After accompanying Bazille to the end of his brief existence, let us turn back to take a final look at the man and the painter that he was.
On the man first. Nothing could help us better than the testimony of his friends which will be enough to recompose his image.
We will begin by quoting Le Messager du Midi, where the announcement of his death has nothing of a circumstantial article, but on the contrary translates an intense collective emotion with all the accents of sincerity:
"May the immense pain that will overwhelm his parents be softened by the way it is shared by the population of Montpellier, where in all ranks he had so many friends! It is that apart from the example that this young man had just given, apart from the esteem that reflected on him from his determination, the qualities that distinguished him had for a long time conquered all hearts. It was impossible to meet a nature which combined so much grace and distinction, at the same time as simplicity! It was impossible not to be won over by this heart of gold! We may add that it was also a valiant soul and animated by the most ardent patriotism." [Le Messager du Midi, December 5, 1870].
The newspaper indicates that alarming news about Bazille's fate had already reached Montpellier on the 4th. However, his father must have set out precisely on that day since he arrived in Gien on the morning of the 5th. He was therefore not aware of the article announcing his death. As for the rest of the family, they seem to have kept a doubt, and therefore a glimmer of hope, until Gaston Bazille's return.
Then comes Edmond Maître, who, locked up in Paris, did not learn of his death until February 13, 1871, by a letter from Gaston Bazille, dated January 23, 1871. This letter from Gaston Bazille to Maître was sent by carrier pigeon, as Paris was still under siege at that time. It could be his very late reply to the one that the latter had sent him, also by carrier-pigeon, on October 31, 1870, to ask for news of his son, and which had probably taken a long time to reach him. It was Edmond Maître, Poulain tells us, who took charge of settling all the affairs left in abeyance by Frédéric Bazille and of taking all the necessary steps in Paris after his death. Writing then to his own father, he evokes the multiple sufferings inflicted by the war and continues:
"Alas, among all these pains, one much greater still, much more sensitive has made my heart bleed. My noble and dear friend Bazille... was killed at Beaune-la-Rolande, by Orleans, on November 28... The poor man [Gaston Bazille] wrote me a heartbreaking letter. I give up expressing the pain of the loss I have just made: it is half of myself that is going away. I had a deep friendship with him, and of all the young people I have known... Bazille was the most gifted, the most amiable in every sense of the word. No one in the world will ever fill the empty place he leaves in my life. I am sorry. " [Letter quoted by Jacques-Émile Blanche in Propos de peintre, de David à Degas, 1ère série, Paris, 1919].
A few years pass. We are in June 1876 and Manet speaks in his turn. The Bazilles wish to acquire the portrait that Renoir painted of their lost son and have Manet, who owns it, ask him to give it to them in exchange for Femmes au jardin. The latter consented, but then wrote to them that he had not deprived himself of it out of joy; and if he was very fond of this painting, it was not so much because of its own value as because of Bazille himself and the attachment he held for him. We have accepted," he wrote, "while not hiding from you the regret that we had, my family and I, to separate ourselves from the portrait of our young friend Frédéric Bazille, whose charming nature and equal friendship we knew how to appreciate." Manet speaks of him as a "modest and sympathetic hero" and assures his parents that, through memory, their son Frédéric has not ceased to be present among his friends [Unpublished letter from Manet to Gaston Bazille quoted by Ernest Scheyer in " Frédéric Bazille. The Beginnings of Impressionism," Art Quarterly, Spring 1942]. The quotation is found again, this time with a date indication, in the catalogue of the sale of December 7-8, 1982 at the Hotel Drouot, p. 9.
The years are still passing. A quarter of a century has now passed since the battle of Beaune-la-Rolande and here is Captain d'Armagnac, now a general, answering at length a letter of questions posed by Marc Bazille. His memories are all the more moving because he knew the deceased painter for only a few weeks; but they are engraved in him with such force that time has not had the slightest hold on them: "I have certainly forgotten nothing of your late brother, this charming young man worthy of all sympathy and affection, who fell for the fatherland in the spring of a life that seemed to be so happy. Many years have passed since that time, but his memory, all that relates to him, to his short military life, the only one I knew, has remained intact in my memory. I had in him a drill sergeant as one never meets one, I considered him more as a friend than as a subordinate... If an untimely death had not stopped your brother's military career, it is probable that he would have been proposed as an officer before the end of the war, so much so that with his high intelligence, his education, his spirit, his patriotic feelings, he had put himself in relief in our midst" [Unpublished letter from General d'Armagnac to Marc Bazille]. We do not know the date, but Gaston Bazille is mentioned in it as "deceased Mr. your father" and he died in 1894.
