Montpellier and the Bazille
In the heart of Languedoc, Montpellier owes its fame to its Faculty of Medicine and the prestigious collections of its museum. Superb houses, mostly built in the 17th and 18th centuries, evoke its long past of prosperity, art and culture. But it is undoubtedly in the Grand'rue that their testimony is the most evident. Behind their thick walls, their heavy carriage doors and their high windows, the old hotels that border it shelter the secrets of the refined and wealthy families that have lived there for many generations. Let's stop at n° 11 in front of the Hôtel Périer, one of the most beautiful old houses in the city : it was here that, on December 6, 1841, at 9 o'clock in the evening, Jean Frédéric Bazille was born [Daulte, 1952, p. 7, dates Bazille's birth to December 5, 1841].
He was the son of Gaston Bazille, aged 22, and Camille, née Vialars, who was 20. Both were of well-to-do origin and belonged to the Protestant upper middle class of Montpellier. The genealogy of the Bazilles can be traced back to the beginning of the seventeenth century [Romane-Musculus, Montpellier, 1988, n° 8]. At that time, they were modest people : among them were a master locksmith and a master harquebusier; but as the years passed, their condition improved and some of them became goldsmiths or merchants. In 1798, Marc Antoine Bazille was appointed president of the central administration and member of the chamber of commerce: he then became a notable. After him, Ernest Jean Jacques Bazille (1783-1835) became an agronomist; he married Laure Tendon (1786-1835) and from their union was born the future father of Jean Frédéric, Gaston Bazille (1819-1894), whose career would make the family's social position even more solid. Gaston Bazille, who had studied law, was also an agronomist when his wife inherited a large farm, for which he became responsible. He would be one of the first to advocate the use of American grape varieties to fight phylloxera; he would become, as his father had been, president of the Agricultural Society of Herault and would be elected senator in 1879, on the list of the Republican majority.
As for Mme Gaston Bazille, she is of Toulouse origin and descends through her mother from the Marty family, of which traces can be found from the middle of the 18th century. Jean Antoine Marty-Mamignard, her maternal grandfather (1752-1825) is certainly the most important figure. A merchant in Toulouse, he became rich in the grain trade before becoming one of the largest buyers of national property in his district, and bequeathed a considerable fortune to his two children. His daughter Claudine married Frédéric André Vialars and from their union was born Camille, the mother of our painter. Gaston Bazille and Camille Vialars got married in 1840. A year later, they had a first son, Jean Frédéric; the second, Marc, would be born in 1845.
Such, then, was the environment in which the future painter would grow up and from which he would never seek to escape. He came into the world in a prosperous and respected family, rooted in the Languedoc and especially in Montpellier for generations. An influential family, on both his mother's and father's sides; through its relatives and alliances, it extended its ramifications to the Leenhardts, the Castelnaus, the Cazalis, the Teulons, the Pagézys, the Tissiés, and others, thus plunging into the Protestant community of Montpellier from all sides [Romane-Musculus, 1988, n° 9, p. 37]. We must be careful not to forget the strength of this family and social fabric, if we want to understand the hesitations and choices that gradually gave shape to the life of Frédéric Bazille.
The Bazille family
In his world, his parents hold and will always hold an essential place. He gave us in The Family Gathering a very suggestive portrait of his father, whom we also know from several photographs. Gaston Bazille is a dynamic and enterprising man, very honest and somewhat austere. But underneath this austerity, his paternal heart is only half hidden. We see him sometimes lecturing and chastising his son in his correspondence, but he also expresses all his solicitude, and both will remain deeply attached to each other until the end. Deep, too, is the affection that binds Frédéric Bazille to his mother Mme Bazille's personality certainly appears quite effete next to that of her husband, but there is not one of her many letters that does not hint at her tenderness for her son.
