Painters I should Have Known About (005) Jules Bastien-Lepage

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Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848-84)

Way back in mid-April I posted a piece about Albert Edelfelt, commenting that the Finnish artist had been influenced by a French advocate of plein-air painting.

In his short lifetime Bastien-Lepage had a huge influence on many painters, especially non-Impressionists and non-Academics. But what was so special about him that he should change the approach of so many artists?

In brief, Bastien-Lepage put forward the idea that Art should be truthful, honest, and based in reality. These principles stood in opposition to (or at least at a tangent to) the artistic zeitgeist of the day, which dictated that nearly all painting was studio based, narrative in nature, historic by tendency, and academic in execution.

Take a look at the work of Bastien-Lepage’s teacher, Alexandre Cabanel, that illustrates this point perfectly:
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Birth Of Venus, Alexandre Cabanel

Bastien-Lepage was born in Damvillers in Alsace Lorraine, France, in 1848
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His parents were peasant farmers, and they were strongly opposed to the idea of their son going away to study art, of all things.

Nonetheless, the young Jules went away to study in Verdun, and then he was off to Paris where he gained admission to the École des Beaux-Arts. His principal teacher was Alexandre Cabanel, the classicist painter from Montpellier who was ranked alongside Adolphe-William Bouguereau as one of France’s greatest painters.

Bastien-Lepage took on a part time job as a postal worker to send money home to his parents.
He won two drawing prizes and made his début at the Salon in 1870 with “Portrait of a Young Man”. (Now lost)

At the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) he joined a regiment of sharpshooters and was severely wounded in the chest.

Once more back at his studies in Paris, he attained second place in an attempt to win the prestigious Prix de Rome. Utterly discouraged by this placing, he tried (unsuccessfully) to find work as an illustrator, and dejectedly returned home to Damvillers to paint landscapes.

In 1874 he was back in Paris exhibiting large scale paintings of peasant life.

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At Harvest Time

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Harvesting Potatoes in October 1878

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Haymaking 1877

Now today, these canvases may not look spectacular or extraordinary in any way, but at the time they were a sensation. The obvious fact that the artist had painted these pictures outside in the open air, rather than in the controlled environment of the studio while trying to simulate the great outdoors, was a source of amazement to fellow artists, critics and the vewing public.

It had been possible to paint easily out of doors since the invention of the foldable oil paint tube in the 1840’s (probably one of the most significant technological advances in painting in thousands of years), but few had taken up the challenge of actually going outside en plein-air, until Bastien-Lepage seized this opportunity to strike his own path and stride away from the stifling academic classicism of the 1870’s.

He became a sort of zealot for plein-air painting, and his approach brought him great success, with exhibitions in Paris and London.

The artist and critic Anthony Watkin says: “And when other painters saw Bastien-Lepage´s pictures and discovered he had simply set up his easel outdoors, posed his models, and painted right there through to the finish, they sought to do likewise with an unprecedented fervor. All this activity resulted in a fresher, more vivid concept of outdoor color and by the year 1880 the plein-air movement was in full swing.”

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London Bootblack

It’s evident from looking at his work that Bastien-Lepage was seeking an authenticity in his subjects as much as in his methods. He shows great sympathy for the commoner rather than the toff, the socially gritty rather than the grandee. He illuminates the world of working children, whether in the countryside or in the city without giving way to mawkish sentimentality.

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Cowherd 1881

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In the field(?)

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London Flower Seller

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Nothing Doing (Barge Boy) 1882

He also painted portraits. Here’s Sarah Bernhardt:

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Sarah Bernhardt 1879
(This portrait wins Bastien the cross of the Legion of Honour)

Then suddenly, after all the very worthy social realism stuff, he produces this!

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Joan of Arc Listening To The Voices 1880

From this distance in time it’s hard to know what Bastien-Lepage was trying to pull off with this painting. It’s possible that he was making a political statement because France had ceded Joan of Arc’s home region to Germany in 1871, but mainly bear in mind that Joan of Arc (Jeanne d’Arc) was: 1) A peasant girl, and: 2) From Lorraine, both of which facts would have been strongly resonant for him.
Whatever his motivations, the picture has become his masterpiece. It now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

It’s a huge work consisting of two canvases joined together (you can detect the join along the edge of the house wall). This will give you some idea of the scale:

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Joan of Arc in the Met.
(Have you seen that painting to the right of Joan of Arc anywhere before?)

Sadly, Jules Bastien-Lepage’s life ended early, in December 1884 at the age of 36.
Some say he died of stomach cancer, others say he died as a result of his wounding 14 years earlier.

There was a sellout memorial exhibition of his work held in Paris in 1885, but it’s odd to think that he rarely gets a mention in most art histories from the 20th century. This situation is beginning to change as many of the non-academic, non-impressionist realist painters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries are re-evaluated.

There will be an exhibition of Bastien-Lepage’s work at the Musee d´Orsay, in Paris, France.
Dates: March 6, 2007 – May 13, 2007

Finally, because I made the assertion that so many painters have been influenced by Bastien-Lepage, there now follows a long list of artists who have admitted his influence. Each one of these painters is worth researching. In fact, that’s the reason this post has been so slow in appearing. It’s because I have been mightily sidetracked by my discovery of so many new (to me) painters.

Just before the list, one more picture!
This is by George Clausen, and it’s hard to tell apart from Bastien’s work at first glance. That’s the “Influence” at work.

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Head Of A Peasant Woman. George Clausen, 1882

Ready for the list? Here goes:

The Glasgow Boys (including Sir John Lavery, George Henry, E.A. Hornell, Alexander Mann, E.A. Walton, Sir James Guthrie and Joseph Crawhall)
Sir George Clausen
Alexander Stanhope Forbes
Elizabeth Adela Forbes
Jules Breton
Christian Krogh
Albert Edelfelt
Elin Danielson-Cambogi
Abram Arkhipov
Léon Fréderic
Walter Frederick Osborne
Sven Bergh
Theodore Robinson
William Sergeant Kendall
William Lee-Hankey
Alexander Ignatius Roche
John Lavery
Marie Bashkirtseff
Julien Dupres
Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida
Alexander Harrison
John Henry Twachtman
Wyatt Eaton
Gari Melchers

And just about anybody else who has painted outdoors!
(Google returns 10,100 hits with the search term:”Influence+Bastien.Lepage”) so the list might be an awful lot longer.

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