The Genius of Jules Bastien-Lepage
by Cathy Locke
Born in a simple yellow farmhouse in Damvillers, France, Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848-1884) was forever connected to his roots in the rural countryside. His abbreviated creative activity dated from approximately 1870 until his death in 1884. Throughout his short life Bastien-Lepage provided a valuable contribution to the art world and was an important catalyst in the evolution of the modernist movement. Born the same year as Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), chronologically Bastien-Lepage belongs within the post-impressionist generation. Always happiest amongst family and friends, his rural upbringing in the valley of La Meuse remained a potent force shaping Bastien-Lepage’s artistic output. Dubbed the "grandson of Millet and Courbet" by Émile Zola (1840-1902), Bastien-Lepage forged a critical bridge between the Barbizon School and French academia. As early as his first successes, Haymakers (1877) and Potato Gatherers (1878), were exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1879, followers emerged virtually overnight throughout Europe. Without intention on his part, Bastien-Lepage, the painter of peasants, became the head of a school influencing such painters as Russian artist Marie Bashkirtseff (1858-1884), British artist George Clausen (1852-1944) and Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890).
By the age of five Bastien-Lepage was already showing an aptitude for drawing, which was cultivated by his father, an amateur artist. Through great sacrifice on the resources of the family, Bastien-Lepage was allowed to go to the College of Verdun at the age of eleven. The young man had developed strong drawing skills which the family was hoping would set him up as a draftsman. During these years at Verdun, Bastien-Lepage filled his drawing books with scenes from his native country life and showed little interest in drafting. By the time he was nineteen he wanted to go to Paris to study art. As it was financially impossible for the family, Bastien-Lepage had to secure a job with the Central Post Office in order to earn barely enough to survive. In 1867, he was admitted to the École des Beaux-arts under his given name of Jules Bastien, but soon adopted a more distinctive Bastien-Lepage by adding his mother’s maiden name. For six months he balanced a full-time job with the demanding studies at school. Bastien-Lepage worked at the post office from 3:00 to 7:00 in the morning sorting mail, followed by delivering mail, going to school in the afternoons and doing homework in the evenings. His double life became impossible to maintain forcing him to quit his job with the post office. Committed to his career as an artist, he armed himself with a letter from William Bouguereau (1825-1905) and marched into the studio of Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889) who took Bastien-Lepage under his wing, thoroughly schooling him in the polished academic tradition. Bastien’s sweet mother sent him a small sum of money every month along with an allowance of 600 francs from the Council General of Meuse; together the sum scarcely furnished him with bed and board.
In 1870 the Franco-Prussian War broke out and Bastien-Lepage enlisted in a company of volunteers. “One day in the trenches a shell burst near him and sent a clod of hardened earth straight at his chest. He was taken to the ambulance, where he remained during the last month of the siege, while another shell fell upon his studio, and there destroyed his first composition, a nude nymph with her arms clasped over her blonde head, and bathing her feet in the waters of a spring.”1 Bastien-Lepagespent the majority of 1871 at home in Damvillers and did not return to Paris until 1872.
Bastien-Lepage first began submitting work to the Paris Salon in 1870 at the age of twenty-two. In his early work he copied the landscapes ofJean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) inserting gay young women into the scenes. This type of work went unnoticed. In 1873 he painted his grandfather in his beloved garden. His grandfather’s striking face stood out from the background of trees, framed by his black velvet cap and twinkling blue eyes. The painting was a frank rendering of familiar life in the country and the public was delighted by it. The name of Bastien-Lepage, unknown before, immediately became prominent in the articles about the Salon and won him a third-place medal.
In 1875 Bastien-Lepage entered The Communicant and a portrait of Simon Hayem to the Paris Salon, both considered excellent works. The painting The Communicant depicts a young girl dressed in a stiff white dress with starched veil wearing white gloves and sitting against a creamy-gray background. The artist’s ability to capture his subject in a familiar realism was touching to the public in a way that French academic art had been unable to achieve.
Bastien-Lepage was one of ten finalists allowed to enter the 1875 Prix de Rome competition. In 1875 the Académie des Beaux-Arts selected the biblical subject of the Annunciation to the Shepherds.“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.”2 After completion their paintings were displayed publicly, where the general consensus was that Bastien-Lepage’s canvas would easily win an award. However, the Prix was granted to Léon Commere (1850-1916). The academic jury’s decision to deny Bastien-Lepage was due to his rendering of the Annunciationin twilight, rather than staying historically accurate and rendering it as a night scene. Perhaps inspired by the impressionists, 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. Despite not winning the grand prize Annunciation to the Shepherds marks his initial entrance into the art world.
"The reaper stretched out on his bed of fresh grass
Sleeps with clenched fists while
The tedder, faint and fuddled, tanned by the sun,
Sits vacantly dreaming beside him […]."