The Bazilles had been cultured people for several generations and, what is more, concerned with spreading culture. In 1779, members of the family participated in the creation of the Société des beaux-arts de Montpellier; a little later, we know from Daulte that "under the Directoire, citizen Marc Antoine Bazille was concerned with enriching the city's nascent museum and claimed from the minister of the interior some of the paintings and drawing pieces with which the museum of the Paris commune was overloaded" [Daulte, 1952, p. 8]. We can see that a social sense animated the Bazilles, and that, for them, a taste for the arts was not separated from the concern to make them available to all. Active and wise, their efforts led them to professional and financial success; but they were no less effective when they worked for the good of the community. In this they do not separate themselves from the Protestant bourgeoisie of Montpellier as it appears to us in the nineteenth century, profiting from viticulture at the same time as contributing to its progress, and on the other hand promoting an urban, economic, and industrial revival.
Viticulture, whose golden age began around 1850, was then mechanized and took on a scientific character; the Montpellier bourgeoisie, which often owned vineyards, was thus led to establish relations with learned circles, which often merged with academic circles [Histoire de Montpellier under the direction of G. Cholvy, Toulouse, 1984, p. 265]. Around the same time, an era of major urban planning works also began in Montpellier: avenues were pierced, and certain neighborhoods were aerated and sanitized. Gaston Bazille, who was deputy mayor, exerted his influence on these operations; and he was not only concerned with the hygiene of his city, but also with its beauty.
In the environment around him, but above all in the person of his father, Frédéric Bazille thus saw a model offered to him; he saw how certain essential values of Protestantism could be translated into action, and there is no doubt that these values played an important role in his education. Such examples developed in him moral rigor and strength, seriousness, a conception of life that was both industrious and caring.
We will not, however, follow here certain critics [Guérif, Aix-en-Provence, 1943], who subordinated everything in him to the attachment to Protestantism and who wanted to link his work to religious values alone. Religion, as taught to him by his environment, his parents, and soon by the school, will be for him a matter of morals rather than doctrine; it will be the guide of his conduct and, from this point of view, will put its mark on his correspondence; on the other hand, it will hardly be perceptible in his work.
The places of life
But among the influences that contribute from childhood to form him, we must also count that of the places where he lives with his family : the Hotel Périer in the heart of Montpellier and, in its close vicinity, the two country properties of Méric and Saint-Sauveur.
Bazille's birthplace is also the house that will see him grow up, and it will always remain his home base. With its interior courtyard and the vast staircase that leads to its three floors, the Périer Hotel looks great. Built in the 16th century, it was first the hostelry of the Écu de Bretagne and became a private house in 1596 when Étienne Berger, a counselor in the Chamber of Accounts of Montpellier, acquired it; in 1829, it was bought by Ernest Bazille and it was then that it entered the painter's family.
In the nineteenth century, the old neighborhood around it was as lively as the Marais district was in Paris. People lived on the upper floors of the hotels, whose first floors often housed stores, craftsmen's stalls, while itinerant merchants set up their carts on the pavement of the street. Other carts, noisy and cumbersome, carried oak branches with which the bakers heated their ovens; and it was in the evening, at dusk, when everyone was going about their business, that the animation was greatest. Bazille's native neighborhood was not a secluded, residential area as we would think of it today. It was not a space that a social class would have reserved for itself, but was warmly situated in the very heart of Montpellier life; and little Frédéric would draw from it the richness of his first impressions.
Méric : a land of creation
His family also often lives on his property in Méric, already in the countryside although very close to the city. Méric is "right at the end of the line of heights drawn to the east of the city by the picturesque hillsides of Aiguelongue, at the precise point where the hill seems to plunge into the Lez and opposite Castelnau" [Leenhardt, Montpellier, 1931]. A fortified residence from the 16th century, it served Louis XIII, who set up his headquarters there in 1628 when he besieged Montpellier held by the Protestants; shortly before the Revolution, the Vialars bought the estate, which was thus passed on to the painter's mother.
