Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Jules Bastien-Lepage and His Art

French artist Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848-1884) has captured the hearts of many people with his rustic scenes and sensitively painted work. Quite often friends will mention how his "Jeanne d'Arc," at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, has stopped them in their tracks holding them spellbound. Bastien also became a leader in the Naturalist school as he pulled his subject matter primarily from the countryside around his hometown of Damvillers, France. 

Recently I ran across a captivating biography written by his good friend and author Andre Theuriet entitled, "Jules Bastien-Lepage and His Art: A Memoir." I have excerpted those things about him that interested me the most for this blogpost - beginning with the beginning...

The Early Years
Jules Bastien-Lepage was born at Damvillers on November 1, 1848, in a simple, well-to-do farmer's house, the front coloured yellow, the shutters gray. His father was a sensible, industrious, methodical man; the mother a woman of truest heart and untiring devotion, and Grandfather Lepage, formerly a collector of taxes, had now found a home with his children. They lived on the modest produce of the fields which they themselves cultivated and on the grandfather's small pension. Jules' father required that his son should draw with pencil on paper the various articles in use upon the table - the lamp, the jug, the inkstand, etc. It was to this that Bastien-Lepage owed that love of sincerity, that patient seeking for exactness of detail, which were the ruling motives of his life as an artist. The dream was to educate Jules for a position in an administrative career, and by great sacrifice they were able to send him to the College of Verdun." But he was soon astonishing his master there with his great drawing abilities. One thing led to another till finally Jules told them he wished to be an artist.

Portrait of the Artist's Grandfather, 1874
at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Nice, France
The Bastien-Lepages held a family council. The grandfather considered Jules' desire to study in Paris hazardous and shook his head. The mother was frightened above all at the dangers of Paris and the life of privation to be undergone there, but, conquered at last by the persistency of her son, she murmured timidly, "Yet, if Jules wishes it..."

He obtained a position with the post office in Paris and studied off hours at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. But doing two things well was too difficult. He quit the post office. So his mother went to work in the fields. With an additional annual allowance voted him by his region, he was able to study with Cabanel and sent his first picture to the Paris Salon in 1870. It went unnoticed - and then the Seige of Paris came. He was wounded and spent time recovering back in his village.

He returned to study in Paris. Entered the Salon in 1872. No attention was paid to his work. Then in 1874 he entered a painting of his grandfather in the open air, in the little garden which he loved to cultivate. He held on his knees his horn snuff-box and his handkerchief of blue cotton. His blue eyes twinkled with humour; the white forked beard spread itself over an ancient vest of the colour of dead leaves. The public was delighted. He won a third-class medal and success.

Introducing Jules
Jules Bastien-Lepage

A mutual friend introduced Lepage and myself to each other. I saw before me a young man, plainly dressed, small, fair and muscular. His pale face with its square determined brow, short nose and spiritual lips, scarcely covered with a blond moustache, was lighted up by two clear blue eyes whose straight and piercing look told of loyalty and indomitable energy.

There was roguishness as well as manliness in that mobile face with its flattened features, and a certain cool audacity alternated with signs of sensitiveness and sparkling fun and gaiety.

Jules Enters the 1875 Paris Salon

Portrait of Simon Hayem, 1875

The Communicant, 1875
In 1875 Bastien-Lepage reappeared in the Salon with "La Communiante" and the portrait of "M. Simon Hayem," two excellent works which gave, each in its way, a new mark of his originality. The portrait of M. Hayem was best liked by men of the world.

Artists were most struck by "La Communiante." This young girl's simple awkward bearing, ill at ease in the white gloves, is a marvel of truthful painting. It is interesting, as being the first of those small, lifelike, characteristic portraits in a style at once broad and conscientious.

The Prix de Rome

I remember as if it were yesterday that July morning when the gates of the Palais des Beaux Arts were opened, and the crowd of eager inquirers rushed into the hall of the competition for the Prix de Rome. The subject chosen for 1875 was taken from the New Testament - L'Annunciation aux Bergers (The Annunciation to the Shepherds) - and Jules Bastien-Lepage had joined in.

