; for my part I do not admit it so, I do not put the thing on the account of chance."
As Bazille thinks as little of the public as he does of the jury, he declares that he hopes that The Family Gathering, to which he is particularly attached, "will be scorned." It will be much less than he imagined, perhaps partly because, badly placed in the attic, it might not be seen by everyone. Two critics, however, noticed it, one of whom was very important, when the Salon opened on May 1st, and their comments were much more interesting than those of the previous year. J. Ixe devotes a rather long article to his two paintings in the Journal de Montpellier. He sees in Bazille a disciple of Manet and a supporter of realism, which is more forced than inaccurate but is, under his pen, the opposite of a compliment, for realism, for him, consists first of all in cultivating the ugly and in inventing it even where it does not exist. Yet this is precisely what Bazille does in his study of flowers, in front of which J. Ixe feels the same insurmountable disgust as he did two years earlier in front of the Still Life with Fish: "Under the blackish daylight of a coal-fired atmosphere and the chill of a prison yard, he painted this Study of Flowers with a morbid brush, without grace or pity... not without character and harmony of tone, I would quickly add." But realism is also about reversing planes and, for J. Ixe, The Family Gathering illustrates this defect well. He also criticizes it for a clumsy composition, a disparity between the background landscape and the main subject, which seem to him to have been conceived separately; but he also finds in it very serious qualities, "some happy varieties of pose" in the characters, "the picturesqueness of certain attitudes, ... the accent of the physiognomies probably very similar, the frankness of certain pieces, obviously copied from nature." [Journal de Montpellier, 23 May 1868]. This is the painting we call Potted Flowers and which, presumably, was exhibited at the Salon under the name Etude de fleurs. There is a list of Bazille's works drawn up by himself and then copied by his father and, although incomplete, it undoubtedly identifies the paintings shown at the 1867 and 1868 Salons: "Portrait de Maître refused at the Salon of 67, la terrasse de Méric refused idem, pots de fleurs donnés à Mme Lejosne (Salon de 68), Portrait de famille (Salon 68)."
Thus, through this article, we see discovered some of the points on which conservative criticism resists the new painting.
The Praise of Zola
More important, however, because it comes from a young critic on the verge of making a name for himself, is Emile Zola's brief but very significant praise of The Family Gathering in L'Evénement illustré. After a long passage on Monet, he continues: "In the same room...is a painting by Frédéric Bazille: Portraits of the XXX Family, which shows a lively love of truth. This is how Bazille presented his painting at the Salon, and how he referred to it in his correspondence. Family Portraits XXX is thus the true name of the work we now call The Family Gathering. Zola's article appeared in L'Evénement illustré of May 24, 1868 reedited in Zola, Ecrits sur l'art, Gallimard, 1991, pp. 206-2011.
"The characters are grouped on a terrace, in the softened shade of a tree. Each physiognomy is studied with extreme care, each figure has its own allure. One can see that the painter loves his time like Claude Monet, and that he thinks that one can be an artist by painting a frock coat. There is a charming group in the painting, the group formed by the two young girls sitting on the edge of the terrace."
Thus Zola not only notices Bazille's realism but, with perfect accuracy of intuition, he perceives a capital element of his aesthetic: his love for the contemporary world and his will to paint it, in other words, his modernity.
Bazille hurried to visit the Salon as soon as it opened, to which he wanted to devote two or three days, because his presence was imperatively required in Montpellier, where his father had won first prize in the regional agricultural competition for his farm in Saint-Sauveur: Gaston Bazille was being honored, and he was absolutely determined that his son should be there to take part in the closing celebrations. The latter, moreover, is anxious to return to his beloved Midi because he has many projects in mind that can only be realized there: "I can't wait to be at work in Méric; I intend to have the little girl from Saint-Sauveur pose, but I would also like to have a little model of a young girl with a pretty face and pretty hands. Her father wrote that all she needed to do was to arrive on May 6 or 7. So on the 5th or 6th he left Paris for a stay that would last many months. An active and fruitful stay, since he will paint the View of the Village, the Fisherman with a Net, Frédéric Bazille at Saint-Sauveur and the Studies for a Grape Harvest.
During this long absence, he received dramatic news and desperate pleas for help from Monet who, completely abandoned by his family and "naked as a worm," attempted to commit suicide at the end of June and then found refuge in Fécamp; he also received some from Renoir because the latter, momentarily installed in Ville-d'Avray, returned from time to time to Les Batignolles to take care, in agreement with him, of completely fitting out the studio, and he settled there again in the middle of August. Bazille did not return to Paris until about November 15. On the way, he stopped to visit Dijon, where, he wrote, he discovered beautiful churches, some fine paintings in the museum, and the magnificent tombs of the Dukes of Burgundy.