Around the spacious house, a vast garden and a magnificent terrace overlook the banks of the Lez, a river now hidden by vegetation. A short distance away, you can see the village of Castelnau and Montpellier, in the distance, the Saint-Loup peak and the plains of the Hérault leading to the sea, to Palavas which was for Courbet a high place of inspiration and creation. Surrounded by rosemary and oleander trees, the family home always held a special place in Bazille's life. As a child, he often went there on Thursdays with his mother and spent all his vacations there; as an adult, he returned there every summer to immerse himself in the affection of his family and in his memories. He would come to breathe in the smells of his childhood, the scent of the umbrella pines, and to soak up the light of his native Languedoc once again. Along with his Parisian studios, Meric will be the center of his creation. It was there, during those blessed hours when he led a carefree and free life in the open air, that Bazille abandoned himself to the spectacle of nature, that he learned to look at it and that, above all, from this typically Languedoc landscape, essential characters emerged for him, perhaps without his knowing it, whose influence would be decisive on his art: by the brightness of its light, the sharpness of its forms and the solidity of its masses, it is the Languedoc that will always hold him back, at the moment when he could embark on the path of impressionism.
While Méric is a vacation spot, Saint-Sauveur is quite different, a rural holding. Between Montpellier and the sea, close to the ponds and marshes of the coast, this property came from his mother's family, who received it in the mid-18th century through the Pomier-Layrargues branch.
In 1849, the estate covered 38 hectares and was valued at 100,000 francs. From 1849 to 1870, it increased from 38 to 60 hectares, including 27 of vineyards and 32 of natural meadows. Its value was then estimated at 259,000 francs [Les mas. A la découverte des mas du Languedoc. Les mas de la plaine de Lattes, 3 : Saint-Sauveur, U.T.T. Groupe d'études languedociennes, n° 8, nov. 1990]. However, throughout this period, it was administered by Gaston Bazille; we can see that he took care of it efficiently and that, by his stubborn will, he gave the exploitation a remarkable growth and prosperity. In 1868, he obtained honorary awards from regional competitions [Concours régional. Fonds Languedoc of the Montpellier library, number 18.211]. But he also came to Montpellier to shoot ducks and brought his son Frédéric with him. In contact with the vineyards and winegrowers, the child acquired other knowledge in Saint-Sauveur than in the city; and later, it was here that he would execute his first works.
Sometimes, however, his horizons broadened and he traveled with his family. Around 1846-1847, he first visited Paris and the Jardin des Plantes where, as he said in a letter, he saw his father feeding the animals. Then, in 1856, at the dawn of his adolescence, he went with his father and probably his brother to the Alps. He passes by Lyon where he discovers the Rhône river that he cannot get tired of admiring: "It is magnificent, it looks like Prussian blue flowing...". First allusion to the transformations operated by the light, and first demonstration of its aesthetic sensitivity. One thinks of the intense wonder that Ruskin had felt, also as a teenager, in front of the extraordinary color of the waters of the Rhine... The following year, his father, called away by business, stayed without his family in Algeria. During this time, his son travels around the Montpellier region with his family, visiting friends and observing nature. He noticed a "flock of ducks swimming 200 steps from us..."Because he is interested in birds "I am very happy to inform you that I found at first sight when reading of the letter the name of the birds which you saw on the market of Algiers" - this in a reply of March 14, 1857 to his father where he also shows that gastronomy does not leave him indifferent : he tasted, he writes, "omelets, oysters of Cette, and a rabbit, with clovisses very beautiful and good". And in another letter, of the following May 23, he asks his father to bring him back the beautiful insects he discovered in Algiers. We will not be surprised, then, that in 1859, during a new trip to the Alps that took him to Grenoble and the Chartreuse massif, he devoted himself to butterfly hunting...
We have seen it however, it is for the most part between three places that in the heart of Languedoc is shared his childhood in the middle of his : an urban residence, a country house and a wine farm. There he spent happy days, days of vacation and carefree time in Méric and Saint-Sauveur, but also, in Montpellier, days of study.
We have little information on his schooling, but we know that he was a student at the high school of his native town; that, working regularly, he does not seem to have given his family any worries; that he obtained in the 4th grade a certificate of grammar and was received at the baccalaureate in science on April 5, 1859.