The Annunciation to the Shepherds
Julies Bastien-Lepage, 1875
After a few minutes Bastien's picture was surrounded, and a buzz of approval arose from the groups of young people gathered round that work, so real, so strongly conceived and executed that the other nine canvases disappeared as in a mist.

The artist had understood and treated the subject in a manner utterly different from the usual style of the Academy. It was familiar and touching, like a page of the Bible. The visit of the angel had surprised the shepherds sleeping by their fire in the open air; the oldest of them was kneeling before the apparition and prostrated himself in adoration; the youngest was gazing with half-closed eyes, and his open lips and hands with fingers apart, expressed astonishment and admiration. The angel, a graceful figure with childlike almost feminine head, was showing with outstretched arm to the shepherds, Bethlehem in the distance surrounded by a miraculous halo.

Most of those who saw this work of Lepage declared that he would carry off the Prix de Rome with a high hand. Yet the jury decided otherwise. It was an older and more correct competitor who was sent to the Villa Medicis at the cost of the State.

An excerpt from a letter by Jules Bastien-Lepage after his loss of the Prix de Rome in 1875: "I learned my business in Paris, I shall not forget that, but my art I did not learn there. I should be sorry to undervalue the high qualities and the devotion of the masters who direct the school. But is is my fault if I have found in their studio the only doubts that have tormented me?"

Return to Damvillers
Bastien's Mother
 I went to join Jules Bastien-Lepage in September at Damvillers. Thanks to him, I saw with a very different feeling the town that formerly I thought so dull. Cordially and hospitably received in the house on the corner of the great square, I made the acquaintance of the father, with his calm, thoughtful face; of the grandfather, so cheerful in spite of his eighty years; of the mother, so full of life, so devoted, the best mother that one could wish for an artist. I saw what a strong and tender union existed between the members of this family whose idol and whose pride was Jules.

We set out along with one of my old friends and the painter's young brother. For a week we walked with our bags on our backs through the forest country of the Argonne, going through woods from Varennes to La Chalade and from Islettes to Beaulieu.

The weather was rainy and unpleasant enough, but we were none the less gay for that, never winking when the rain came down, visiting the glass-words, admiring the deep gorges in the forest, the solitary pools in the midst of the woods, the miles of green and misty avenues at the foot of the hills.

Jules Bastien was always the leader. When we arrived at our resting place in an evening, after a day of walking in the rain, he almost deafened us with scraps of cafe-concert songs with which his memory was stored. I seem still to hear in the dripping night that voice, clear and vibrating, now silent for ever.
Plans for Paintings
As we went along he told me of his plans for the future. He wanted to tell the whole story of country life in a series of large pictures: hay-making, harvest, seed-time, the lovers, the burial of a young girl. He also wanted to paint a peasant woman as Jeanne d'Arc at the moment when the idea of her divine mission is taking possession of her brain; then, a Christ in the Tomb.

Together we made a plan for publishing a series of twelve compositions: Les Mois Rustiques (The Months in the Country), for which he was to furnish the drawings and I the text.

"Les Bles Murs," 1880, at the Musee de Guezireh, France
From time to time we stopped at the opening of a wood or at the entrance of a village, and Jules would make a hasty sketch, little thinking that the wild and simple peasants of the Argonne would take us for Germans surreptitiously making notes of their roads and passes. At Saint Rouin, while we were looking on at a Pilgrimage, we had nearly been taken as spies. I have told this story elsewhere. The remembrance of it amused us for a long time.

The Death of Jules' Father
Jules Bastien-Lepage had scarcely been six weeks at Damvillers again when he lost his father to pulmonary congestion. Death entered the house for the first time, and it was a rude shock for a family where each loved the other so well.

"We were too young to lose such a good friend," he wrote to me, "In spite of all the courage one can muster, the void, the frightful void is so great, that one is sometimes in despair. Happily remembrance remains, and what a remembrance it is! The purest that is possible. He was goodness and self-abnegation personified. He loved us so! What is to be done? We must try to fill the void with love for those who remain and who are attached to us, always keeping in mind him who is gone, and working much to drive away the fixed idea."  