At the Café Guerbois
During this year in which he will have painted some of his finest works, Bazille's life became more studious, but while he worked hard during the day, he remained free in the evenings. On his return, he began by wallpapering his room and repainting the doors of his studio with Renoir, which forced him to sleep for three nights on a mattress at Maître's. But then he returned to his normal life: "I have resumed my usual way of life," he wrote to his father in December, "when the day is dwindling, I go down to the boulevard, I stay for an hour at the café to read the newspapers and I have dinner and spend the evening with Maître, on rue Jacob. At midnight, I go back up to Batignolles and I am in bed by 12:30 a.m." The café he speaks of is not, moreover, the only one he frequents. At 11 Grand'rue des Batignolles - the present-day Avenue de Clichy - and just a stone's throw from his house is the Café Guerbois, which, at the time Bazille moved to Rue de la Paix, had become a meeting place for young artists.
Supporters of the new painting, not all of whom were necessarily painters, met there every Friday evening around Manet. We see the sculptor and critic Astruc, Duranty and Théodore Durer, both journalists and novelists, the portrait painter Fantin-Latour and the landscape painter Guillemet, the journalist and art critic Théophile Silvestre. From time to time, Degas, Renoir, Stevens, Maître, Sisley, Monet, Pissarro and Zola joined them. They composed an avant-garde group, but among them the oppositions of character were sometimes strong and their opinions sometimes discordant.
So, for example, Durer is an ardent Republican, while Silvestre is rallied to the Empire. Such, then, is the group of young people immortalized by Fantin-Latour in 1870 in his famous painting Un atelier aux Batignolles. In reality those who have sometimes been mistakenly considered a school are united, in Rewald's words, only "by a common contempt for official art and by the will to seek the truth outside the official path." [Rewald, 1986, p. 140]; and the name of the Batignolles group, which they were more properly given, "simply emphasized their affinities, without limiting their efforts to a specific field." [Rewald, 1986, p. 140]. Between them, discussions of ideas and oratorical jousts were going well. All this attracted Bazille, who had also become a regular at the Café Guerbois since he lived in the neighborhood; and he felt all the more at ease there because, in the group, he was one of the only ones cultured enough to confront opponents such as Degas and Manet in brilliant verbal skirmishes. [Rewald, 1986, p. 136].
Zola, who is said to have been inspired by him for the character of Félicien in Le Rêve, left in his notes a very attractive portrait, which does seem to be his, as he appeared to him in these meetings:
"Tall and slender. Very distinguished. A little Jesus-like, but manly though blond. Dark eyes. Very handsome boy. The eyes especially superb... The haughty air, terrible when he gets angry, and very good, very gentle usually. The nose a little strong. Long, curly hair. A beard a little darker than the hair, very light, very silky, pointed. Radiant with health, very white, and suddenly colored in action... All the noble qualities of youth, religious, loyal, delicate." [Zola's preparatory file for the character of Félicien de Hautecœur in Le Rêve, Garnier-Flammarion, 1992, pp. 231-232. Rewald quotes this passage, pp. 136-137 and proposes a portrait of Bazille].
Between painting and leisure
The Café Guerbois, almost as much as the evenings with Maître, is now a regular part of Bazilles's life with all the events that made its reputation. Always on the lookout for opportunities to observe the world around him, he attended the funeral of the banker James de Rothschild in November, then those of Rossini. Still in love with music, he continues to make it with Maître, returns to the concerts of the Conservatoire, sees plays at the Châtelet the Iphigénie en Tauride of Gluck, which he is enthusiastic about, and takes lessons in harmony. But above all, he is now received at the home of the magistrate Antoine Lascoux, a great music lover, whom Maître has introduced him to. Lascoux organizes evenings of chamber music at his home. At his house, Bazille writes, "I heard masses of new music and met composers from all countries."