Or, high school education then began with the 8th grade and the baccalaureate was obtained at the end of the year of philosophy or elementary mathematics; so a simple countdown shows us that he must have entered high school in 1850. On the other hand, Poulain tells us that he was put at school in 1849 at the age of eight; and precisely in August 1849, little Frédéric writes to his father: "I am wise at the boarding school and diligent. I do everything I can to fulfill my duties and to make you happy. Let us remember here the two words school and boarding. Before the eighth grade, children could be educated in elementary school, public or private. It seems to us then that we can admit that Bazille was put in boarding school in 1849 because, precisely in this period, the very serious illness of his grandfather Frédéric Vialars had to force his parents to move away from Montpellier often. The problem no longer arose after the grandfather's death [Frédéric Vialars died on August 31, 1849 in Bagnères-de Luchon]; and it was as a day student that Bazille entered the lycée, which was very close to his home.
Frédéric at school
This lycée, which counted Auguste Comte, André Gide, and Paul Valéry among its students, enjoyed an excellent reputation at the time. At least that is what the Journal de Montpellier tells us, which awarded it hyperbolic praise very shortly after Bazille had completed his studies there. We read in it, in fact, that it "unquestionably occupies one of the first ranks among the university establishments, and [that], this high position, it owes to its numerous successes in general competitions, to the superior teaching of its distinguished professors, to the solicitude and intelligent zeal of its principal..." [Journal de Montpellier, Saturday, July 5, 1862]. But Valéry, a little later it is true, left a much less flattering picture of this high school. He wrote that "the teachers reigned by terror. They had a corporal's conception of letters. Stupidity and insensitivity seemed to be part of the program" [Louis Secondy, 1988, p. 316]. See also André Gide's recollections in Si le grain ne meurt. In a letter of June 27, 1991, Professor Verley writes that many documents relating to the high school in Montpellier have been destroyed, but that there are still unsearched archives.
The teaching and discipline there were strict. Mathematics, physics, English and German, rhetoric, logic, history and also drawing were studied. The drawing master, with a salary of 1,200 francs per year, was much better paid than the writing, singing or gymnastics master; in this respect he was on the same footing as the language teachers. This shows us that, in the lycées of the time, drawing was not considered a second-rate subject; and it is not without interest for us to know this, for it was probably at the lycée of Montpellier that Bazille took his first steps, however modest, in the field of artistic creation.
As for religious education, it was held to be essential and its importance was further increased by the advent of the imperial regime [Secondy, 1988, p. 249]. "At that time, religion was considered the foundation on which the whole edifice rested. Religious teaching is the first of all, by its object and by its influence on both teachers and pupils" [Secondy, 1988, p. 252]. It was provided by paid chaplains. In the early 1850s, the Protestant students numbered 22, and Bazille was first, among them, under the leadership of Pastor Grawitz; in 1852 he was succeeded by Pastor Corbière, who also led the consistory church and enjoyed the general esteem.
In 1853, the students wore a uniform that consisted of a tunic of blue cloth, with gold embroidered palms on the collar, scarlet selvedge, and high school buttons. [Secondy, 1988, p. 286]. In 1859, the tall students had extra-regulation pants made of checked coutil, and Frédéric Bazille wears one in one of the photographs we know of him.
In the spring of 1859, he was a bachelor. His secondary studies are completed, a new period of his life begins on September 9, he enrolls in the Faculty of Medicine in Montpellier [The indication appears on the certificate of studies that was issued to him in Montpellier on August 29, 1862].
Frédéric and medicine
Nothing, in what we know of him, explains this orientation; nothing allows us to detect in him any inclination for medicine. His letters do not tell us anything about this period; they only show us that, in general, he is gifted for studies and that he writes French well. We can then assume that his parents influenced him, that perhaps they even dictated to him a choice that was not his own. What makes this hypothesis plausible is the lack of enthusiasm with which they welcomed his desire to abandon medical studies a few years later. In 1859, did Bazille already have a preference for a career as a painter? Would he have had the moral strength or even the material possibility to oppose his parents' decision? What is certain is that, if he gave in to them, it was not for lack of having been subjected for a long time to all the seductions of painting. For the artistic life of Montpellier, even if it could not compare to that of Paris, had ample opportunity to awaken his vocation, even to develop his talent.
