Jean Frédéric Bazille created some of the nineteenth century’s most imaginative French Impressionist paintings. In his short life, Bazille revolutionized figure painting.
But who was this pioneering French Impressionist painter? This brief artistic biography explores his life, times, and famous works.
Born on 6 December 1841 in the southern-French city of Montpellier, Frederic Bazille grew up in “Le Domaine de Méric”. His parents worked as prosperous wine merchants. Their beautiful estate sat in the town of Castelnau-le-Lez, just outside of Montpellier.
Despite their background in wine, Bazille’s parents hoped their son would become a doctor. But, contrary to their hopes, he took a keen interest in art. As a young man, Frederic Bazille saw the work of Eugène Delacroix and set his sights on an artistic career. Bazille’s parents agreed, but only because he also studied medicine.
Consequently, he commenced his medical studies in 1859. He traveled to Paris in 1862 (continuing his studies), where he moved in avant-garde circles. These individuals included the painters Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Alfred Sisley.
After meeting these two men, Bazille enrolled at the studio of Charles Gleyre. As a leading Swiss artist and educator, he taught many young artists who later transformed French art. Students included famous impressionist artists such as Alfred Sisley, Claude Monet, and James Abbott McNeill Whistler.
Frederic Bazille failed his medical exams in 1864. After this, he started painting full-time.
Claude Monet's art and the work of Édouard Manet and Alfred Sisley inspired Bazille. He adored working with these inspiring peers and contemporaries.
Indeed, Bazille used his substantial family wealth to help his friends. He often gifted materials and pigments to fellow painters, also providing working space in his studio.
While Bazille created some French impressionist landscape paintings, he’s best known for portraits. Unusually for the time, he presented his subjects in vivid landscapes and interior scenes.
As a member of the Impressionist movement, he also favored painting “en plein air”. This French term translates as “outside”, referencing the Impressionist painters’ preference for painting on location rather than carefully constructed studio scenes.
Bazille created some of his most celebrated paintings in 1864. These works included romantic images such as La Robe Rose (The Pink Dress), currently held by the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
This beautiful artwork shows Frederic Bazille’s cousin Thérèse des Hours. She gazes at a beautiful city scene, bathed in a gentle golden light.
He also painted Réunion de Famille (Family Reunion) a few years later. This 1867 painting (also displayed in the Musée d’Orsay) depicts his close family. They met every year to celebrate Bazille’s father’s birthday.
Bazille appears on the far left of the composition, just behind his seated parents. The idyllic country setting is Le Domaine de Méric, the family’s wine-making estate outside Montpellier. Even though the group sits under the shade of a large tree, the artist infuses the painting with color and light.
However, it differs from many French impressionist paintings' lack of movement. Indeed, all of Bazille’s figures are entirely motionless, gazing out at the viewer. The picture contrasts with similar “en plein air” artworks by Claude Monet (such as Women in the Garden), which prioritize spontaneous movement and quick brushwork.
Frederic Bazille painted Summer Scene Bathers (1869). It displays his continued love of saturated color, enigmatic settings, and modernity. After seeing the painting at the 1870 Paris Salon, the critic and artist Zacharie Astruc described how sunlight “inundated” Bazille’s canvases.
Unusually for an artist painting on location, Bazille started this colorful wall art in his studio. Nonetheless, he completed the finer details after a trip to the South of France.
The painting references his love of Italian Renaissance painters and classical mythology. Indeed, the figure on the left-hand side resembles Guido Reni’s image of the martyred Saint Sebastian. The youth lying next to the water also references Renaissance paintings of reclining deities.
In addition, the image also references the recently published novel Manette Salomon (written by Edmond de Goncourt and Jules de Goncourt). The authors describe a bright scene of young men bathing in this novel.
In 1870 (the same year Summer Scene Bathers appeared at the Paris Salon), Bazille joined the “Zouaves”. The Zouaves were a French military unit particularly associated with French colonies in North Africa. The Franco-Prussian War (which began in July 1870) prompted Bazille’s enrolment.
Young Woman with Peonies (currently held by the National Gallery of Art in New York) is exceptionally skillful. In this painting, Bazille shows a black woman carrying a luscious display of blooming flowers. He casts her as a street vendor, extending three pale pink peonies toward the viewer.
Bazille’s unusual composition references his friend Manet’s Olympia (1863). Manet also features a black woman offering flowers to the naked Olympia in this painting.
Other Frederic Bazille oil paintings, such as La Toilette, also reference themes of race and class, again featuring a black servant clothing their naked mistress.
On 28 November 1870, Bazille fought alongside his unit at the Battle of Beaune-la-Rolande. Attempting to relieve the Siege of Paris, the French attacked three Prussian units resting in the town of Beaune-la-Rolande.
During the fighting, opposing forces injured his commanding officer. Bazille consequently took command of the brigade, leading a fierce attack on the Prussian troops. Shot twice during this failed attack, he died on the battlefield. He was twenty-eight years old.
Bazille’s father traveled to Beaune-la-Rolande a few days later to claim his body. The family held a funeral a week later, near their home in Montpellier.
While he’s celebrated as a proto-French Impressionist painter today, Bazille died four years before the first Impressionist exhibition.
If you love the colorful wall art of Frederic Bazille, explore our extensive collection. Whether it’s Bazille, Monet, Renoir, or Sisley, you’ll discover fine art oil paintings to enrich your life and your walls.