Shortly before Christmas, his father landed in Paris to attend the congress of the Société nationale d'agriculture; he then saw his son almost every day and returned with him to hear Iphigénie. But the most striking event of the winter is undoubtedly for him the theatrical performance that is going to be given at the Lejosne's house: "Madame Lejosne had the insane idea of having Ruy Blas performed at her house, in her salon, for the day of her feast, which falls around the middle of February. The best thing is that it will be done, we rehearse... I have been given the role of Don Caesar de Bazan, you can see from here how easy it is... I learn my role and I will try not to be too ridiculous ." If the idea seems insane to him, it is because the Lejosne family has a well-known salon and that, for a year already, the play of the proscribed writer has been forbidden by the imperial censorship. Among the actors, besides Lejosne himself who will play Don Salluste, the faithful of the composer Massé, Coppée for the role of Ruy Blas, Stevens and Blau have been recruited. Maître, approached, refused. For many weeks, the rehearsals will occupy almost all the evenings of Bazille. The performance, which he had qualified in advance as grotesque, finally took place only on March 8 and was very successful: "You must know that we had a great success," he wrote to his mother, "and that I was not the worst, I was not intimidated at all, even though there were a lot of people, so that I played my part with all the gravity and finesse of which I am capable. Besides, it was easy to play. But this triumphant evening would have two consequences: on the one hand, Bazille's sumptuous costume cost him so much that, unable to afford models, he was condemned for a time to do only still lifes; on the other hand, although private, the protest performance did not go unnoticed: it would soon earn Major Lejosne a transfer to Algeria...
During that winter, Bazille, consumed by Ruy Blas, nevertheless devoted the daytime hours to painting. In early January, he announces to his family that he is doing a new Portrait of Edmond Maître, to replace, he says, "the one I gave him two years ago, which I find to be par too bad. He is also working on another painting, Woman in a Moorish Costume, and then on a third about which he gives no details. But he naturally thought of the Salon, where he wanted to send two works painted the previous summer, the View of the Village and the Fisherman with a Net. The View of the Village, for which a young Italian woman from Saint-Sauveur posed, has been, he said in February, "a runaway hit with a mass of painters I've been showing it too lately." Stevens, who visited him, paid him the highest compliments on it, and wants to show it to Fromentin and Daubigny as well, so, he told him, that his paintings will be well placed at the exhibition, for these three painters are members of the jury.
But why then, on their part, this sudden infatuation? It is because this year the jury must be renewed for two thirds and will be elected by all artists who have been at least once admitted to exhibit. The visits of these three gentlemen are therefore quite interested. Bazille saw Daubigny ringing at his home, who pretended to come and see him as if by chance. As for Stevens, he literally broods over him, and invites him to his receptions. Bazille, who was not fooled, described with great amusement all this merry-go-round: "The Stevens showered me with courtesies, they took me to the general rehearsals where they had seats. I dine there, I spend the evening there. I make a point of going backstage at the Opera House with my husband. I let myself be done". He lets himself be done so well that finally freed from Ruy Blas, he takes advantage of their introduction to return to the backstage of the Opera, of which he says with a malicious exaggeration that he has become a regular; and to show his family well that he is not venturing on a path of perdition, he describes them with the sarcastic verve of a caricaturist: "It is not at all a stay of delights, it is rather cold, one sees very dirty stagehands, very silly musicians, Mr. Auber very old, and everyone thinks little more than to make a living by doing his business quickly. I have talked with dancers who have told me about the high rents, their dog or their cat, there is not one who knows what happens on the stage when she is not there, nor why she enters it."
But since the jury's favor cannot be trusted once the "big shots of painting" have been reelected to it, Bazille, as usual, agonizes. "I am very much afraid that I will not be accepted at the Exposition," he wrote to his mother shortly before the final date of March 20 set for the submission of works. He thinks that, often, of two paintings, only the less important is accepted. So he decides to submit only one, the View of the Village, "to give it a little more chance of being received". But he was plagued by uncertainty: almost as soon as he made the decision, it was rescinded; and at the last minute, he sent, as he had originally planned, the View of the Village and the Fisherman with a Net.
Monet on a tightrope
It will now be nearly three weeks before his fate is known. But many concerns arise that distract his attention from this deadline. He is once again harboring Monet, who, after experiencing brief moments of peace thanks to a patron in Le Havre, is now "more unhappy than ever." On the other hand, he suddenly finds himself confronted with a situation that both troubles him and requires all his prudence. At the Lejosne receptions, he has just had, as his hostess says, "success with the beauties", and here he is on a tightrope, loved and in the process of loving in his turn. He explains this to his mother, in a letter in which he only half-jokes: "In fact, it began cheerfully enough, but I have a lot of trouble preventing things from taking a serious turn. I play a very difficult and dangerous role, that of a half-won Joseph. A girl of twenty, very attractive, who seems to adore you, that moves. If I were a few years younger, and a few hairs more, it is likely that I would become quite in love."
