- Bastien LepageOur PickBy Fr. Crastre
- Jules Bastien-Lepage and His Art. A MemoirOur PickBy Mathilde Blind, André Theuriet, George Clausen, and Walter Sickert
Progression of Art
Son grand-père (Portrait of My Grandfather)
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".
Oil on canvas - Collection of Musée d'Orsay
The Annunciation to the Shepherds
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.
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Les Foins (Haymakers)
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".
Oil on canvas - Collection of Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France
Potato Gathers (The Season of October)
This painting, considered by some to be his greatest masterpiece, was a companion piece to Haymakers. Named after the month of harvest time, two peasants are depicted working the fields. In the foreground a young woman is bent over trying to transfer the basket of potatoes she has collected into a large canvas sack while the woman positioned behind her continues the hard work of the harvester. The landscape seems to stretch on and on before meeting the horizon line under a gray, cloud-filled sky. According to the National Gallery of Victoria's website, "Bastien-Lepage had planned to paint rural life as he knew it, celebrating its hardships as well as the inherent dignity of the peasants themselves [and he] particularly despised those city painters whose sentimental views of rustic life confirmed their ignorance of it, but whose works continued to fill the annual Salons".
Like Haymakers, Potato Gatherers lacks the social realism of works by Courbet and Millet (artists to whom Bastien-Lepage was routinely compared). As author Fr. Crastre states, "unlike Millet [in his 1857 painting The Gleaners] Bastien-Lepage does not awaken in us any compassion for these beings who toil, stooping above the earth; no touch of bitterness saddens his pictures, and the types which he shows to us have the healthy vigour of peasants who live their lives in the open air and love the soil which nourishes them". The painter and writer Cathy Locke suggests that the "peasants [...] are suspended in time as if in a snapshot [and that the] awkward gesture of the peasant in the foreground compared to her relaxed and smiling companion seem incongruous to the vigorous task at hand". She adds that the artist "merges the color and texture we would see in a landscape by Camille Pissarro or Alfred Sisley with the realism of French academic figurative art of the day. In this way we see his relationship to Impressionism combined with the influence of academic study".
Oil on canvas - Collection of National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia
Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt
In this work Bastien-Lepage renders a portrait of the legendary nineteenth century French actress Sarah Bernhardt as she admires a statute of Orpheus, the mythical Greek legend of music and poetry. In describing the work, author Fr. Crastre refers to this "magnificent portrait [as] a marvel of expression and of delicate art, embodied in a pale symphony of tenderest whites, blending harmoniously with the warmest tones of gold". Crastre adds that Bastien-Lepage treats Bernhardt's "expressive and intellectual features [...] with a vigour which does full justice to the classic beauty and virile energy of the sitter".
While his legacy is (rightly) anchored in his pivotal role within the development of Naturalism, Bastien-Lepage was able to separate himself from these pursuits to render domestic portraits. This painting in particular helped spread his reputation as a superb portraitist across Europe and demonstrated the humility with which he imbued his sitters. There is an inherent drama to both the pose of the sitter and her gaze which echoes and anticipates the intensity with which she performed her roles in many of the great plays of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It also shows off the artist's exemplary handling of color and his skill at capturing something of the mystique of his sitters. Crastre supplied a quote from a critic for the Revue des Beaux-Arts which read, "The artist's hand was sure of itself; it neither groped nor hesitated. The execution is such that the drawing of the gown and the lines of the face seem to have been traced by an engraver's tool".
Oil on canvas - Collection of Legion of Honor Museum, San Francisco, California
Jeanne d'Arc (Joan of Arc)
Although set within his familiar home surroundings, this piece, one of the artist's most famous, was a rare excursion into patriotic History Painting. The painting is that of the French teenage martyr, Joan of Arc, who is here depicted standing in the foreground of the canvas. The overturned stool and abandoned loom suggest she has been suddenly interrupted in her work. She gazes up, trance-like, through piercing blue eyes as her left arm stretches out in front of her. The natural surroundings in which she stands are rendered in such exacting detail that the painting has an almost photographic quality. This naturalistic narrative is interrupted, however, by the three ethereal-like figures behind her which are rendered with much less attention to detail.
Bastien-Lepage approached this subject in a modern way; choosing to depict France's greatest heroine, not at as the war hero (clad in her iconic silver armor) leading the French in the Hundred Years War but rather at the moment, aged just thirteen, when she heard the voice of God and the three saints Catherine, Margaret, and Michael appear before her and urge her to take up the fight against the English. Theuriet praised the modern treatment stating, "never had Bastien-Lepage created a figure more poetically true than this Lorraine shepherdess, so pure, so human, so profoundly absorbed in her heroic ecstasy".
One of the reasons this painting enjoyed such popularity when it debuted was due to political events. According to author Christopher P. Jones, "the figure of Joan of Arc had enjoyed renewed interest in France [in 1879] since the country had recently been defeated in the Franco-Prussian war and had part of its land annexed by Germany - none other than the province of Lorraine [the province from where Joan of Arc hailed]. The invocation of national heroes became especially important at the time, and Bastien-Lepage's painting can be seen as a fulfilment of that need". According to Locke, critics at the Salon of 1880 "praised Bastien-Lepage's use of pose and facial expression to convey Joan's spiritual awakening but found the inclusion of the saints at odds with his naturalistic style [and that] in comparison to his previous works honored at the Salon, Joan of Arc creates a very closed-in feeling, suffocating the figure. She adds that "the painting was compared to English Pre-Raphaelite for its profusion of botanical detail [and it evocation of] Victorian sentimentality".