Together, these diverse but remarkably convergent testimonies raise before us an ultimate portrait, and almost even a presence; they go beyond what they express and allow us to glimpse what no analysis can grasp, what words are powerless to pin down. Frédéric Bazille, who died well before his time, had a force of attraction in him, the essence of which escapes us today, but which is attested to by the unalterable persistence of his memory in those of his close friends who survived him the longest. Thus Renoir, who died in 1919, who, at the end of his life, said to his son Jean: "Ah, if you had known Bazille! So it was with Monet who, in 1926, on the verge of death, was asked by Poulain for the biography he was preparing. To Poulain's letter, this immediate answer: "Come right away". And Monet reclusive, exhausted, almost dying, gathered his last strength to deliver to him a whole past of sixty years old...
A tragic fate
To Bazille's personal qualities, moral ascendancy, and charm came the tragic brutality of his fate. Everything concurred from then on to form in the minds of those who had known him an image in which the talent of the artist, the heroism of the soldier, and the beauty of his smitten youth were exalted together. This is the most romantic image of all, but it does not seem to us to betray reality. Now, Bazille counted among his friends men of letters. How can we be surprised that once he had disappeared, he could have inspired them in their creations? One can guess a reflection of him in two novels, one by Duranty, the other by Zola: in each of them, an essential character would have borrowed some of his features. As early as 1872, Duranty published as a serial in Le Siècle a short novel, La simple vie du peintre Louis Martin, in which the hero is killed as a young man in the 1870 war. This work would be reprinted in 1876 in the collection Les Séductions du chevalier Navoni and again in 1880 in the posthumous volume Le pays des arts under the title Le Peintre Louis Martin. On the other hand in 1888, Zola published Le Rêve (t. XX of the series of Rougon-Macquart) in which he passes for having been largely inspired by Bazille for one of the two protagonists, Félicien de Hautecœur. The patronymic chosen is in itself extremely significant. Finally, the memory of Bazille may also be floating in another of Zola's novels, L'Oeuvre. On all this, consult Patrick Brady, L'Oeuvre d'Emile Zola, roman sur les arts, Geneva, 1968.
But if Bazille thus survived in the memory of his friends and perhaps even, by two of them, in literature, it took several decades for the general public to find or discover him. His too short career, the four Salons, where five works in all had represented him, could not by themselves conquer the permanent place that should have been his from the start among the painters of his generation. They had certainly not forgotten him. But they had so much difficulty in gaining recognition and earning a living that they could not do much to enlarge the circle of those who cultivated his memory. One fact, however, does not fail to amaze. In 1874, the independent exhibition that Bazille and his friends had tried in vain to set up seven years earlier finally saw the light of day, and one is surprised, not to say shocked, that not one of his paintings was included. One may assume that there was neither ingratitude nor negligence on the part of his companions whom he had helped so much, but that, quite simply - Bazille's work being for the most part preserved far from Paris in his family - it was impossible for them to offer the public truly representative examples of his art. In any case, it was not until 1900 that two of his most important paintings finally revealed him in his true dimension. It was then, in fact, at the Exposition Universelle, among the masterpieces of a century of French painting, that the world was able to admire La Toilette and the View of the Village.
