Last week the students in my Writing Close to the Earth online class read George Orwell's classic essay, "Politics and the English Language." In it ... Read More
This is a sad story. Hopeful, but full of sorrow. It leaves me with an ache for what could have been, and also with the hope of what I believe will some day come to pass.
Impressionist painter Jean Frédéric Bazille (1841 – 1870) was born in Montpelier, France, into a wealthy protestant family who let him study painting so long as he also studied medicine.
Bazille lived during the early days of impressionism, a style which took some time to find appreciation in the main stream. Bazille was an impressionist before the greats like Monet, Renoir, Manet, Cezanne, Pissarro, and Degas had garnered the sort of fame that would compel art galleries around the world to feature their work as the centerpieces of their collections. During Bazille’s life, impressionism was rock-n-roll in a doo-wop world.
Bazille moved to Paris when he was twenty one to study medicine. There he became friends with the impressionist painters Pierre-Auguste Renior and Alfred Sisley. In 1864, Bazille failed his medical exams and turned to painting full-time. By then, his circle of friends had expanded to include Claude Monet and Édouard Manet.
Coming from wealth, Bazille was able to support his fellow painters by providing work space and supplies for them to share. Bazille and Monet shared a studio in 1865, and when finances grew tight for Monet, Bazille would sometimes purchase some of his work to help keep him afloat.
Later, Renoir shared a studio with Bazille as well— a nice room at 9 Rue de la Condamine. Other painters, including Camille Pissarro, Paul Cezanne, Gustave Courbet, and Edgar Degas were known to spend time with Renoir, Monet, and Manet at Bazille’s place.
Bazille’s Studio; 9 Rue de la Condamine gives us a peek into this era of art history in Paris. In this painting, we see Bazille showing one of his new paintings to Manet and Monet. Renoir sits to the left, talking with the french novelist and playwright Émile Zola. At the piano sits one of their musician friends, Edmond Maitre. Two of Bazille’s known works hang on the wall— Fisherman with a Net and LaToilette. Also on the wall are Renoir’s Landscape with Two People and what appears to be a Monet, possibly one Bazille had purchased.
Bazille wrote in a letter to his father that it was Manet (who wears the hat) who painted Bazille (who holds the palette) into the painting. Why would Manet have done that? Because they were friends, yes. But also out of respect. That group of painters believed greatly in their friend’s talent. Camille Pissarro described Bazille as “one of the most gifted among us.”
In 1874, just ten years after Bazille failed his medical exams, Monet, Degas, Renoir, Pissarro, and another painter, a woman named Berthe Morisot, formed a fellowship they called The Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, and Printmakers. This band of artists launched a series of eight impressionism exhibits which not only featured the work of thirty different artists, but also made the 165 works available for purchase, scandalizing the art world not only because of the sometimes immodest content, but also for how they completely side-stepped the major art shows like the Paris Salon.
The impressionists were an early version of indie artists— ditching the major labels, working their own merch tables, and trusting that together they could hold one another up and break through to earning something resembling a livable wage so they could continue making art. Before long, this grass-roots community took the art world by storm. But it took a fellowship, or as Wendell Berry might call it, a membership, coming together to support one another in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
Bazille, however, was not part of The Anonymous Society. The same year he completed Bazille’s Studio; 9 Rue de la Condamine, he went off to fight in the Franco-Prussian War. His friends all tried to talk him out of it, but to no avail. Then, on November 28, 1870, when his commanding officer fell in battle, Bazille took command of what troops were left and led an assault on an enemy position. He was shot twice and died on the battle field. He was twenty-eight years old.
Earlier that year, when Bazille painted this picture of his studio, neither he nor his fellow artists were successful or respected in Paris. But they were friends. They were a band of painters who shared ideas, supplies, and studio space to create some of the world’s most beloved art. And they were at ease with one another. In Bazille’s Studio; 9 Rue de la Condamine, there is no apparent hierarchy, no apparent leader. Just men who labor together in the pursuit of using their gifts to accomplish something meaningful.
I wonder what might have been had Bazille not fallen in battle that day. I wonder what more he might have given the world? I wonder how his influence would have shaped what his friends went on to create. And those who came after, like Vincent van Gogh, or Edward Hopper, or Norman Rockwell.
To wonder about such things is to wonder about uninterrupted potential. What happens when potential can be fully realized— when things like war, sorrow, pain, and death are no more. We do well to wonder about such things, because this is the hope offered in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But we also do well to feel the weight of the sorrow over what might have been. This is the tension of being alive in the world.
 “Frédéric Bazille: A Tragic Story”. WetCanvas. Retrieved June 20, 2011.
 Jeremy Wallis, Artists in Profile: Impressionists, Heinemann, 2002, p. 10.
Russ Ramsey is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church Cool Springs in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and four children. He grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM). Russ is the author of the Retelling the Story Series (IVP, 2018) and Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017).