Skip to Main Content

Frédéric Bazille and the Birth of Impressionism

April 9 – July 9, 2017
East Building, Concourse Galleries

Frédéric Bazille, Portraits of the *** Family, called The Family Gathering, summer 1867–early winter 1868, oil on canvas, Musée d'Orsay, Paris, purchased with the assistance of Marc Bazille, 1905. © Musée d'Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Patrice Schmidt

This exhibition is no longer on view at the National Gallery.

A scion of a Protestant upper-middle-class family from Montpellier in southern France, Frédéric Bazille (1841–1870) seemed destined for a career in medicine. In 1862 he traveled to Paris, ostensibly to pursue his medical studies, though he also enrolled as a student in the studio of the painter Charles Gleyre. It was there that he met fellow artists Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, and Alfred Sisley, even sharing studio space with both Monet and Renoir at times. He soon became part of a dynamic circle of avant-garde artists and writers that included Édouard Manet, Henri Fantin-Latour, Émile Zola, and Zacharie Astruc. Like his friends, Bazille created paintings inspired by contemporary life that challenged the aesthetic conventions of the day and helped to lay the groundwork of impressionism. Unfortunately, Bazille was killed in battle during the Franco-Prussian War, just prior to his 29th birthday, bringing his promising career to an abrupt and tragic end.

Because of the brevity of his career, the limited size of his extant body of work, and his absence from the impressionist exhibitions mounted after his death, Bazille remains a relatively unknown and underappreciated figure. This exhibition is the first major presentation of Bazille’s work in America in a quarter-century and brings together some 74 paintings (and two sketchbooks) from private and public collections in the United States, Europe, and Japan. Paintings by Bazille are exhibited alongside key works by the predecessors who inspired him—including Théodore Rousseau and Gustave Courbet—and by the contemporaries, such as Manet and Monet, with whom he was closely associated. Such juxtapositions underscore the extent to which Bazille actively engaged with the most significant pictorial issues of his era: the revival of the still-life form, realist landscapes, open-air figural painting, and the modern nude. Drawing inspiration from the vibrant cultural life of Paris, as well as the sun-drenched environs of his native Languedoc region to which he returned again and again, Bazille crafted a style of painting that was distinctly his own.

In preparation for the exhibition, an extensive campaign of restoration and technical study was carried out. With the help of the Center for Research and Restoration of the Museums of France (C2RMF) and the laboratories at the National Gallery of Art and other American museums, nearly half of Bazille’s known works have been x-rayed, leading to the discovery of a dozen erstwhile compositions hidden beneath the current paint surface—most notably, Young Woman at the Piano, Bazille’s first submission to the Paris Salon, which until now had been presumed lost or destroyed. This research has shed new light on Bazille’s artistic practice and the true extent of his oeuvre.

This exhibition has been curated by Kimberly A. Jones, curator of 19th-century French paintings, National Gallery of Art; Michel Hilaire, General Heritage Curator, director of the Musée Fabre, Montpellier; and Paul Perrin, curator of paintings, Musée d'Orsay, Paris.

Organization: The exhibition is organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington; the Musée Fabre, Montpellier; and the Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

Sponsors: This exhibition is made possible by leadership support of The Leonard and Elaine Silverstein Family Foundation.

Major support is provided through the generosity of the Virginia Cretella Mars Endowment Fund for the International Exchange of Art.

Additional funding is provided by The Exhibition Circle of the National Gallery of Art.

The exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

Attendance: 89,702

Catalog: Frédéric Bazille and The Birth of Impressionism. Edited by Michel Hilaire and Paul Perrin. Paris: Flammarion, 2016.

Other venues: Musée Fabre, Montpellier, France, June 25–October 16, 2016
Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France, November 15, 2016–March 5, 2017