- The Tragic Story of Jean-Frédéric Bazille [Biography]
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Jean-Frédéric Bazille

Whether as children on a playground or as adults in some weightier dispute, we've all no doubt uttered the words, "That's not fair." The counter to that is always the question, "Who ever said life was fair?" Indeed, even from birth, some people have it all, while others seem short changed from the first slap on the bare derrière. The same is true near the end of life. There are those who live in misery far beyond their years and those who "die young and leave a good-looking corpse." In either case, it's just not fair. In 1841, there was born in the south of France near the fashionable resort town of Montpellier, a child, the son of wealthy wine producers. They named him Frédéric. As a boy he became interested in art in seeing the work of Gustave Courbet and Eugène Delacroix at the home of a family friend and art collector, Alfred Bruyas. As a young man, he studied for two years at the Ecole des Beaux-arts under the tutelage of Charles Gleyre. It would seem that Frédéric Bazille (pronounced Ba-ZEE-ah) was never was far from the "silver spoon" of his birth.

As befitting a bright young man of means, Bazille's interest in art was seen by his family as a mere avocation, something to amuse him until he managed to pass the entrance exams to begin studying medicine. Except that (whether by accident or design), well...he never did manage to pass them. He actually flunked twice, the third time he was merely late (and was thus closed out). Relenting, his family finally came around to letting him study art full time. It was in Gleyre's studio where Bazille met Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, and Alfred Sisley. The four of them became kind of a clique, not the most endearing group to have in class, nor the most dedicated art students as well. They would delight in cutting classes to go peek in the window of the studio of the aged Delacroix to watch him work; or drinking and arguing art much too far into the night at the Cafe Guerbois. (Intellectually, Bazille was more than a match to even the likes of Edouard Manet.) During Easter break, 1863, the four of them took off for the Forest of Fontainebleau where they tried painting out-of-doors. Guess what? It was fun. They liked it. Their little alliance was to form the core of the group of artists destined to be called Impressionists.

Not only was Bazille a painting partner to Monet and Renoir, he was something of a lifeline as well. Both his friends came from much less fortunate circumstances than did he. He often loaned them money (usually amounting to an outright gift) as well as shared studio space with them (paying the bulk of the rent of course). In return he learned from them. As a painter, he lacked the brilliance of either of his friends. His work, such as The Pink Dress, painted in 1864, is light and sensitive, Impressionistic, but not such that one might single it out as exceptional. Bazille always favoured the figure over the landscapes of his friends, and though he sometimes painted both indoor and outdoor scenes largely devoid of people, it was at portraiture and the effects of natural light upon his figures at which he most excelled. His enormous, 1867 Family Reunion is often considered his best. Knowing great good fortune from the beginning of life, and great promise in art during his life, makes the end of his life doubly tragic. When the Franco-Prussian war broke out, the adventurous young man enlisted in the colourful Zouave cavalry unit. He was killed fighting at Beaune-la-Rolande near Orleans on November 28, 1870. He was 29. It would seem, the silver spoon of his birth was not bullet proof. It's just not fair.

contributed by Lane, Jim

30 January 2000

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