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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Frederic Bazille is the lesser-known founder of the French Impressionist movement. Born in the South of France to wealthy parents, he produced only 46 paintings of note over the seven short years of his career.

His life was cut short when, in a fit of youthful passion, and while his contemporaries were doing everything in their power to avoid it, he signed up to fight in the Franco-Prussian war and was tragically killed in action on his first campaign at the age of twenty-eight. Although he left us with some remarkable and accomplished works, many scholars believe that the true tragedy of his early death was the phenomenal promise his paintings showed, sadly, never to be realised.

Bazille and the Impressionists

Frederic moved to Paris in 1862 to attend medical school in order to appease his parents' request that he have a proper career, but painting was his passion. Initially inspired by an exhibit of Delacroix's work with its vivid colours and expressive brushwork, Bazille new that he would be a painter and he sought out like minds and teachers from the moment he entered Paris. While studying with Charles Glyere, Frederic met and befriended fellow rebel painters, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Alfred Sisley who had all been similarly inspired by Delacroix's new style.

The group worked together and found that they shared views on what art is and should be. They believed in portraying the realistic beauty of life and landscape through colour and light, and together that developed new and inspiring techniques of application and composition. They were to become known as the Impressionists, and their movement was to change the art world forever. The financial support that Frederic received from his parents to attend his medical studies proved very useful as most of his new friends were living hand-to-mouth.

Bazille became the defacto banker for their artistic endeavours and frequently and gladly shared his studio space with his fellow artists. Although Frederic never actually exhibited his work as an impressionist as their first exhibit of 1874 came after his death, he is still considered one of the founding members of the movement.

Style and Techniques

Bazille could, in fact be termed a pre-impressionist or realist. His works were most generally of mundane subjects and landscapes, but his use of light and his fascination with the way light illuminated human skin made his everyday compositions sing with a realism that was unsurpassed in his day. The impressionist style of painting in the open air was fully embraced by Frederic. Artists had long gone into nature to make sketches for their paintings to be finished in their studios, but Bazille and his fellow painters would execute their works from start to finish en plein air following in the very worthy footsteps of Eugene Boudin and J.M.W. Turner.

Frederic's works are known to have a darker and perhaps more realistic palette than that of his fellow impressionists; his figures had a more defined construction and his lines and markings are altogether crisper. However, it is widely thought that given time, Bazille's work would have come to resemble the more traditional impressionist work in its freedom of expression and may indeed have surpassed many. His work showed an honesty and a naiveté that was not obvious in his more famous contemporaries of the time.

Certainly, Frederic's skill was most apparent in his depiction of nudes, particularly the male body. The male nude was a largely overlooked subject matter among Bazille's contemporaries, and so he developed quite a name for himself with these works such as Fisherman with a Net, 1868 and Summer Scene, 1869. They are a masterclass in form and the use of light to express muscle and sinew. Although they were, at the time, considered quite vulgar, they are without doubt some of Bazille's best work.

Still Life with Fish and Other Important Works

Bazille packed a great deal into his short life. At only twenty-three years old he had created one of his most famous and accomplished works, The Pink Dress, 1864. It depicts the artist's cousin sitting facing a view of a village in the distance. Frederic skilfully used the Barbizon technique to draw the viewer's gaze to the brightly lit village in the distance, making the figure in the foreground almost incidental. The technique is used in a very eloquent way showing a great deal of sophistication for an artist so young.

The first of his paintings to be shown, two years later, at the Salon de Paris were Girl at the Piano 1866 and the very excellent Still Life with Fish, 1866. In the latter, the apparent banality of the subject matter notwithstanding, Frederic's use of colour to depict light and form is exceptional making it one of his best and most famous works.

Perhaps the best known of all Bazille's paintings is The Family Reunion, 1867-1868. The work depicts a gathering at his home in Montpellier. There are ten figures in all making up the composition, with the light dappling through the trees above. It is a classic Bazille painting as he was fascinated by the human form in nature. As a result of his detailing it is effectively a composition of ten portraits, each meticulously etched in light. Even in his young years, Frederic was challenging Monet in both style and technique. The painting was accepted by the Salon de Paris Jury for exhibition in 1868 much to the artist's delight. Today it can be found in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris and it is well worth seeking out.

The Legacy of Bazille

Frederic's Legacy to the art world is more subtle than most. While he certainly left us with a great body of work to view and admire, it is perhaps his influence and support of his now very famous friends that we are most grateful for. During his brief but shining life, he ensured that the likes of Monet and Renoir had a place to work and hone their craft. His generosity meant that impressionism had a place to grow and expand, leaving us with masters who have inspired millions the world over. It is interesting to compare the works of Bazille's contemporaries at his age; most of them, Sisley and Cezanne for example, had very shaking beginnings; Sisley's Lane Near a Small Town 1864 is sombre and dark and not at all like the vibrant masterpieces for which he became known, and Cezanne's The Abduction 1867 is crude when compared with his more accomplished later works. Followers of the impressionists should also study the likes of Gustave Caillebotte, Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro.

Frederic's works, in contrast, shows great promise at an early stage. If he had been allowed to mature into his skills, there is no telling how far he could have gone. Perhaps if he had not met such an untimely end on the battle field we would be calling him the father of impressionism today, instead of his great friend, Monet. Nonetheless, Bazille's work has seen quite a renaissance of late, with the Musee d'Osray hosting an extensive exhibit of his work in 2017 to great acclaim calling it The Youth of Impressionism. His work is key in letting us see the progression of the movement as most other impressionists of the time reused their youthful canvases and we are mostly left with examples of what they became, not what they were. In Bazille we will always find the honesty and exuberance of youth.