On March 21st, Katie Liddiard lectured about the influential 19th century artist Jules Bastien-Lepage. Here is her lecture for those who could not attend:
Born on Nov. 1, 1848 In Damvillers, France in the Lorraine region. He loved his home, which would be a strong thread throughout his body of work. His father operated a small farm and vineyard to support the family, though they were not destitute like many of the peasants of the area. Jules took an early interest in art, perhaps because his father was also an artist, and his parents encouraged him by buying prints of paintings to copy.
When the time came, his parents wanted more for him than working the farm, so he went away to college in the nearby town of Verdun, possibly at the commune or monastery. There he met Louis Collin. They became friends and together decided to become professional artists. He received his degree which was very valued at the time and was offered a job in the government in the Post Office Department. Though he wasn't thrilled to take the job as he had other plans, he accepted the clerk’s position as the dutiful son that he was. His parents knew nothing of his desires to become an artist yet. But not all hope was lost. The job was in Paris which excited him as he’d dreamed of getting an artist’s education and what better place to receive it?
Every free moment he had was spent at the museums and expositions, studying the masters. He seemed to appreciate Flemish painting over Italian, but respected what the Renaissance had accomplished. While studying the old schools, he was fully aware of the new, contemporary ideas that were being pushed by Manet and Courbet. He sympathized with the efforts of these two men in the onslaught of criticism they received for not conforming to the well beaten paths of Classicism and Romanticism. After he could no longer accept not being a painter, he quit his job and enrolled in the Ecole des Beaux-arts. (His parents weren't so pleased with this decision.) He was admitted into Alexandre Cabanel’s atelier at the age of 19 where he met up with his old friend Collin again, who had previously been studying in Bouguereau’s atelier. They worked alongside Fernand Cormon, Morot, and Benjamin Constant. Without the income from the postal job, however, and money from his parents tight, he went from business to business in search of advertising work. He made enough to live off of, some advertisements even widely circulated, though his name was not known even though he had a painting in the Salon. His first Salon entry was in 1870 with a portrait of a young man, which is now lost.
Jules was known to only occasionally be in class as he prefered to work alone. He seemed to agree with Emile Zola’s observation that “Classical education has deformed everything, and has imposed upon us as geniuses, men of correct, facile talent who follow the beaten track”. So though classically trained, he wanted to stay true to his own vision. He studied with Cabanel for three years during which time he won a couple drawing prizes, one of them even being a first place award.
The the Franco-Prussian war broke out in 1870 and Jules went to serve in the army as it directly affected his beloved Lorraine. While fighting he was severely wounded in the chest. When he returned home he painted family and local villagers while he recovered. He also tried, unsuccessfully at illustration work.
In 1874 he entered the Salon again with Song of Spring and Portrait of My Grandfather. These submissions were the first real critical recognition Jules received for his work and the portrait of his grandfather won him a third-class medal. These two pieces clearly demonstrate the subjects Bastien-Lepage naturally excelled at and the ones he did not. Song of Spring is an allegory which held little interest to him while the portrait of his grandfather is extremely natural in pose, observation, handling, and color. During this time he was commissioned to paint the Prince of Wales which he exhibited in 1880 at the Royal Academy.
The following year’s Salon he entered First Communion and Portrait of M. Hayem. This time he was awarded a second prize. Though he still felt that he could do more. He was still not the painter he wanted to be.
So in 1875 he decided to compete for the Prix de Rome with Angels Appearing to the Shepherds which received him second place. He applied again in 1876 with Priam at the feet of Achilles and was again unsuccessful. It could be that the subjects were just too much of antiquity. He prefered to be in nature, painting what he knew. These were subjects of ancient tradition to which he felt little connection. He decided that he would stick with what he was most comfortable and happy painting: portraits, and people of the land and their fields. That same year he painted The Portrait of M. Wallon which is a testament to his inclination to paint in a naturalistic way.
1877- My Parents
1878- Portrait of M. Theuriet
The Hayfield- inspired by a poem:
“The reaper stretched out on his bed of fresh grass
Sleeps with clenched fists while
The tedder, faint and fuddled, tanned by the sun,
Sits vacantly dreaming beside him…”
This piece clearly shows the precursors to Impressionism. Light palette, close framing, brushy forms.
1879- Portrait of Mlle Sarah Bernhardt- won the cross of the Legion of Honor
October: Gathering Potatoes- Théodore de Banville, writing of the Salon of 1879, said: "M. Bastien-Lepage is the king of this Exposition. Young as he is, he has started in to produce masterpieces: he is very wise! For in later years an artist continues to copy himself, with more or less cleverness and success; but the creative genius has taken wing, like a bird on whose tail we have failed to drop the indispensable grain of salt. The October Season pictures the harvesting of potatoes. The earth, the encompassing air as far as we can see, the sky, the solitude laden with silence, are all evoked for us in this picture by the sincerity of its powerful painter; the peasant women are done in a masterly manner, and precisely for the reason that he has seen them apart from all convention and has not tried to idealize them by any hackneyed device."