The city had first had a Société libre des beaux-arts founded in 1779 by the father of the painter Charles Matet. [Cf. Louis de La Roque, Biographie montpelliéraine, peintres, sculpteurs, Imprimerie centrale du Midi, 1877]. Suppressed, it had been re-established in 1808 by the municipality as a drawing school with Charles Matet as its teacher, and its success had been all the greater because before the creation of the Fabre Museum, places where one could practice drawing were not numerous. But if this school quickly became one of the first in the provinces, if it saw an influx of students, and among them, many notables [Cf. Louis de La Roque, Biographie montpelliéraine, peintres, sculpteurs, Imprimerie centrale du Midi, 1877], it owed it above all to the personal fame of Matet, whom Louis-Philippe wanted to attract to Paris but who always refused to leave his city. He was in his time a famous painter, author of L'Homme au bâton (also called Le Paysan aveyronnais) which, before appearing at the 1859 exhibition in Paris, was bought by the state and chosen to be sent to the Universal Exhibition in London with the finest works of the contemporary French school.
Another art mecca in this city, which did not have 40,000 inhabitants in the mid-19th century, was the Fabre museum: the Massilian Hotel, built two centuries earlier, had been transformed into a museum on January 5, 1825, under the impetus of François-Xavier Fabre. He had donated his collections of books, paintings, drawings and prints to the municipality, on the condition that everything would be brought together in the same place. In 1828, he had installed them there, and they were joined by those that the city already possessed - some paintings from its convents and from the former Royal Academy of Painting. If Bazille found in Matet the example of a brilliant career as an artist, he could also discover, a short distance from home, the many masterpieces of which the Fabre Museum was already proud as a child. Sixteenth-century painting was worthily represented there by the famous Portrait d'un jeune homme that was attributed to Raphael and by Veronese's Mystical Marriage of Saint Catherine. It is true, as Joubin says, that "Bolognese, Genoese, or Neapolitan artists appear there only in secondary work" [Joubin, Gazette des Beaux-Arts, July-August 1923, p. 67]. It is also true that the eighteenth century appeared only very modestly, through a pretty view of the Grand Canal of Venice, by Guardi. But the paintings of the early nineteenth century were there in number, for the donor had made friends in Paris with all the most famous French artists under the Empire and had acquired canvases by David, Girodet, Boguet, Lethière, Desmarais, Mérimée, Swebach and Granet; Fabre, also a painter, had made a name for himself with his portraits of Canova, Lucien Bonaparte, the Grand Duchess of Tuscany and Charles-Louis I, King of Etruria. Wandering through the vast halls of this museum, Bazille could not help but be captivated; and he quickly proved it by copying the Mystical Marriage of Saint Catherine.
The artistic turn
However, as important as the Fabre Museum was in Bazille's training and in the education of his artistic sense, it was probably not there that he had the most decisive revelation of his vocation as a painter. For he had only his own street to cross to discover a world where art presented itself to him, no longer in the impersonal coldness of a public place, but in the warmth of a house, and in a circle of cultivated minds who were at the same time intimate friends. Associated with human relations and carried by them, his influence was incomparably more alive and stronger. And above all, Bazille had here before his eyes recent and sometimes major works in which his own aspirations would be recognized, works that, in the years to come, would guide or confirm his own conceptions of painting. The work of Bazille was to be seen in the light of the new world of painting.
Opposite the Hotel Périer was indeed the Hotel Plantade, and it was there that the collector Alfred Bruyas lived amidst his treasures. His meeting was to be decisive for Bazille as a teenager at a time when he was looking for his way.
Bruyas was far from being an unknown to his family. Louis Bazille, cousin of our future painter, the banker Louis Tissié (whose daughter Marc, Frédéric's brother, was later to marry), Auguste Fajon (friend of Courbet), Alexandre Cabanel, Charles Matet (then curator of the Fabre museum), all this group met regularly in the collector's hushed apartments, apartments that Glaize depicted in his 1848 painting, Intérieur du cabinet Bruyas. Behind the walls of the Hotel Plantade, which would often welcome him, the young Frédéric would have the impression of entering a mysterious and secret world, a source of multiple wonderings for him. Works of art of all kinds were to be found there in great numbers. On all sides, paintings with heavy frames covered the walls, sculptures rested on marble steles, porcelain and silverware were exposed in glass cabinets. As it appears to us in Glaize's painting, Bruyas's cabinet could not but invite Bazille's imagination to wander and dream here, a panther skin spread on the floor evoked the Orient; there, the gaze rested on an Italian landscape brought back from the Villa Medici in Rome, where Bruyas had stayed in 1846 and 1848.