"He was far from being the most gifted among us"
All this invites us to turn our gaze now, not just to the man, but to the painter-to the one of whom Pissarro was to say long after his death, "He was one of the most gifted among us." Remarks reported on p. 49 by Poulain who, in his article "Le pré-impressionnisme", also quotes him, but in a different form: "He was the most gifted among us" [Formes, n° 19, Nov. 1931, p. 156]. We will not seek here to study Bazille's art and technique as a whole, Daulte having done so before us. Our purpose, which is more limited, will be to interrogate his correspondence in order to learn from him what he wanted his painting to be. The passages in his letters where he expresses himself on this point are very few, but they are full of meaning. Moreover, especially when he writes to his cousin Louis, he willingly speaks of past or present painters he likes, sometimes also of those he dislikes. Basing ourselves thus on his own statements, we shall endeavor to highlight his aesthetic orientations and to situate him in the general art movement of his time.
The painter Bazille initially defined himself negatively. He said over and over again his opposition to the reigning academism, to official art and to the jury of the Salon, his low regard for the tastes of the public and for the mass of his fellow artists who slavishly adapted to them. Nothing in this should surprise us: the nineteenth century saw a gap between the true artist and society. Bazille as an opponent is no different from his friends, from the small group of young people who, with him, campaigned for the opening of a Salon des refusés or sought to make themselves known through an independent exhibition.
On the other hand, he defined and situated himself positively in a crucial passage that should be quoted here in full. Towards the end of March 1866, when he had just sent his Jeune Fille au piano to the Salon and was awaiting the jury's verdict, he wrote the following: "I am not able to launch my own exhibition.
"Not being able to embark on a large composition, I sought to paint as best I could a subject as simple as possible. Besides, in my opinion, the subject does not matter, as long as what I have done is interesting from a painting point of view. I chose the modern period because I understand it best, because I find it more alive for living people, and this is what will make me refuse. If I had painted Greek and Roman women, I would be quite at ease, because we are still there; they will certainly appreciate the qualities that my painting may have in a peplum or a tepidarium, but they will refuse, I am afraid, my satin dress in a salon."
The choice of modernity
What Bazille proclaims above all in these few lines is the choice he has made of modernity. He turns away from the insipid custom, endlessly repeated by conventional painting, of presenting in vast tableaux historical, religious, or mythological scenes-scenes that are obviously unrelated to reality since they escape the experience of those who claim to render them. Ruth and Booz is a notable exception to Bazille's self-imposed rule, but it is clear that, in this particular case, his enthusiasm for Victor Hugo's famous poem outweighed any other consideration. And Bazille's choice, in fact, is twofold. He opts for contemporary life because it is the only one he knows; and at the same time he opts for simplicity. To the peplum with which women dressed in ancient Greece, he substitutes a satin dress; and to the Roman décor of the tepidarium, which no man of his time had ever seen, he substitutes that of a salon. The life of today, therefore, and, what is more, the life of every day in its most intimate and familiar aspects. We find here the Bazille who is attracted by all the activities of Parisian life, all the circumstances and events of which the news is made; and even if we could fear that the multiplicity of his interests would harm the exercise of his profession, we must recognize that between them and his painting, there is, not a divorce, but a deep agreement. In this quarrel between the ancients and the moderns, moreover, even if he opposes the dominant taste, he is not the only one to want to turn art towards the present realities: Boudin, Courbet and Manet preceded him in this way, as well as Constantin Guys in whom Baudelaire very rightly hailed the painter of modern life. "Modernity," the author of the Fleurs du mal wrote of him in 1863, "is to draw out of fashion what it can contain of poetic in the historical, to draw the eternal from the transitory." [Baudelaire, La Modernité, Curiosités esthétiques, Grasset, p. 466].
In the midst of these reflections, however, one sentence stands out with a singular relief: "Moreover, in my opinion, the subject matters little as long as what I have done is interesting from the point of view of painting." For those who read it in our century, it is as tempting as it is adventurous to interpret it in the light of more recent developments that have led to abstract art. The subject, Bazille tells us, does not matter. And indeed, if we stick to its specific essence, painting is nothing other than the art of marrying lights, shadows, lines and colors, a beautiful painting seducing us with the same sensory magic that a beautiful carpet can do. Bazille thus precedes Gauguin who, only in 1888, will write: "Art is an abstraction. Draw it from nature by dreaming in front of it." [Letter to Schuffenecker, Lettres de Gauguin à sa femme et à ses amis, Paris, Grasset, 1946, p. 134]. And he echoes his contemporary Baudelaire who, in his Salon of 1859, compares nature to a simple dictionary, a simple storehouse, no longer of models to imitate, but of signs and images. Baudelaire, who declared that he had this formula from Delacroix's own mouth, would take it up word for word in 1863 in his obituary study on the work and life of this painter. [Baudelaire, L'Art romantique et autres œuvres critiques, Curiosités esthétiques, Paris, Garnier, 1989, pp. 326-329 and 437-451].