Albert Wolff also commented on the piece- "The colouring in Women harvesting Potatoes is ingratiating and discreet; not a discordant touch disturbs the beautiful harmony of this canvas, over which the silence of the open country has descended, enveloping the obscure toil. It is only artists of superior powers who can embody so much charm in a single conception."
This image brings to mind Millet’s The Gleaners, except there is no sorrow or sympathy for the women in Bastien-Lepage’s work as there is in Millet’s. There’s a sense of resoluteness in their faces, instead. They’re not downtrodden, they do their work willingly.
1880- Joan of Arc Listening to the Voices- This was a tribute to his native Lorraine as Joan was from the same region. But the critics were not so keen on the piece, reproaching him for the use of traditional saints. Idealists claimed it was not ideal enough, realists claimed the saints should not be there at all. Again, this was a subject that he was not all comfortable with as it was more supernatural instead of his naturalist bend and it shows a bit in the piece.
1881- The Beggar
1882- Le Pere Jacques
He also submitted works to the 1883 and 1884 Salons.
His portraits and figure paintings were always eagerly awaited by the critics, and regularly reviewed. They brought him much recognition, and several paintings were bought by the State. With the success and recognition he received from the Salons, he was able to travel. Particularly to England, Switzerland, and Italy. Many works were brought back from these travels.
Bastien-Lepage was avidly collected in Europe and America, and exerted tremendous influence on an international group of followers from France, Germany, England, America and beyond, who took up his Naturalist approach to painting and made it one of the dominant movements at the Paris Salons of the 1880s and 1890s. After reviewing the 1883 Salon, one art critic said, “In each room, on each wall, everywhere you turn- Bastien-Lepage! Everywhere, constantly, and incessantly. The whole world paints so much today like Mr. Bastien-Lepage that Mr. Bastien-Lepage seems to paint like the whole world.” This made it very difficult to identify true Bastien-Lepage works if they were not signed and dated. One example is a painting of a young peasant woman. Though it is attributed to him, there were so many imitators that no one is absolutely sure.
The first attacks of ill health ailed Bastien-Lepage. Violent pain made him irritable and cut off almost all outside contact. He consulted with doctors who told him some sea air would be beneficial. He traveled to Brittany, which alleviated the symptoms only briefly before taking a turn for the worse. After travelling back to Paris to again consult with doctors, who were realizing Bastien-Lepage’s fate, he travelled to Algiers with his mother. Again in an effort that the warm African sun and sea air would hurry his recovery. The trip kept him in good spirits for a time, but again the illness took hold and he was forced back to Paris. His kidneys and intestines failed. He would be stricken with horrendous pain for days at a time that forced him to stay on his back. He could only sleep with powerful doses of morphine. All the time he worked as best he could, not being able to stand not painting. Only about a year before he had been optimistic about death stating "I am not afraid of death, dying is nothing,—the important thing is to survive oneself, and who can be sure of establishing a claim upon posterity? So long as our work is true, nothing else matters." But now he was shattered with no hope of relief except through the one way that he did not want just yet. He died in Paris on December 10, 1884 at the age of 36.
M. Gustave Larroumet, director of the Beaux-Arts gave a fitting tribute in honor of the artist after his death as a statue of him constructed by Rodin was erected in Damvillers. He said, "At the moment when ordinarily the best of artists have done no more than to give indications of their originality and when ripening years alone begin to keep the promises of youth, Jules Bastien-Lepage died, leaving masterpieces behind him, besides having liberated an artistic formula from the tendencies and exaggerations which hampered it, and indicated to the art of painting a new pathway along which his young heirs are advancing with an assured step. He loved nature and truth; he loved his own people, and no one ever lived who was surrounded with a greater degree of affection; he inspired faithful friendships which he himself enjoyed to the full; and those whom he left behind soothe their heart-ache with the balm of tender memories; he practised his art without ever making sacrifice to passing fashion or sordid profit; there was no place in his mind or in his heart for any other than noble and generous thoughts. Let us comfort ourselves, therefore, for what his death has taken from us by the thought of what his life has left to us, and let us assign him his place in the ranks of the younger master painters who have been mown down in full flower, close beside that of Géricault and of Henri Regnault."
In 1885 over 200 of his works were gathered from museums and private collections and shown at the Ecole after his death. And in 1889 the Paris Exposition showed some of his best works.
Zola dubbed Bastien-Lepage the “grandson of Millet and Courbet”. And certainly he had a pronounced influence on many painters after him. Roger Fry credited the public’s wide acceptance of impression to Bastien-Lepage. The works of George Clausen, Henry Herbert La Tangue, and William Hankey are just a few artists who were clearly heavily influenced by Bastien-Lepage’s work.
More of Bastien-Lepage’s work
Plein air studies