From all these beautiful objects exhaled the complex effluvia of a culture that the visitor felt enveloped by, and which Glaize's painting brings to us. It shows Bruyas, with his right hand on his hip, explaining to his father, to Mr. Bricogne, a prefectural official, to the lawyer Auguste Bimar, as well as to Mr. and Mrs. Louis Tissié his new acquisition: a landscape at dusk. How could Bazille, in such a place, have remained insensitive to the perfume and the soul of things, how could he not have been stimulated by the words of the enlightened adults who contemplated and discussed them? But among them, it was his host above all who must have impressed him. With his abundant hair and his blond beard, Bruyas, who was tall and slim, had presence; and in the Montpellier society where he had no equal, he was considered to have the appearance of a Florentine lord. He had fallen ill with tuberculosis at an early age and in 1843 went to the Eaux-Bonnes in the Pyrenees for a cure. There he met Delacroix, Huet, Devéria, Decamps and Roqueplan. To Devéria, he had asked to do his portrait and it was the first of a long series : we will only mention the most prestigious ones, executed by Cabanel in 1846, by Glaize in 1848, by Couture in 1850, by Tassaert in 1852, by Delacroix in 1853, and finally by Courbet in 1854...
From collector, here is Bruyas turned patron. Fascinated by Corot, Millet, Delacroix and Courbet, he acquired works by these painters, the last two especially, thanks to the personal relationships he had established with them. The most important episode of his patronage was the invitation he made to Courbet to come and visit him in Montpellier. The latter accepted and it was during his stay, in 1854, that he executed his famous Bonjour Monsieur Courbet, where Bruyas appears to us with his servant Calas and his dog. From Delacroix, he acquired in 1850 the second version of the Femmes d'Alger, then, Michel Ange dans son atelier and Daniel dans la fosse aux lions. From Courbet, in the same year, he bought Les Baigneuses and then, in 1854, La Fileuse endormie, the Autoportrait à la pipe and the Bord de la mer à Palavas. In 1864 he bought La Mulâtresse by Delacroix, in 1872 a Etude pour le radeau de la Méduse by Géricault and finally, in 1876, a year before he died, the Portrait de Baudelaire by Courbet.
The latter occupies a privileged place in Bruyas's collection, and the paintings that represent him are of the highest order. In 1855, Bruyas, who had 60,000 pounds of income, helped him to exhibit elsewhere his works that had been refused by the official Salon, and even though their relationship spaced out over time, he would continue to the end to finance his various events. He would give the Fabre Museum the first part of his collection-more than 90 works-in 1868 and bequeath the rest-70 paintings, 78 drawings, and 18 bronzes-in a codicil to his will on November 20, 1876.
