How the painter Frédéric Bazille died in the war in 1870

SA few years before young artists such as Liebermann, Corinth or Klinger moved to the Seine for further training, the painter Otto Scholderer went to Paris, where he was no stranger: in the spring of 1870 he could be seen in the Salon, the important annual exhibition a large-format painting. Henri Fantin-Latour had placed the man from Frankfurt in the group picture “Un atelier aux Batignolles”, today in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, standing next to Manet sitting in front of an easel. It shows Monet, Renoir, the art collector Maître and the critics Astruc and Zola at their side. Fantin dedicated the picture – a manifesto – to protagonists in the struggle against incrustations in art life and conventions in painting. He also accepted Frédéric Bazille into this group of representatives of new ways of seeing.

The elegant-looking Bazille had come to Paris from Montpellier in 1862 as a medical student. He played the piano passionately, was enthusiastic about Berlioz or Chopin and was downright obsessed with sheet music by composers such as Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Schumann and Wagner, possibly Brahms as well. Painting fascinated him even more than anatomy and music. The minor matter quickly turned into an appeal. As a student at Charles Gleyre’s private academy, he and his comrades Monet and Renoir founded residential and studio communities; Sisley was a frequent visitor there. They were all still unknown and lived from hand to mouth. Their hope was for success – with open-air painting, bright colors and new motifs or newly seen topics.

In the hail of gunfire

Bazille created landscapes and still lifes, nudes and interiors, portraits, self-portraits and figurative pictures in daily togetherness and during joint stays in Normandy or in the Fontainebleau forest. He painted Monet as a convalescent in bed who had improvised medical treatment, and he portrayed Renoir with his feet pulled up against the seat of a chair. Family members, a black woman arranging flowers or men who fish or bathe served as models.

Reminiscences of old masters or contemporary idols flash through. Mediterranean exuberance dampens Protestant beliefs. It is only supposedly contradictory that Bazille attached himself the label of a “history painter”, not that of a “Peintre de la vie modern” (Baudelaire), while his pictures had little to do with conventional art and a lot to do with the search for alternatives. With the “nouvelle peinture” (Duranty) that was created around 1865 and had its breakthrough from 1874 to 1876 with the label “Impressionism”.

Bazille did not live to see this triumphant advance. Despite previous diplomatic resentments, hardly anyone who looked at Fantin’s painting in the salon or was depicted on it suspected that the world would go upside down only a few weeks later. France and Germany began to wage war in July 1870, less than six months later nothing was as it was and – Bazille was dead. He had said goodbye to the studio and artist cafés, volunteered to work in the field and after a short training ended up in Algeria to the 3rd regiment of the Zouaves. Less than a hundred kilometers south of Paris and fifty from the Fontainebleau forest, he found himself caught between now Prussian and now Bavarian associations. On November 28, 150 years ago, he fell in a hail of bullets near Beaune-la-Rolande; a few days later he would have been 29 years old.

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