Review of reviews: Art & Stage
Exhibit of the week
Frédéric Bazille and the Birth of Impressionism
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., through July 9
Frédéric Bazille will always be a tragic footnote in the history of early impressionism, said Philip Kennicott in The Washington Post. A “huge talent” who died in war at 28 just as his peers were beginning to rewrite the rules of picture making, Bazille could have been a major force if he had followed his muse down the right path. But in the summer of 1870, less than a month into the Franco-Prussian War, Bazille shocked his friends Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir by enlisting in the French army. He was killed that November. Because his art to that point had fluctuated between marketable conventionalism and avant-garde daring, “we’ll never know if mediocrity was his ultimate calling.” Instead, he left teasing glimpses of greatness in “bold, sun-drenched” canvases that anticipate 1870s Monet. “The best of Bazille is almost surreal, growing stranger the longer you look at it.”
Bazille was not a natural, said Karen Wilkin in The Wall Street Journal. When he arrived in Paris in 1862, this son of a wealthy Montpellier merchant pursued his passion for art while studying to be a doctor, and he had much to learn about drawing and handling paint. But the 20-year-old Bazille put himself under the tutelage of Charles Gleyre, who also taught Monet and Renoir, and he made enormous progress in a short time. Indeed, “there is every reason to believe that he, too, would have developed a signature style as instantly recognizable as theirs,” said James Gardner in The Magazine Antiques. In his masterpiece, 1867’s The Family Gathering, 11 figures, including the tall, bearded artist, give the viewer “a look of nervous stillness and focused intensity that is common enough in 19th-century photography but new to the diapason of human expression.” And then there’s the sunlight: blazingly real in a way that was new to painting.
Bazille’s “most fascinating” painting carries “a psychological charge that may have frightened him,” said Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker. Whether he was gay or not is unknown, but in Summer Scene (Bathers), which he finished and exhibited in 1870, eight young men congregate by a river, all of them either undressing or in swimming trunks. Two playfully wrestle as another lounges in the grass. Bazille’s composition obviously borrows from bathers seen in art since antiquity, but “there’s an intensity to the scene that indicates a coming oneness of aesthetic vision and personal truth.” He didn’t pull off every detail, but the work inspires thoughts about what might have been. Was Bazille’s eagerness to join the French army born of a desire to prove his manhood? If he had survived, would he have infused impressionism with sensuality? The paintings he left behind “tantalize like an orchestra tuning up for a concert that is abruptly canceled.”