Did the idea of a painting without a subject, of a purely pictorial painting, ever occur to Bazille? It would be very unwise to assert this, for the sentence that strikes us comes precisely to interrupt a context in which he gives us his preferences in terms of subjects, tells us those he intends to paint and those he will never paint.
The fact remains that this remark thrown in there as if in passing is of the utmost interest and that it presupposes in Bazille a whole reflection on the proper nature of his art. It is clear that, for him, the properly aesthetic value of a painting does not depend in any way on what it represents and that in painting the subject, however attractive, is of the order, not of the essence, but of the accident.
Another passage, a little later, from his correspondence, comes to show us again how much his art is a reflective art. And it also shows us that, however non-essential it may be, the subject exists, and that in painting he intends to represent what he sees: "I would like to restore to each object its weight and volume, and not only paint the appearance of things." It is unfortunate that this sentence, taken from a letter of 1868, has come down to us isolated from any context. We would have liked to know which artists he had in mind, who rendered either the weight and volume or only the appearance of things. But as it is, his sentence is unambiguous; it proves to us that his vision differs radically from that of a Monet or a Sisley, and that it implies the choice of a different technique than theirs. To the vaporous powderiness in which, for the impressionists, the forms dissolve, he opposes the sharpness of the contours and the solidity of the masses, a greater part made to the graphics, a conception of the painting more sculptural in the portraits, more architectural in the landscapes. And the word appearance that he uses to designate the object of a research that is not his own, seems to us to mean that there exists for him, behind their surface, a deeper truth of beings and things, and that he makes it his mission to make us discover it.
We are thus led to speak of another tendency in his art, of which an 1870 letter to Louis Bazille brings us the indirect revelation. His cousin has just informed him of his reaction to Rembrandt's famous etching known as The Hundred Guilders' Coin, of which he has just bought a proof; and he replies, "I am not surprised at what you tell me about your Rembrandt. Next to the Florentines who have always sacrificed to grace and elegance (for which I am careful not to blame them), the qualities of life and deep gravity may seem brutal, but I believe that with another more important etching by this master, you will be more impressed." What should impress Louis Bazille, and what Frédéric Bazille is obviously sensitive to, is what he calls "the qualities of life and deep gravity", qualities that may seem brutal to us, but by which Rembrandt also goes beyond the surface or the appearance of the objects and people he represents. How can we fail to see that these qualities which attract Bazille correspond to his conscious ideal as well as to an essential element of his own nature, and also correspond, for this very reason, to a no less essential orientation of his art? How can we not think here, for example, of his Woman in a Moorish Costume, of The Fortune Teller, or to the young man leaning against a tree in his Summer Scene? Immobile characters who, behind their half-lowered eyelids, pursue their meditation or their dream, the painter has caught them in a moment where, withdrawn to the depths of themselves, they seemed to dismiss the agitations of the world in order to recapture the immutable and fundamental reality of their being. And this gravity, in another way, we also read in the characters of The Family Gathering. Here we see where, in Bazille, the portraitist's search tends; but nothing either disturbs the stillness of his landscapes, of the farm and vineyards of Saint-Sauveur, the walls and pond of Aigues-Mortes, or the village of Castelnau.
However, his preference for the deep and serious is not accompanied in him by any exclusivism, it leaves intact his capacities of reception and even admiration: the attraction that the perhaps brutal qualities of Rembrandt exert on him does not prevent him, on the contrary, from tasting Florentine grace and elegance. He gives us further proof of his broad-mindedness when he speaks in his letters of the very diverse painters he loves. It now remains for us to review them, in order to determine, if possible, his place among them.
