- Bastien LepageOur PickBy Fr. Crastre
- Jules Bastien-Lepage and His Art. A MemoirOur PickBy Mathilde Blind, André Theuriet, George Clausen, and Walter Sickert
Important Art by Jules Bastien-Lepage
Bastien-Lepage's beloved grandfather is the focus of this painting. The old man is depicted in a garden, seated in a cane chair, with arms crossed in his lap and a stare that seems to engage the viewer. In describing this painting, author André Theuriet stated: "His striking face stood out well detached from the background of trees; the black velvet cap sloping jauntily towards his ear give effect to the shrewd Socratic face; his blue eyes twinkled with humour; the nose was broad [;] the white forked beard spread itself over an ancient vest of the colour of dead leaves; the hands, painted like life, were crossed upon the grey trousers".
This was an important early painting in Bastien-Lepage's career. As well as providing evidence of his love for his family and the countryside of Damvillers, it introduced what would be the two dominant threads in his oeuvre: nature and portraiture. The charmingly tender portrait had the effect of bringing him an early taste of public recognition when it debuted at the Paris Salon in 1874. Speaking of the significance of this event, Theuriet describes how, "before this picture, so true, so frank [...] the public stood delighted, and the name of Bastien-Lepage, unknown before, figured the next day in the first place in the articles on the Salon".
According to author Fr. Crastre, "Bastien-Lepage was no studio painter; it was not from the height of a window that he chose to contemplate nature, but in the open fields, in the very heart of the furrows; and it was there also in the midst of the wheat and the rye, that he set up his easel and painted his peasants in action in the daily fulfilment of their thankless task". But it is easy to overlook that Bastien-Lepage was a classically trained painter (as The Annunciation to the Shepherds amply demonstrates).
As a student of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, he was one of ten finalists in the 1875 Prix de Rome competition. The Académie selected the biblical theme and, as the painter and writer Cathy Locke describes, the "Finalists were required to enter into the loge for ninety days to paint their interpretation of the given theme. This ordeal entailed confining the aspirants into small rooms separated by partitions working under the supervision of guards, with each entrant permitted to depart only during evening hours". On completion of the paintings, the works were put on public display and the general consensus was that Bastien-Lepage's canvas would easily win him the prestigious award. The Prix de Rome went, however, to Léon Commere. The jury had objected to Bastien-Lepage's entry because he chose to render the Annunciation at twilight when, according to historical accuracy, the Annunciation was a night scene.
Locke speculates that the artist might have fallen under the influence of the Impressionists in that "Bastien-Lepage felt that the quality of light at twilight was more aesthetically pleasing than the limited amount of light available to him in a night scene". Though he did not win the grand prize, Annunciation to the Shepherds revealed his technical virtuosity for all to see.
In the painting, Bastien-Lepage depicts two peasants taking leave from the heavy toil of working the land. In the foreground a weary young woman is seated, arms resting on her outstretched legs; her shoulders slumped. The artist described her thus: "my young peasant is sitting with her arms apart, her face hot and red; her fixed eyes seeing nothing; her attitude altogether broken and weary. I think she will give the true idea of a peasant woman". Her companion is lying on his back, hands on his chest and his straw hat covering his face. In the background can be seen stacks of hay, effectively confirming the pair's status as manual farm workers.
Bastien-Lepage makes no effort to romanticize or dramatize his scene. He said of the painting: "I have had hard work to set up my first ideas, being determined to keep simply to the true aspect of a bit of nature. Nothing of the usual willow arrangement, with its branches drooping over the heads of the people to frame the scene. Nothing of that sort". The famous Realist novelist, Émile Zola, described the painting in fact as "the masterpiece of naturalism in painting" and honored Bastien-Lepage by calling him the, "grandson of [Jean-François] Millet and [Gustave] Courbet". The Musée d'Orsay went further, calling the composition "daringly photographic" in the way that "the horizon is unusually high, allowing the hay 'like a very pale yellow cloth shot with silver' to fill the main part of the canvas". The d'Orsay adds that "the light palette, and close framing of the figures are signs of modernity within the naturalist approach".