If he does not run away, like Joseph, it is, he says, because the Salon is keeping him in Paris, but as his parents are worried, he hurries to write to them again; and his surface playfulness has disappeared this time, revealing the thoughtful seriousness it concealed and which is the true essence of his nature. Anxious to be worthy of the trust his parents have always placed in him, he promises them "to do nothing that is not right." But he is also anxious not to make suffer and, with his father who advises him to cut short, he answers that this means, to which he had himself thought, seems to him very cruel: "I do not know if it will often happen to me to see a girl in love with me, but it seems to me that I am obliged with the greatest sparingness." He recognizes that he is not quite in his usual state, but his parents can count on him; and if they can, they owe it, he tells them, to his extreme lucidity as much with regard to others as to himself: " In whatever situation of mind I am, it will never happen to me not to know how to judge the environment in which I will find myself. ..."; "I know how to split myself and make a fair opinion of my own feelings"; and they also owe it to the moral rigor of which they gave him the example: "I learned at home to prefer scrupulous honesty and good education to everything."
"I am not thinking of getting married soon"
Rarely are there moments in Bazille's correspondence when his deepest being is revealed to such an extent, in so few words, and in such carefully weighed words. It is all there, and the innate qualities of his mind, and the discipline, inculcated and then maintained, in self-examination, and the moral demands his parents passed on to him - all this, with the unalterable bond between his family and himself that results from that very transmission. We must place this striking portrait side by side with the one given to us by Zola, to see how much they complement each other, how much the inside and the outside, Bazille's perception of himself and that which others may have of him, are in agreement. As for the practical conclusion of all his reflections, it has not changed since the moment when he was offered a party, at the beginning of the year: "I am not thinking of getting married any time soon".
Finally, to escape so many worries, Bazille attends the first performance of Wagner's Rienzi on April 6, "the youthful work of a man of genius." On the occasion of this premiere, one can read in the Journal Officiel of April 12, 1869 under the pen of Théophile Gautier: "Rarely had Parisian curiosity been more keenly aroused than by the simple words inscribed on the poster of the Théâtre Lyrique: Tuesday first performance of Rienzi." About Wagner, Gautier wrote: "He troubles the whole musical world too deeply not to be a genius". It is not surprising that Bazille participated in this event. And on the 7th, he learns from Stevens that his View of the Village is received. The Fisherman with a Net, on the other hand, was rejected.
With every other painting received - while Monet had none - he feels he was one of the least mistreated, as the jury this year made "a great deal of carnage" among the young artists. Thanks to Stevens' confidences, he knows how things went, and he is very surprised to have been defended by one of the pundits of official painting, Cabanel, whom he holds in low esteem. He also knows why the new painting was systematically tried to be excluded: "It was Mr. Gérôme who did all the harm, he called us a bunch of fools, and declared that it was his duty to do everything to prevent our paintings from appearing. But this time again, his opinion of the jury not having changed, he derives a certain satisfaction from this relentlessness; for he sees in it the proof that he and his friends are held to be dangerous, and thus that they represent a rising force: "What pleases me is that there is a real animosity against us".
The Salon opened on May 1: Bazille went there right away and found it deplorably mediocre. "There are really only beautiful paintings by Millet and Corot", he wrote. As for the View of the Village, although it is as poorly placed as possible, the effect it produces does not dissatisfy him. In any case, it earned him some flattering compliments, notably from Puvis de Chavannes, and the attention of several critics. André Gill even did him the honor of caricaturing her in his newspaper La Parodie. His caricature is, to tell the truth, not very appealing; it changes the character into a doll under an umbrella and the houses of the village into a collection of cubes, which explains the caption: "The artist, a clever one, chose the moment when the village costs twenty-nine sous a box" [Gill, "Salon de 1869", La Parodie, June 1869, p. 8].
As for Ernest Chesneau, in Le Constitutionnel, he notes only that Bazille "belongs to a group of young painters: who plead a good cause very badly." [Chesneau, "Salon de 1869", Le Constitutionnel, June 27, 1869].
In Le Monde, Léon Gautier also devoted a few lines to him, to express his perplexity at the View of the Village where everything is bizarre and meaningless to him [Gautier, "Le Salon de 1869," Le Monde, June 30, 1869, pp. 1-2].
