If You Happen to Be in Washington DC…

Frédéric Bazille’s The Family Gathering has none of the quick, airy brush strokes his future impressionist peers would discover; but the sunshine is there, as are the bright colors. Musée d’Orsay, Paris/Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

Considering the changes in the air of the 1860’s Paris art scene, the “might have been” aspect of this story about a lesser known 19th century French painter is poignant, to say the least. Thanks, once again, to NPR for sharing this story about what could have been.

France’s ambassador to the United States, Gérard Araud, is a fan of 19th-century French painter Frédéric Bazille. But I had a confession to make when I spoke with him about the National Gallery’s “Frédéric Bazille and the Birth of Impressionism” exhibition. I said that I usually walk right past Bazille’s paintings and go straight to the impressionists — and I assume I’m not the only one who does that.

Araud understands, but says he likes Bazille for the opposite reason: The impressionists are so well-known, he says, “I’ve reached a point where I don’t look at them anymore.”

Those impressionists were also Bazille’s pals. National Gallery curator Kimberly A. Jones says Bazille “was very much part of that sort of charmed circle. Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley — he was right at the heart of everything.”

Bazille and his friends were young 20-somethings eager to make new marks on the 1860s art scene. They shared studios, philosophy and gossip. “They were going to cafes, dancing, talking together,” Jones says. Bazille and Monet were especially close, but Bazille was a very different artist.

“Monet, I think, has such a natural facility for painting,” Jones says. “He just sort of was born and could paint right away. Bazille had to work at it. I mean, he struggled with it.”

Struggling or not, all the artists in their circle were crafting what would ultimately become impressionism. Bazille’s massive 1867 masterpiece The Family Gathering shows he’s on his way, but not quite there yet. It has none of the quick, airy brush strokes Renoir and the others would discover, but the sunshine is there, as are the bright colors and the group on a terrace.

The painting shows Bazille’s family — his mother, father, aunts, cousins — on a hot summer afternoon. “They came together every year, actually, for Bazille’s father’s birthday,” Jones says. Nobody looks very happy about it. Bazille’s father leans back in his chair, with legs crossed and a grumpy mouth; Bazille’s mother’s hands are clutched over her cobalt blue dress. Most of the 11 people in painting stare at us in stiff poses, as if sitting for a photographer. Only Camille, the youngest cousin, is at ease, elbow on her knee, chin in hand. “Her mother’s going to turn,” Jones imagines, “and say, ‘Camille!’ And she’ll sit up straight and put her hands in her lap and be very proper. But that moment has not yet arrived.”

Click here for the full article and additional paintings.


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