Five or six men of talent
"I do not admit that among the living there are more than five or six men of talent," he wrote to Louis Bazille in 1869. In fact, he admits a little more: the same letter allows us to count Corot, Millet and Courbet among them, while in 1867 he cited Courbet, Diaz and Daubigny as being "the painters who please us". These were the ones - all of them his elders - whom he wanted to include in the independent exhibition planned by his group, and this explains why he did not include his close friends in his enumeration, adding, however, that Monet was "stronger than all of them. Finally, among the still-living painters he appreciated, his correspondence still mentions Fromentin and Jongkind; but he also speaks of the modern masters he survives, of Flandrin, Delacroix, Ingres, Bonington, Granet, Rousseau...
Such a list would have only limited interest, if a few names did not stand out, dominating from more or less high all the others. The one for whom he shows the most enthusiasm is unquestionably Delacroix: "I admire Delacroix as much as anything," he writes to his cousin. A Delacroix never seems to me to be too expensive". And in another letter, he praises to him a famous Mise au tombeau by the same painter, "which for my part," he says, "I consider one of the most beautiful paintings in French painting [...] a pure masterpiece."
Delacroix and the Others
Immediately after Delacroix, it is to Corot that his highest praise goes. "For me, Corot is the first of past and present landscape painters, and one of the first French painters," he writes, again to his cousin. Then come those whom he declares to like very much too: Rousseau and Millet, about whom he does not express himself otherwise; Ingres, whose great compositions he finds boring but admires the portraits; finally Courbet, to whom he had been recommended as soon as he came to Paris and whom he wished to be allowed to watch paint [Letter from Gaston Bazille to his son of November 29, 1863]. Curiously, his correspondence is almost silent on Manet; yet it is certain that he admired him, since he wrote in 1867 that he was very anxious to see his exhibition.
By sharing his preferences with us in this way, Bazille certainly does not mean that he was influenced by all the painters he names. But his interest in, and even admiration of, them implies at the very least affinities. And it is striking that he can feel drawn in opposite directions at the same time. He loved Delacroix, but also Ingres, who did not like each other very much, even though at first sight his own painting seems very far from the romanticism of the former and the Davidian neo-classicism of the latter. The slightest sketch by Delacroix was almost a treasure in his eyes, and the two paintings by him that he hosted for a while in his studio for his cousin helped him, he said, to make progress. And yet, Delacroix is par excellence the painter of movement: his impetuosity and ardor are the complete opposite of the essentially static art of Bazille. As for his orientalism, it could only leave very thin traces in the work of our painter. It remains that Delacroix is an extraordinary master of color and light. If Bazille owes him anything, it is there without doubt that we must look for it.
Ingres, on the other hand, could no more seduce him than he seduced Delacroix with the coldness and artifice of his great compositions. But he excelled at deciphering the deep nature of beings and it was precisely through his portraits that he attracted him. If we add that form and modeling are of great importance in them, to the point of making them almost sculptural, we will better understand the probable reasons for this interest.
As for his other favorite painters, they are mostly landscape painters. They almost all belonged to the Barbizon School and worked to varying degrees in the open air. The one whom Bazille admired the most was certainly Corot. It is possible to think that he learned a lot by looking at his luminous paintings where the atmosphere, even when it is tinged with a light mist, never loses its transparency and always leaves intact the forms that it softens. Indeed, we know how much Bazille wants to insist on the volume and solidity of things, and it is perhaps partly for this reason that Courbet's landscapes also attract him despite their often very dark colors. Moreover, like Bazille in Languedoc, Courbet was a painter of the land and this may have contributed to bringing them together. As for Manet, whose light tones and sharp contours must also have appealed to him, he may have taught him the art of enlivening an entire painting by placing on some detail a ray of light or a touch of brighter color.