Finally, the critic of the Journal de Montpellier, in a rather long notice, does not seem at first sight to be very tender for Bazille's painting. Why, he asks, does the damsel in the foreground have an expression of fierce concern? "Could it be that she is afraid to show her hands, of which she has, the unfortunate one, so little and so badly? Then, passing to the "cavalier panorama"... " who rises, as if standing " above her, he hesitates " between the qualifications of eccentric and naive ". But, going beyond his reproaches, he transforms them into praise because Bazille's weaknesses finally appear to him as signs of his originality: "In the end, all the boldness of the composition and the color must be recognized as absolutely true. The perspective especially, singularly scabrous, imposes itself by an accuracy of a camera lens or a photograph, and the tone and the effect, except for a few greens which Corot would have lost, impose themselves by their healthy frankness. If to his qualities of instinct M. Bazille manages to join an action of personal conduct, independent of the government... Manet, you will soon see him make excellent use of it." ["Les artistes montpellierains au Salon de 1869," Journal de Montpellier, June 12, 1869].
All in all, then, comments in which, often, the observation of the painter's clumsiness is tinged with sympathy rather than hostility, and that, even on the part of André Gill; for if any caricature is, by definition, a charge, to be the object of it is a privilege accorded to a chosen minority among the exhibitors.
Bazille at Drouot
Precisely at the time the Salon opened, we see Bazille engaging in activity that we did not yet know him to be engaged in. It is only on March 10, 1869, that a letter from his cousin Louis Bazille tells us that he possesses "a talent for buying art objects" and that he goes to sales a little. Louis, who is a collector, would like Frédéric to sometimes take advantage of good opportunities by buying paintings or drawings for him; and on April 27, Frédéric replied that he was very interested in his request, that he had already taken care of it a lot, but had not been able to obtain anything yet within the price limits that had been set. The correspondence that now begins between the two cousins reveals a Frédéric Bazille who is very aware of sales and prices, on the lookout for opportune purchases and participating in the auctions at the Hôtel Drouot. He had just pushed for his cousin, without being able to acquire them, a Rubens and a Goya; and it was considerably later, in December 1869 and January 1870, that he managed to obtain for him "a charming marine by Jongkind", two small paintings by Delacroix, two engravings by Marc-Antoine and one by Rembrandt... We will have the opportunity to speak again about the letters of Frederic Bazille to his cousin Louis, because they are of great interest to us. They indeed contain judgments on other painters past or present, list those he prefers, and thus enlighten us on his aesthetic orientations.
At the time in question, unable to buy anything for his cousin, Bazille sought to satisfy him by commissioning a painting for him from Corot. But the efforts he devoted to him could not prevent him from turning his eyes more and more to the Midi. With the passing of the years, it seems that his awareness of his roots has become even more acute and that his native land is more than before the object of an intense nostalgia for him. Whereas in the early days he let a large part of the summer pass before returning, since 1867 we see him leaving Paris as soon as he can in May, without shortening the end of his stay; and he leaves with projects of paintings that he can only execute in his country. The year 1869 was no exception to this rule. Since the beginning of April, he has been talking about a painting he wants to do in Méric, "in the garden below," thus on the banks of the Lez. This will be the Summer Scene, which he is preparing in Paris by drawing the naked men who are to appear in it. If he did not leave as soon as he saw the Salon - "despite the desire I feel to leave earlier", he said - it was because he had to attend a wedding on May 12. So he sets his departure for the next day, May 13.
His absence was hard felt by Maître who, on July 3, wrote to his father, "Since Bazille left, my evenings have been lonely. These evenings, they used them to make music and it is there especially what he misses. But in Méric, on his side, Bazille went through a difficult period during the summer. Without our knowing the cause, his physical health, usually so good, has deteriorated, and his moral health is in turn affected. It is a letter to Master that reveals it to us: "For some time I have been ill. I have had almost incessant migraines, complicated by all sorts of ailments. Moreover, I am in a moment of deep discouragement... If I am forced to stop, I will arrive in Paris with only one painting that you may find atrocious, because I have no idea where I stand. It is my naked men."
