A legendary artist
For those who are truly interested in impressionist art, Frédéric Bazille (1841-1870) is a legendary artist. He only painted for a period of seven years, before dying aged 28 after enlisting in the French army in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian war. Prior to this he mixed with, was inspired by, and inspired in turn some of the great talents of the age in Paris.
Alongside Manet, Renoir …
Shortly before his death, the promising Montpellier native was depicted as a major figure in the famous painting at the Musée d’Orsay by Fantin-Latour, “Un atelier aux Batignolles”, alongside Manet, Renoir, Monet and Emile Zola. He shared a studio with Claude Monet in 1864-65 and then another with Renoir in 1866-67.
His short career and his very limited output (sixty-odd paintings) were defined by an ongoing search that seems to have been highly influenced by his circle of acquaintances. Monet, “who can be considered to be his first master,” according to the specialist curator at the Musée d’Orsay, Paul Perrin, led him to observe and paint the countryside.
In 2017, a retrospective at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris that travelled to the Musée Fabre in Montpellier (which possesses the largest collection of Bazille works) and the National Gallery in Washington, acted as a survey of the importance of his creation under the title “Frédéric Bazille : la jeunesse de l’Impressionnisme” (Frédéric Bazille: The Youth of Impressionism. See the report here). It presents very changeable styles in a non-linear evolution.
But as Paul Perrin observes, “what would people have thought of Paul Cézanne if he’d died in 1870?” The two artists were fairly comparable in their youth. They were both from the South of France, both born into bourgeois families, and they didn’t go in search of a pleasant kind of painting but rather a new mode of expression. Bazille specifically would go on to depict scenes of men frolicking in nature that are astonishingly modern, leading certain specialists to have associated him since the 1990s with a homosexual narrative, like in his “Baigneurs” now at Harvard’s Fogg Museum.
Cornette de Saint Cyr
In Paris on 17 June 2021 Cornette de Saint Cyr are presenting an ensemble of Frédéric Bazille’s works and letters which come from the artist’s family through his nephew. The ensemble, estimated at 800,000 euros, is especially important due to the rarity of the painter’s appearances on the market and because of their provenance. “All the works feature in the catalogue raisonné but none of them are signed. Bazille signed less than half his paintings,” explains the expert at the Cornette de Saint Cyr sale, Charlotte Taslé d’Héliand.
The art market database Artprice only lists 37 paintings by Bazille as having gone to auction and they were put up for unexceptional prices, apart from “Pot de fleurs” from 1866 which sold for the record price of 4.4 million euros in 2004. The rest of his most expensive paintings sold for around 500,000 euros. He is clearly a painter for the connoisseurs.
His market is all the more complex since the author of his catalogue raisonné (amended in 2006 and 2016), Michel Schulman, doesn’t always align with art historians on the subject of the authorship of certain paintings. Thus a portrait of Verlaine that he considers to be by Bazille, and which was sold as such by Sotheby’s in May 2015 for 448,500 euros, was not featured as part of his French-American retrospective. “Art history moves forward and with it an artist’s body of work evolves,” explains Michel Schulman.
However, there were no doubts surrounding the provenance of the canvases sold on 17 June. The three main works by Bazille presented at auction are included in the exhibition catalogue from 2017.
The first is a very sketchy self-portrait “in shirtsleeves”, which could be a preparatory work for “La réunion de famille”, an icon of impressionism showing the Bazille family in full dress under the midday sun, which is currently at the Musée d’Orsay. The painter inserted himself into the composition at the last minute, depicting his face from the same angle as in the canvas presented at auction. It has an estimate of 300,000 euros.
One of the impressionist tendencies involved taking themes from still lifes and revisiting them in a more liberated style, like the bouquets of flowers in Flemish old master paintings. This colourful exercise is particularly adept in Bazille’s work against a black background. The work has an estimate of 200,000 euros.
Lastly, the impressionists were keen practitioners of painting outdoors, with this “plein air” painting being conducted largely at Fontainebleau, and two landscapes typical of the area by Bazille have sold for 77,000 and 107,000 euros. The work presented on 17 June, clearly drawing from the same inspiration, is estimated at 80,000 euros.
An admirable forest
“I was with my friend Monet from Le Havre who is pretty good at landscapes,” writes the painter in a letter from 1863 addressed to his mother during a stay at Fontainebleau. “The forest is truly admirable. In certain parts we have nothing like these oak trees in Montpellier. The rocks are smaller despite their big reputation.” The missive, estimated at 800 euros, is part of the ensemble put up for sale in Paris.
It seems to perfectly describe the painting sold at Cornette de Saint Cyr. These two lots that have surfaced from 19th-century art history have touched down in the reality of the 21st-century market. Their presence is so rare that we couldn’t tell you what their fate will be.
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