Between romanticism and classicism
Landscape painter or portraitist, we thus seem to see Bazille searching around him as if for landmarks, and finding them in the romanticism of a Delacroix, in the classicism of an Ingres, in the visions so dissimilar that a Courbet and a Corot offer him of nature. These are his elders. But there remains a small group of artists of whom he says nothing to his cousin. As young as he was, they were his companions in the struggle, not his masters, and moreover, he maintained intimate relations with them: "There are indeed two or three young painters, known only to young people, whose talent I like very much, but I do not speak to you about them, there will always be time", he simply wrote to Louis Bazille. Obviously, he was referring to Monet, Renoir, and undoubtedly Sisley, whose works and his own were developed side by side and even sometimes, as in 1863 in Chailly, in a shared daily life. That Monet had an influence on Bazille is acknowledged by himself, since he says that his advice helped him a great deal. But if he was bound to a close friendship with those who would in a few years be called the Impressionists, to the point that he was generally held to be one of them, and if he had the highest esteem for what they did (did he not speak of Monet's magnificent canvases?), it remains that, on essential points, the goal he pursued was different from theirs.
It is all the more difficult to situate him in relation to them because strict and highly imprecise definitions of impressionism have been given in turn. If one confines oneself to noting, in a general way, that they refused historical and literary painting in order to seek their themes in modern life, that they liked light and chose light colors, that they worked in the open air and willingly animated their landscapes with figures, Bazille is certainly one of them. Bazille envisaged painting figures in the open air very early on, as evidenced by one of his letters written in December 1863 (no. 57), when he was preparing to move into his first studio with Villa: "The owner [...] has granted us a small piece of garden [...] which contains a peach tree and a few lilacs; it will be very pleasant for us in the summer, to paint figures in the sun. And it is on the other hand evident that he and the Impressionists sought to achieve this together; on this point we have the testimony of Berthe Morisot, writing on May 1, 1869 to her sister Edma after admiring the View of the Village: "The great Bazille has done a thing that I think is very good... There is a lot of light, sunlight, he is looking for what we have so often looked for, to put a figure in the open air; this time, he seems to me to have succeeded". But profound differences emerge as soon as you squeeze the reality more closely.
The tyranny of elusive impressions
Bazille painted like them in the open air, but the open air was not enough for him. He needs, at length, to continue his work in his studio until the completion of his canvases. He needs to escape the tyranny of immediate and elusive impressions, to let them impregnate his memory, to meditate and compose them in order to extract what they contain of durable. And if he is, like them, perhaps because of them, in love with light, it does not produce the same effects before his southern eyes as it did for them. It reveals volumes and forms to him instead of veiling them, it denudes them implacably for him instead of fragmenting them, of almost disintegrating them. And the mystery of which it thus seems to deprive what he contemplates, Bazille finds it in the very immobility of beings and things, an immobility which, behind the elusive mirage of the moment, makes him glimpse their permanent reality. Drawing plays a much greater role in his painting than in that of strict impressionism. And even if Bazille is a colorist, even if the color contributes to render the mass and the thickness of the objects, the line with which he circles them voluntarily distances his paintings from those of a Monet or a Sisley. In the end, it is rather the Cézanne of the 1880s that he announces and, beyond Cézanne, perhaps even Gauguin.
Impressionist in the very broadest sense of the term, Bazille is thus not, in a pinch. And finally, what we are tempted to emphasize is the contrast between him and the other young painters in his group. Impressionism marks a break with tradition, whereas Bazille, spontaneously and because he is basically of classical temperament, opts for continuity. It would be futile to speculate on what his evolution might have been if death had not come to take him in the midst of his creative impulse. But the short sentence in which he states that he wants to render the weight and volume rather than the appearance of what he sees seems to us to express a tendency in him too profound not to correspond to a definitive orientation. However much he was seduced by the masterpieces that the Impressionists were beginning to bring to life before his eyes, it is obvious that he was not working in the same direction. We have seen, moreover, how varied and numerous his admirations were. On all sides, the great traditions of French painting as well as its most contemporary aspirations enveloped him and solicited him. Would he ever have chosen among them? No one can say, so open is he for the moment to all of them, and ready to receive from each one what can help his personality as an artist to be accomplished. In him, the past that persists and the future in gestation meet and, much more than the impressionists, he places himself at the very center of the pictorial activities of his time. When he disappeared, full of projects and leaving behind an already important body of work, he had certainly not reached the end of his possibilities. But what he did is enough for us to appreciate his stature: no less than his friends, art suffered an irreparable loss on November 28, 1870.