Monet cries out for help
We do not know how long this crisis of body and soul lasts, but it may explain the silence Bazille keeps as Monet assails him with once again pleading letters. With Camille and Jean, Monet is near Bougival, plunged into the deepest misery and all three subsist only thanks to Renoir who, installed not far away at his parents' home in Louveciennes, brings them bread "so that we don't die of hunger," writes Monet. For eight days, no bread, no wine, no fire for cooking, no light. It is atrocious." This, on August 9. And again on the 17th: "We are dying of hunger, it is to the letter... May you never know these moments of misery." And this again on the 25th: "If I have no help, we will starve. I cannot paint, not having a shadow of colors; without that I would work. See then a little what I must suffer, and try to help me! And these pleas, which are heartbreaking, are mixed with reproaches because Bazille is slow to send him the 50 monthly francs he owes him, and which are far from enough to support them. But Bazille was born in a different environment, had never known discomfort, let alone hunger, and it seems to Monet that, having never been there, his friend is incapable of imagining what he endures. Bazille ends up sending him his money and, towards the end of September, cured no doubt and out of his slump, he writes to him to give him advice that is useless because it is impossible to follow: go back on foot from Bougival to Le Havre, split some wood... I reread your letter, my dear friend," Monet replied on September 26; "it is really very comical, and if I didn't know you, I would take it for a joke. You tell me seriously because you think it, you believe it, that in my place you would split wood; only people in your position believe that and if you were in mine you would perhaps be more disconcerted than I am. The reproaches, moreover, are not bitter as in the past; there is no anger in this letter of Monet. but the sorry observation of a great naivety, that also of a distance between his friend and him, yet so close by affection, because of their experiences so deeply different. And Monet, out of shape to paint, thinks enviously of Bazille's good fortune: "Happy mortal, you will bring us back quantities of canvases."
In fact, he would bring back very few because his health, coupled with the impossibility of finding suitable models in Méric, momentarily slowed his production. The Summer Scene, a study of a child in water that was perhaps intended for him, the two Studies for a Grape Harvest, one of which had been started the year before, and drawings, such are the meager fruits of his stay. He was in any case completely recovered when he returned to Paris at a date we cannot specify, but which can only be in the course of October.
He then found Renoir in his studio, his evenings with Maître and, from time to time, the theater or the opera. He goes to the Gymnase to see Froufrou, to the Italians Le Paradis de la Péri, and Schumann's music enthuses him so strongly that he returns. At the Italians again, with a group of friends including Maître and Renoir, he rents a box to attend Fidélio. But at the same time, he goes back to work seriously and begins three paintings at once: the portrait of Blau, a naked woman (it will be called La Toilette), and the interior of his studio, in which he resorts to Manet's brush to figure himself. "I have enough for the whole winter", he writes to his father. But even as he painted his studio, he made arrangements to leave it. As early as September, he wanted to give up his studio, but then went back on this decision. In December, it is done. We do not know the reason, except that his landlord was "an awful scoundrel" and that he did not want to deal with him anymore. He was not to move until April and did not hurry to look for another place to live; however, he found it in January, at 8 rue des Beaux-Arts: "I am delighted with my new studio," he wrote at the time. I am delighted with my new studio," he wrote at the time. "Renoir will not be able to stay with me. I will therefore be alone, but one of my friends is staying in the house. This friend is Fantin-Latour; and another advantage of his new situation will be that, the Rue des Beaux-Arts being close to the Rue de Seine, he will be within walking distance of Maître. He will move in on April 15.
Bazille, witness to his time
With the beginning of 1870, despite the liberal reforms, the opposition to the regime has not disarmed and Bazille, a convinced republican, follows the events with attention. The journalist Victor Noir, killed by Prince Pierre Bonaparte, was buried on January 12. Bazille would like to attend the funeral but cannot because he has to pose that day for his portrait in A studio in Batignolles that Fantin-Latour is painting. However, he sees the highly excited gangs on their way to the outer boulevard and, noting the state of exaltation in which Paris finds itself, he writes to his mother, "You will see that all this will end badly, it is no longer a farce, there is a general irritation that will set off the rifle shots on some occasion that will not fail." He is always on the lookout for the spectacle of contemporary life, in all circles and circumstances; also, wanting to see closely what the rabble of Paris is, he goes on January 16 with some friends to the Place de la Roquette, where eager crowds are waiting day by day for the guillotine that is to execute Troppmann, the murderer of Pantin. The letter he wrote to his mother the next day contained an extraordinary description of what he had seen on "that vile square", of the hideousness of the mob that associated Troppmann and Prince Bonaparte in their hatred. But at the same time, Bazille is still inhabited by his passion for music and plans a two-day trip to Brussels, where Wagner's Lohengrin is to be performed in mid-January at the Théâtre de la Monnaie. He already has a place reserved by a friend of the composer in whose honor a banquet will be given, and he expects to be introduced to him. This beautiful dream, alas, will not come true, because the performance, delayed, will only take place on March 22 and he will then be too preoccupied by the Salon to want to leave. Finally, on February 3, at the Porte-Saint-Martin, he saw Lucrèce Borgia played.