Bruyas : local figure
Bruyas was thus in the Montpellier of his time a great figure and enjoyed exceptional prestige there. His collection was built up almost entirely during Bazille's lifetime, and it was by studying it, by listening to the conversations of those familiar with the Plantade Hotel, by reacting also to the judgments he heard about the master of the place himself, that the young man learned about painting, and developed and refined his critical sense. Moreover - and it is there in his formation a capital element - he is not confronted any more, as in the Fabre museum, with the davidian neo-classicism which belongs already to the past, but with the painting in the course of being made, with the romanticism of Delacroix, with the realism which advocates and illustrates Courbet and from which he will be inspired himself soon in some of his works. For, in this collection, it is certainly Courbet who exerts the major influence on him; and Bruyas, through his ascendancy over Bazille as well as through his friendly relations with the painter, is certainly no stranger to it. Certainly, considering all of his acquisitions, Bruyas' taste, with the hindsight of time, does not appear to us to be without fault; and while hailing him as a patron of the arts, one could, not without reason, reproach him for having collected "a lot of trash... a little too many small masters, all the bonbonnière and XVIIIth petty bourgeois taste of the Second Empire" [Dejean, Le roman d'un collectionneur: Alfred Bruyas, musée Fabre, Oct. 1977]. But what must be remembered is that, despite his illness, he had the tenacity to assemble "a collection that wants to be a complete testimony to the creative adventure of the nineteenth century, with the good fortune to have been able to capture some of the strongest works" [Dejean, Le roman d'un collectionneur: Alfred Bruyas, musée Fabre, Oct. 1977]. And this is also most likely what Frédéric Bazille retains. No doubt it was while contemplating the most current works in the Bruyas cabinet that he gradually became aware of his vocation; and when he was sure that he, too, should be a painter, it was to realize this dream that he wanted to move to Paris.
Medicine with reluctance
For the time being, however, he has just enrolled in the Faculty of Medicine in Montpellier. He will remain there for three years, during which we know little about him; but it is significant that, as we shall soon see, he also embarks on artistic studies at the same time as he begins his medical studies. And he embarked on his studies with all the more ardor since, under the tutelage of Professor Justin Benoît, his discovery of medicine disappointed him for reasons that his most recent biographer, a physician himself, has brought to light very well: "The anatomy of the human body held at that time an essential place in medicine and its teaching. Failing to heal the body, doctors dissected it" [Michel, Bazille, 1992, p. 22]. Worse still, this impotent science was acquired through hideous practical work : "Disgust became horror at the sight of the place that was more like a charnel house than a study room the scattered limbs and the grimacing faces under the open skulls combined in horror. As soon as a student strayed too far from his corpse, swarms of sparrows competed for the shreds of lungs, while rats carried away vertebrae to nibble on them in a corner" [Michel, Bazille, 1992, p. 23].
In this ambiguous period when Bazille was only halfway morally committed to a path he would abandon, everything leads one to believe that the choice of medical studies resulted either from an error on his part or from an external will, if not from both at once, for the moment quickly came when medicine repelled him as much as painting attracted him. We should not therefore be surprised, when he goes to continue his studies in Paris, if the certificate issued by the Faculty of Montpellier shortly before his departure gives us a rather poor idea of his level.
With its revelations on medicine and the human body, Bazille's first year was thus quite discouraging; it ended, however, on a success since, on August 6, 1860, his file bore the mention "satisfied". But his second year will have nothing brilliant and it will accentuate his repulsion by making him discover horrors of another kind. For he was now sent to do a training course in pathology in the immense rooms of the Hôtel-Dieu-Saint-Éloi. And there, he met "feverish, scabies, smallpox... women (of "good" or "bad" life) and syphilitics, civilians and soldiers... The hospital itself seemed to be afflicted with this pox, since the leprosy of its walls transpired outside like the ooze of its internal humors" [Michel, Bazille, 1992, p. 35]. In front of such spectacles, how would Bazille not feel more and more misguided ? This is in any case the impression given by his results of this year : he was refused his exam on July 31, 1861. He was refused his exam on July 31, 1861 [Attestation of August 29, 1864 already quoted]; and he was only admitted, without glory, at the following session, which, on the statement of his registrations, earned him the mention "mediocrely satisfied after adjournment" [Bazille's record of enrollment at the Faculty of Medicine of Montpellier].
As for his third year, the last one he would spend in Montpellier, it would be better since it would be sanctioned by the appreciation "satisfied" and he would be received at his exam on April 30, 1862. But it is clear that these three years of faculty could not convince Bazille of the correctness of his professional orientation : he now knows that medical studies have committed him to a dead end.
He knows this all the better because during this same period he is no longer content to contemplate works of art but begins to execute them himself. And it is here that two Montpellier personalities enter the scene whose role is very important in his training as well as undoubtedly also in his choice of a career : they are Joseph Baussan (1789-1871) and his son Auguste Baussan (1829-1907).