The rejection of the Annunciation made Bastien-Lepage rethink the entire direction of his work. In 1876 he began to devote his efforts to the French Realist tradition established by Jean-François Millet (1814-1875) and Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), by seeking his subject matter in the provincial village life of Damvillers. Bastien-Lepage felt that an artist should paint what they know and love. He conceived of a series of large paintings created mainly in plein air, all based on the peasants in his village. Wanting to tell the entire story of country life he embarked on what would become his most famous work, which included Haymaking (1877), Potato Gatherers (1878), Joan of Arc (1879), The Grape Harvest (1880), The Wood Gatherer (1881) and Village Lovers (1882). Poet and novelist André Theuriet (1833-1907) and Bastien-Lepage planned on publishing a series of twelve compositions with accompanying text to represent each month of the year and title it Months in the Country. The painting Haymakers occupied him for the entire summer of 1877. In August he wrote Theuriet “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. Behind her, flat on his back her companion is asleep, with his hands closed; and beyond, in the meadow, in the full sun, the haymakers are beginning to work again. 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.3
Compared to Millet’s pastel sketch titled NoondayRest (1866), Haymakers captures the epic French countryside by depicting the reality of peasant life. A young woman sitting in the foreground is haggard with weariness, behind her sleeps her male counterpart. The influence of photography impacts the composition with a high horizon line, allowing the majority of the canvas to be filled with pale yellow-green hay embracing the main characters. The effects of perspective, a light palette and close framing are signs of modernity within the naturalist approach. French novelist Émile Zola (1840-1902) labeled Haymakers a masterpiece of naturalism in painting.4
Haymakers, depicting two peasants resting in a field,was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1879. It received widespread attention at the Salon and raised considerable controversy for the harsh reality of peasant life. Along with Haymakers Bastien-Lepage exhibited Potato Gatherers, also titled The Season of October (1878). Haymakers and Potato Gatherers were identical in size and shape depicting the same model, Bastien-Lepage’s cousin, Marie-Adéle Robert (1856-d.?). Potato Gatherers contrasted the brutality of manual labor seen in Haymakers with a more whimsical nature. Again, the artist was compared to one of Millet’s paintings called The Gleaners (1857). Both paintings depict the beauty of the land and the virtue in labor, but Potato Gatherers’ realism sharply departs from Millet’s sentimentality. Potato Gatherers became an immense attraction amongst the public and the jury at the Salon.
Appearing to be influenced by photography, Potato Gatherers, with its high horizon line, also depicts the female peasants as if they are suspended in time as if in a snapshot. The awkward gesture of the peasant in the foreground compared to her relaxed and smiling companion seem incongruous to the vigorous task at hand. Bastien-Lepage has created a landscape in plein air, while finishing his figures inside his studio. He merges the color and texture we would see in a landscape by Camille Pissarro (1830-1903)or Alfred Sisley (1839-1899) 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. Again, Bastien-Lepage has painted an envelope around his potato gatherers in the foreground with the landscape fanning out to a panoramic vista. The dichotomy of near and far further heightens this dramatic composition.
Along with Haymakers and Potato Gatherers, Bastien-Lepage exhibited a portrait of Sarah Bernhardt at the 1879 Paris Salon. Painted in high key values, this small gem of aportrait measures 17.5” tall x 13.5” wide. At the time this portrait was painted Sarah Bernhardt and Jules Bastien-Lepage were rising stars in Europe. Both making the rounds with the social elite of Paris, it would have been only natural for Sarah to sit for this portrait. At the age of thirty-one, the artist was awarded the prestigious Legion of Honor for his three entries, in 1879, signifying Bastien-Lepage’s official arrival on the French art scene. Today the Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt is part of the collection of Ann and Gordon Getty and is on loan to the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco.
Exhibited at the 1880 Paris Salon, Joan of Arc (1879) was considered Bastien-Lepage’s tour-de-force. The medieval teenage martyr from the French province of Lorraine, Joan of Arc, gained a new status as a patriotic symbol when France ceded the territory to Germany after the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71). Bastien-Lepage, a native of Lorraine, depicts the moment when the saints – Michael, Margaret and Catherine – appear to the peasant girl in her parents’ garden for the first time, thus rousing her to fight the English invaders in the Hundred Years War. 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. In comparison to his previous works honored at the Salon, Joan of Arc creates a very closed-in feeling, suffocating the figure. The placement of the saints seems forced, contrary to the artist’s naturalistic approach. The painting was compared to English Pre-Raphaelite for its profusion of botanical detail, evoking Victorian sentimentality.