He was thus interested in all aspects of current events, but this did not prevent him, it is necessary, from painting with ardor. On the contrary, it seems that in him, without weakening his other interests, the vocation now tends to take precedence over them. Thus he writes in February to his mother that he works "like a nigger" and to his father that he works "all day, and every day." The Studio on the rue La Condamine kept him very busy in January, delaying the execution of La Toilette which he nevertheless intends to send to the Salon; but, he says, speaking of this painting, "I'm getting on with it and it won't take very long to do." He was greatly encouraged in this new venture by the compliments he received from friends for his Summer Scene, which was also intended for the Salon. But once set in motion, La Toilette proves to be quite difficult to make, and the model he has found for it is no doubt ravishing, but it costs him "the ears". No matter how much his sister-in-law insisted that he paint flowers for her, he could not begin them until after March 20, that is, after his shipments to the Salon had been made.
Finally the fateful dates arrived and, around April 8, he wrote to his parents that his two paintings had been received. How disappointed he was a few days later when he learned that La Toilette, was rejected and that only the Summer Scene was retained! He was the victim of an error of information and dreads so much to upset his parents by announcing them this denial that he remains fifteen days without resolving to reveal it to them. He did not do so until April 28, but once the shock had passed, he took this half-failure more philosophically and wrote to his mother, "You know what I think of the jury, I was in a very bad mood, but by no means discouraged."
As usual, it was on May 1 that the public was admitted to visit the Salon, and Bazille had regained all his optimism: "I am delighted with my exhibition, my painting is very well placed, everyone sees it and talks about it, many say more bad things about it than good, but at last I am launched and everything I exhibit from now on will be watched. I have heard harsh judgments, there are people who laugh, but I have received hyperbolic praises that my modesty prevents me from writing down. I will tell you all this in Montpellier, and besides, you will see eruptions in almost all the newspapers that speak of the salon."
Writing these lines, Bazille announces very exactly, without knowing them yet, the reactions of the press, for he will be more abundantly spoken of there than in the past, and one will indeed find eruptions and praises. Let's start with the criticism. J. Ixe does not seem to have made an appearance this year, but the critic who signs "Un frotteur" has a sensitivity very close to his own, for he describes the Summer Scene: "The water in a toadstool where a few blue underpants are frolicking has no hold on their epidermis, and they come out poorly cleaned, as a proof of the excellent solidity of the coating with which they are covered" ["A Scrubber. The Salon of 1870. Notes of a rubbisher," Le Courrier des deux mondes, May 29, 1870].
In L'Arc-en-ciel, the reaction that is expressed is no more tender: "Your indigo bathers smell of fever; tell them to go to bed, Mr. Bazille." ["Revue des lettres, arts et sciences," L'Arc-en-Ciel, June 1870, p. 275].
On the other hand, two caricaturists did not disdain to exercise their talent at the expense of Bazille's painting. Bertall's drawing, published in Le Journal amusant, shows us a bather leaning toward a café waitress to say, "Mademoiselle, be so kind as to pass us a little drink, it will give us tone. We need it." [Bertall,Le Journal amusant, May 28, 1870, p. 2].
And for his part, Cham in Le Charivari, features the author of the painting himself depicted as a bather with this caption: "M. Bazille throwing himself into the water in the hope of getting rid of the color that the painter has put on him." [Cham, Le Charivari, May 15, 1870].
As for the other critics, they agreed in seeing Bazille as a disciple of Manet, which, for one of them, was no compliment: "Perhaps one could choose his inspirations better", wrote Enault in Le Constitutionnel [Enault, "Salon de 1870", Le Constitutionnel, June 20, 1870, p. 3].
On the other hand, Burty in Le Rappel, considers Bazille without any hostility; and he has the merit of being precise in his reproaches as well as in his praise: "His painting," he writes, "has been noticed by all those who follow with interest all sincere beginnings. It is obvious that this is a deviation from realism, and that, while wanting to remain as exact in the general aspect, this new school pretends to be more artistic by a choice of more delicate tones, by the absence of bituminous shadows, by a more loyal search for light such as it falls from the sky in the green countryside. But a character, any object is not only presented by their colored spots, their luminous planes. They still exist by their underside. If classical teaching has long abused this abstract line, which is supposed to circumscribe forms and which it called the outline, one must not fall into the opposite excess and limit oneself to juxtaposing portions of light or black, floating like white or dark clouds on a blue sky" [Burty, "Le Salon. Small and Large Paintings", Le Rappel, June 15, 1870].