Both were draftsmen and sculptors. Posterity will especially remember the latter, who became a professor at the Montpellier School of Fine Arts and executed numerous works of sculpture, especially religious, for his city. Bazille was both Joseph Baussan's pupil and the close friend, sometimes even collaborator, of his son Auguste. A long, very familiar and cheerful letter from the latter, dated March 17 and 23, 1863, shows us that Frédéric Bazille and Auguste Baussan were part of a small group that met regularly at the café in good spirits and whose favorite pastime was hunting. It shows us the persistent attachment of the master for the pupil and the gratitude of the pupil for the master: "My father is very sensitive to the good memory that you keep of him, he will see as well as me with great pleasure the academies that you promise us and will be, believe it well, for you a devoted teacher as I will always be a good friend&". Even when settled in Paris, Bazille would not cease to seek Joseph Baussan's advice or to submit his work to him, and he would take advantage of his summer stays in Languedoc to return to take his lessons.
But there is more even as he studied medicine in his native town, he sculpted medallions, including one, perhaps, that represented himself; and he executed with Auguste Baussan a bust of Auguste Creuzé de Lesser that they signed together. Auguste Creuzé de Lesser occupied various responsibilities under the First Empire and the Restoration. We do not know from which document this sculpture was executed because Creuzé de Lesser died in 1839 (Bazille was born in 1841) and Baussan was only 10 years old at that time. We can assume that this was a commission from the family in his honor.
The beginnings of an artistic vocation
So it is through drawing and sculpture that our future painter approaches artistic creation. We will refrain from concluding that his true vocation only became clear in him late. Indeed, it is enough to evoke the social milieu to which the Bazilles belonged to understand that, if young Frédéric received drawing and sculpture lessons - as well as piano lessons - it was because, in the eyes of his parents, these were natural things for a boy of good family. They obviously chose to give their son a very careful education in various fields. If they did so, it was because they felt him to be very gifted; and in the musical field no less than in that of the plastic arts, the future will show us that they are thus going in the direction of his own aspirations.
But they also know how precarious artistic careers are. It is thus by a compromise between their will and his that our young student is divided today between the Faculty of Medicine and the exercises of drawing and sculpture. In the summer, as usual, he follows all his family to Méric where he spends peaceful vacations.
But the lack of action and his passion for painting made him more and more impatient to know something else and his hometown was no longer enough for him. Whatever the resources of Montpellier and the interest of its public or private collections, it is elsewhere, he feels, that he must seek the movement of life. It is in Paris that one elaborates and creates, that official salons are held, that reputations are made and broken, that one can choose between multiple studios to study drawing and painting, in Paris especially that one meets companions who share your ideas and enrich them, or discuss them and make them evolve. Montpellier received Corot in 1836 and Courbet in 1854; but in Paris there were many artists who struggled to impose themselves and survive. Bazille had long been burning to join them; but it was not until 1862 that his father authorized him to move to the capital.
Gaston Bazille thus allowed himself to be bent by the joint solicitations of his son and his wife; but he had to give in to them only very late, since after his third-year examination, the young man re-enrolled in the Faculty of Montpellier in July, while four months later it was at the Faculty of Paris that he was going to make his re-entry. Gaston Bazille's condition for his agreement - and for the monthly pension he agreed to pay him - was that his son would continue his medical studies in Paris; nevertheless, it is obvious that, for him, the reason thus invoked could hardly be more than a pretext. How not to think here of Cézanne? For three years", writes Rewald, "Paul Cézanne had struggled to obtain permission to devote himself to art, but had been forced to study law in Aix-en-Provence. Having finally triumphed over paternal opposition, he had hurried to Paris to join his former classmate Emile Zola. "
Bazille's triumph was certainly less complete than Cézanne's, since, for a time, he would drag the ball and chain of his medical studies to Paris. His family was very reluctant to let him leave, but he knew that he was leaving Montpellier with their goodwill and affection. If he is not fully free, he knows at least that he is on his way to a new world. Such must have been the various thoughts that agitated him on the evening of October 30, 1862, as, from his carriage, he saw the farewell rockets being fired as he passed, on the terrace of Méric.