Bastien-Lepage’s The Grape Harvest (1880) is another rural themed painting that pulls from his roots, as his father grew grapes to support the family. Acquired in 2016 by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, The Grape Harvest provides an important link for the museum between Van Gogh and Bastien-Lepage. Axel Rüger (director of the Van Gogh Museum) wrote, “We are delighted with this purchase: not only is The Grape Harvest an impressive masterpiece, it also illustrates the way Van Gogh was inspired by his predecessors. Jules Bastien-Lepage’s honest and simple approach to peasant life made him an important model for Vincent van Gogh, who also wanted to depict the harsh yet honest life of country people without idealizing it. Bastien-Lepage’s The Grape Harvest painted in a highly animated variety of brushstrokes and tones, is an impressive example. The story told by The Grape Harvest is enigmatic: a young woman carrying two empty baskets walks towards the viewer, but does not make eye contact. She looks over her shoulder instead, turning away in a pose that draws the viewer’s eye and leads it, as it were, into the landscape. What is the woman looking at? Her companions on the left? Or at the grey clouds, which make her doubt whether the grape harvest will be able to start?”5
“The Wood Gatherer, painted for the Salon of 1882, is one of Jules Bastien-Lepage's most important works. 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. The remarkable color and handling of paint reflect the artist's unique ability to blend the greater luminosity and atmosphere of the Impressionists with the more conservative, precisionist technique of the Academicians. 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.”6
Village Lovers (1882) is considered one of Bastien-Lepage's finest works, it is also his last major work. Exhibited in the 1883 Paris Salon, it is now part of the collection of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Art in Moscow, Russia. Village Lovers was particularly popular among Russian artists and writers of the late nineteenth century; admired by Valentin Serov (1865-1911), Mikhail Nesterov (1862-1942) and Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910). “The ability to combine a realistic subject with a lyrical landscape, to record moments of harmony between man and nature with such remarkable precision, brought Bastien-Lepage widespread fame as a 'poetic realist'.”7 By the time Bastien-Lepage was painting Village Lovers he had already begun suffering from severe stomach pains, which would later be diagnosed as a cancerous tumor. His brother Émile, who became an architect, lived in Paris and watched over him. Eventually their mother came to take care of her son. In 1882, the same year he was working on the painting, Bastien-Lepage met the Russian artist Marie Bashkirtseff (1858-1884). They developed a strong friendship that blossomed into love during the last months of their lives, with Bashkirtseff dying on October 31 and Bastien-Lepage on December 10 of 1884. Bashkirtseff kept a journal, which became quite famous after her death and was first published by Bastien-Lepage’s friend, André Theuriet. Her entry for Thursday, March 15, 1883 reads:
At 3:00 everyone arrived –Mme. and Mlle. Canrobert, Alice, Bojidar, Alexis, the Princess Karageorgevitch, Abbéma, Mme. Kanchine–to go to Bastien’s to see his picture “L’amour au Village.” With a flower in her hand, a girl stands in an orchard, leaning on a fence, her head bent. A young man stands on the other side of the fence, eyes lowered, wringing his hands. He’s not just a painter, but a poet, a psychologist.8
As he was only able to complete six of the twelve planned paintings for Months in the Country, there is no way to tell the depth of Bastien-Lepage’s influence, or the direction his work would have taken had he not succumbed to illness in 1884. His brother Émile bought many of his paintings after his death, including Potato Gatherers and Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt. One year after their death in 1885, Marie Bashkirtseff’s mother purchased Annunciation to the Shepherds and Joan of Arc.9 Their mutual friend, Prince Bojidar Karageorgevitch (1862-1908) was with Bastien-Lepage at the end and wrote: “At last he was unable to work anymore; and he died on the 10th of December, 1884, breathing his last in my arms. At his grave's head his mother and brother planted an apple-tree.”10 In 1892 Theuriet wrote a memoir, Jules Bastien-Lepage and His Art. In the last lines of the book he writes, “Things truly beautiful have wonderful vitality and last on through the centuries, hovering above the earth where the generations of men go turn by turn to sleep, – and this survival of the works of the spirit of man is perhaps the surest immortality upon which he can count.”11
About the Author
Cathy Locke is an award-winning fine art painter, professor, and published writer, specializing in Russian art of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Cathy Locke’s artwork – www.cathylocke.com
- André Theuriet, Jules Bastien-Lepage and His Art, Forgotten Books, 2012, Originally published in 1892, page 22.
- André Theuriet, Jules Bastien-Lepage and His Art, Forgotten Books, 2012, Originally published in 1892, page 46
- Marie Bashkirseff, Lust for Glory, Volume II: The Journal of Marie Bashkirtseff, entry for Thursday, March 15, 1883
- André Theuriet, Jules Bastien-Lepage and His Art, Forgotten Books, 2012, Originally published in 1892, page 105