This comment is interesting in that it seems to want to indicate in Bazille a hesitation between the influence of Manet and that of an impressionism that is still searching for itself. Burty's tone is, all in all, quite benevolent. But it is that of quite frank sympathy that Duranty adopts to speak of our painter in Paris-Journal: "From the countries of the Midi, each spring, M. Bazille returns with summer paintings, which are treated or mistreated as wallpaper, but which are full of greenness, sunshine and simple build... I am one of those who find that such people are wrong not to master their craft more rigorously, but I am grateful that they are trying to deliver us from the eternal studio sauces." [Duranty, "Le Salon de 1870", Paris-Journal, May 19, 1870, p. 2].
Finally Astruc in L'Écho des Beaux-Arts, paid him the most vibrant tribute, insisting above all on the fact that he sought the light "with a great painterly instinct." "Bazille sets up his easel in the sunlight to practice the magical effects of the day," he says, and, stubbornly returning to this aspect of his art, which he believes to be crucial, he adds, "Bazille is already the master of an element he has conquered: the astonishing fullness of light, the particular impression of the open air, the power of the day. The sun floods his paintings. In the Bathers, the meadow is as if set on fire" [Astruc, "Le Salon de 1870", L'Echo des Beaux-Arts, June 12, 1870, pp. 2-3].
Enchanted with his exhibition, how could Bazille not also be delighted with the criticism, even if the most laudatory appreciations were mingled with the perception of the awkwardnesses he owed to a still imperfect technique? Didn't he above all want his painting to be seen and talked about? But here he is, as he says, launched. But what he thinks about most, since he visited the Salon, is to leave Paris for Montpellier. However, he cannot yet do so - "in spite of the great desire I have," he says - because he has three paintings in the pipeline at once: the flowers requested by his sister-in-law, whom he intends to take special care of, a portrait, and drawings for a painting he intends to do in Meric - no doubt Ruth and Booz - but for which he would not find the models he needed there. He therefore did not believe he could leave before May 15 at the earliest. In fact he would be forced to postpone his departure until the very end of the month.
So we find him in June in Méric, where he has begun a large painting, the Landscape of the Banks of the Lez, "which is starting to take shape. Nothing is happening around him, in this early summer of 1870, during which "the heat evaporates everything and reigns quietly and alone". Nothing in the unchangingly blue sky predicted the tragedy that was about to befall the Bazilles and France. More than a month passed and on August 2, when he wrote to Maître, the calm of Méric was deeper than ever, for it was that of an empty house. War had been declared on July 19, but serious fighting had not begun, or if it had, he did not know it yet. I am absolutely alone in the country," he writes. My cousins and my brother are at the water, my father and mother live in the city. This solitude pleases me infinitely; it makes me work a lot, and read a lot." As industrious as ever, then, he finished the Landscape on the Banks of the Lez, also painted a Study for a Young Man Nude Lying on the Grass, half done Ruth and Booz, and started another painting, Gertrude and Father Rabbit, of which we will hear no more.
But this activity pursued in silence cannot deceive his secret anxiety: "I come out at times from the exasperation in which Bonaparte and Bismarck throw me. These perfected slaughters frighten me. I will definitely never shout "long live any war". If the idea of the conflict that is about to begin obsesses him, nothing indicates therefore that he may want to participate in it.
An unexpected decision
Two more weeks pass. Then, suddenly, on August 16, he enlisted in the Zouave Corps, one of those known to be always most dangerously exposed. How to explain this sudden decision? We will never know. At most, we can evoke the circumstances which, perhaps, led him to take it. Since Bazille wrote to Maître, events have been moving rapidly. The war did not really begin until that day, August 2. On the 6th, there was the murderous defeat of Froeschwiller and the rout of Mac-Mahon's army; Alsace was lost. On the 9th, Strasbourg was besieged and, on the 14th, the envelopment of Metz began. Bazille had eight or ten relatives or friends on the Rhine. When he received the news of the disastrous battle that had just endangered both his country and the people he cared about, solidarity with his family, whom he knew to be threatened, was undoubtedly one and the same in his mind as the desire to fly to the aid of invaded France. But if he expressed himself on the motives of his gesture, nothing of it was transmitted to us.
What, on the other hand, we have a testimony of is the consternation into which he thus plunges two of his most intimate friends. On August 18, one after the other and on the same sheet of paper, Maître and Renoir tell him their amazement and dismay, each in his own style. First, Maître: "I have just received your letter. You are crazy, very crazy, I embrace you with all my heart; may God protect you... Why not consult a friend? You don't have the right to make this commitment. Next comes Renoir: "Three times shit. Archi-brute."