Oil on canvas - Collection of Metropolitan Museum of Art
Aptly titled, an old beggar man is the subject of Jules Bastien-Lepage's painting. Depicted in dirty clothes and a long unkempt beard, he holds a stick in one hand while in the other he is placing something in his bag; most likely the scrap of food which someone in the house has just given him. The door is in the process of being closed behind him but has been blocked by a young girl in a bright blue dress who watches him intently as he prepares to leave.
Author George Clausen states that in Bastien-Lepage's beggar, "we find a most perfect realization of character: the whole life-history of the man seen and brought before us". The viewer is directly confronted with the reality of the scene; the man's abject poverty in stark contrast to the innocence and refinement of the little girl standing behind him. This dichotomy is echoed in the bright blooms of the flowers in the potted plant resting on a ledge next to the door; so full of life when compared to the old man in his dour colors and withered physical state. As the door is closing, viewers are visually reminded that these two people and by extension the two societal groups of which they are a part will always remain separate.
Oil on canvas - Collection of Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, Denmark
Le Père Jacques (The Wood Gatherer)
The Wood Gatherer, painted for the Salon of 1882, is one of Jules Bastien-Lepage's most important works. An old man dominates the center of Bastien-Lepage's frame. Stooped over, he carries on his back a large bundle of heavy sticks and branches which he has gathered during his walk in the woods. In front of him, in the left foreground, his companion, a young girl wearing a blue dress, picks flowers with her right hand while holding a small bunch of daisies in her left. Bastien-Lepage's works were so realistically rendered that it is easy to view them solely as exemplars of the Naturalist movement. But this work also carries a simple commentary on generational relations. In this example, according to Locke, "The old woodsman, a family friend, and his granddaughter represent the heavy weariness of old age and the innocence of youth, as well as the passage of time".
Some Salon critics took issue with Bastien-Lepage's paintings. For them, his refusal to embellish his work with chiaroscuro or to stage scenes in order that his subjects might be represented in a more appealing light, was a limitation. This criticism had no impact on Bastien-Lepage who continued painting his subjects exactly as they appeared to his eye. He stated, "my Wood-cutter in the last Salon was reproached with want of air [....] There is a great deal of routine and prejudice in that criticism of the perspective of my pictures done in the open air. It is the criticism of people who have never looked at a landscape, except crouching down or sitting. When you sit down to paint, you naturally see things quite differently from the way you see them standing [...] We need to renew the education of our eye, by looking with sincerity upon things as they are in nature, instead of holding as absolute truths the theories and conventions of the school and the studio". This wilful attitude stood him in good stead. As Locke notes, "By the early 1880s, Bastien-Lepage had become the leader of the Naturalist school, and many of his contemporaries believed that he would one day succeed Manet as the leader of modern painting".
Oil on canvas - Collection of Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
L'Amour au Village (Village Love)
Here Bastien-Lepage has beautifully captured the innocence and sweetness of young love in this depiction of a conversation between two peasant youths in the French countryside. Describing this painting, Crastre states, "he depicted with charming naturalness the uncomplicated and naïve courtship of rustic lovers. Here are a pair who are untroubled by curious glances; the nearer houses of the village are quite close by. Bending slightly towards his sweetheart, the man is murmuring his avowals in her ear [...] Strapping fellow that he is, he evidently lacks the habit of making pretty speeches; we can see that from the embarrassed air with which he twists his fingers. His words, however, are plainly not lacking in eloquence, for the girl [...] has bent her head and, although her back is turned, we are sure that she is blushing as she listens to his declaration".
More than a simple statement on love; this work shows how beautifully Bastien-Lepage was able to capture on his canvases the lives of the French peasantry. According to Crastre once more, "the artist's watchful eye has succeeded in discovering, in the life of the peasantry, that state of mind, which is common to them all, that immutable gesture which have always made and always will make. He has understood and translated with inspired eloquence their rugged strength, their naïve awkwardness, their simple intelligence". Bastien-Lepage's friend and fellow artist Marie Bashkirtseff said on seeing the painting "he's not just a painter, but a poet, a psychologist". Indeed, this work was of great appeal in Russia; a fact that was supported by the country's commissioning it as a postage stamp in 1973. According to the website of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, this painting was "particularly popular among Russian artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century [and was] much admired by Valentin Serov, Mikhail Nesterov and [...] Leo Tolstoy".
Oil on canvas - Collection of Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, Russia
Pas Mèche (Nothing Doing)
A young peasant boy is the subject of Bastien-Lepage's Nothing Doing. While captured in a moment of idleness; his appearance reinforces the fact that his life is a difficult one. The website of the Scottish National Gallery describes the painting thus: "a young boy looks directly out of the painting clad in raggedy clothes and large unlaced boots. His relaxed air fits the title which is an abbreviation of the French slang: 'Il n'ya pas meche' meaning 'There's nothing doing.' The whip he holds and the horn slung on his back suggest that he was a barge boy who would have controlled the horses pulling the barge and alerted the lockmasters of its imminent arrival".
Paintings such as this influenced the next generation of realist painters. According to author William S. Feldman, "the series of immensely popular genre themes that Bastien-Lepage produced until his untimely death in December 1884 earned him an influence comparable to Manet, some sixteen years his senior". Included amongst his followers, who were eager to emulate his unvarnished view of nature, were a group of young artists known as The Glasgow Boys, who focused their work on scenes of rural Scotland.
Oil on canvas - Collection of Scottish National Galleries, Edinburgh, Scotland