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The youth of Impressionism: Works by Frédéric Bazille on view in Paris
Frédéric Bazille (1841-1870), Summer Scene, also known as Bathers, detail, 1869-1870, oil on canvas, 160 x 160.7 cm, Cambridge, Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Art Museum Photo: Harvard Art Museums, © President and Fellows of Harvard College.

PARIS.- How should we view the work of Frédéric Bazille, an artist born in Montpellier in 1841 and killed in action in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian war, just a few days before his 29th birthday? Born into a bourgeois Protestant family in Montpellier, he was depicted as indolent by his family circle. A dandy with a sharp intellect, a pianist and music lover with a fondness for theatre, a Republican who fell on the battlefield: Bazille’s personality, which is revealed through the abundant correspondence he left behind, cannot be reduced to that of a mere dilettante, companion and sometimes benefactor to the future impressionists. “Bazille was the most gifted and the most pleasant in every sense of the word”, said his friend Edmond Maître after his death.

Although his first paintings are clearly those of a developing artist influenced by the Masters of Realism Courbet and Manet and by his friend Monet, he nonetheless produced a number of masterpieces in which he gradually asserted his unique talent (Family Reunion, View of the Village, Summer Scene, etc.). Inspired by sometimes contradictory desires (satisfying a family who would have preferred him to follow another path, standing out at the Paris art Salon for ambitious, modern works of art) Bazille’s work is indeed “youthful” with all the associated contradictions, and each painting is a challenge, a milestone, a victory or a failure. The small number of paintings which form Bazille’s body of work (around sixty at the most) allows us to perceive the young artist’s progression towards an ever more personal expression of his “temperament”, in the words of the time. “I hope”, he said “that if I ever achieve anything, I will have had the merit of having copied nobody”.

The exhibition is organised both thematically and chronologically, juxtaposing the works of Bazille with those of other artists of his time such as Delacroix, Courbet, Manet, Monet, Renoir, Fantin-Latour, Guigou, Scholderer and Cézanne. These astute correlations place his work in the context of the great issues addressed by avant-garde painting in the 1860s (modern life, the renewal of traditional genres such as portraiture, the nude and still life, outdoor painting and peinture claire, an impressionistic technique for expressing light) to which Bazille contributed fully, and highlight the great originality of his inspiration. This exhibition is the result of a partnership between the world’s three largest collections of Bazille’s work: the Musée Fabre in Montpellier, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

It is fitting that Frédéric Bazille’s short career, shared between the exuberance of Parisian artistic life in winter and the tranquil heat of summer in Montpellier, be honoured by the Musée d’Orsay, which owns several of his masterpieces including Family reunion and Studio in the Rue de La Condamine. This is the first exhibition devoted to Bazille to be organised by a French national museum.

It is an opportunity for the Musée Fabre to celebrate 10 years of major acquisitions. Ever since the artist’s family donated View of the Village and Still Life with Heron in 1898, the Musée Fabre has continued to add to its collection, making it the world’s largest with 22 of Bazille’s works. Since the early 2000s they have acquired nine paintings, some of major significance such as The Scoter, Little Italian Street Singer, Young Nude Man Lying on the Grass and Ruth and Boaz, Bazille’s last, unfinished masterpiece. A north-American tour was also essential in view of the strong early interest shown in his paintings by American art lovers, particularly Chester Dale and Paul Mellon, two major donors to Washington’s National Gallery of Art.

Preparing the exhibition gave to three organisations the chance to pool recent knowledge and research and to undertake a unique joint operation to scientifically examine the works of art. This research has helped to gain greater understanding of Bazille’s working methods and his links with Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir, with whom the artist shared both a studio and models. Scientific imaging has also revealed a significant number of underlying compositions, making it possible to trace works which had previously been considered lost and which are the missing links in a unique body of work.

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