Theuriet's Portrait 
Andre Theuriet, 1878
Jules' studio was very large and simply furnished with an old divan, a few stools and a table covered with books and sketches. It was decorated only with the painter's own studies and a few hangings of Japanese material. I used to go there every morning at this time to sit for my portrait.

I used to arrive about eight o'clock to find Jules already up,but with his eyes only half awake, swallowing two raw eggs to give himself tone, as he said. He already complained of stomach trouble and lived by rule. We used to smoke a cigarette and then he began to work.

He painted with a feverish rapidity and with a certainty of hand quite astonishing. Sometimes he would stop, get up and roll a cigarette, would closely examine the face of his model and then, after five minutes of silent contemplation, he would sit down again with the vivacity of a monkey and begin to paint furiously.

The portrait, sketched in during the snows of January, was almost finished when the apricot tree began to put on its covering of white flowers in April.  

Painting "Les Foins"
"Les Foins (The Hayfield), 1877
Immediately after the opening of the Salon, Bastien packed up his baggage and fled to Damvillers to prepare for his great picture 'Les Foins (The Hayfield),' which occupied him all the summer of 1877, and of which he gave me news from time to time.  

July's news: "I shall not say much about my work. The subject is not yet sufficiently sketched in. What I can tell you that I am going to give myself up to a debauch in pearly tones: half-dry hay and flowering grasses, and this in sunshine looking like a pale yellow tissue with silver threads running through it. The clumps of trees on the banks of the stream and in the meadow will stand out strongly with a rather Japanese effect." 

15 August: "Your verses are just the picture I should like to paint. They smell of the hay and the heat of the meadow. If my hay smells as well as yours I shall be content. 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. Nothing of the usual willow arrangement with its branches drooping over the heads of the people to frame the scene. Nothing of that sort. My people stand out against the half-dry hay. There is a little tree in one corner of the picture to show that other trees are near, where the men are gone to rest in the shade. The whole tone of the picture will be a light grey green." 

September: "Why didn't you come, lazy fellow? You would have seen my Hay before it was finished. Lenoir, the sculptor, my neighbour liked it. The country people say it is alive. I have little more than the background to finish." 

Les Foins' was sent to the Salon in 1878.. It had a great success though it was warmly discussed. In the hall where it was placed among the pictures which surrounded it, this picture gave an extraordinary sensation of light and of the open air. It had the effect of a large open window. This picture of life in the fields, so carefully studied, so powerfully rendered, had a considerable influence on the painting of the day. From the time of this exhibition many young painters, many foreign artists especially, threw themselves with enthusiasm into the new way opening out by Bastien-Lepage, and, without intention on his part, the painter of the Meusian peasants became the head of a school.
Look Ma, I'm a Success!
Jules Bastien-Lepage's success, both artistic and monetary, was secure. His first care was to let his friends at Damvillers join in his good fortune. He brought them to Paris in the summer of 1879. He took his mother to a large shop and had silks for dresses spread out before her. "Show some more,' cried he, "I want Mama to choose the best!" And the poor little mother, frightened at the sight of black satin that could stand upright of itself, in vain protested that 'she would never wear that.' She was obliged to give way.

He took his grandfather through the avenues of the Bois and the principal boulevards, expecting that he would be delighted, but in this direction his zealous efforts failed utterly. The old man remained indifferent to the splendours of Parisian luxury and to the scenery in the theatres. At the opera he yawned openly, declaring that all this commotion was deafening, and he went back to Damvillers determined that they should never take him away again.

To England and Back
After his family's visit to Paris, Jules Bastien-Lepage set out for England where he painted the Prince of Wales. Decorated in the following July, he hastened to Damvillers to show his red ribbon to his friends and also to go on with the work he loved best.

His idea was to paint Jeanne in the little orchard at Domremy at the moment when she hears, for the first time, the mysterious voices sounding in her ears the call to deliver her country. To give more precision to the scene, Bastien wished to show through the branches of the tress the 'blessed saints,' whose voices encouraged the heroic shepherdess.

In this I differed from him. I maintained that he ought to suppress these fantastic apparitions, and that the expression of Jeanne's face alone should explain to the spectator the emotion caused by the hallucination to which she was a prey. I reminded him of the sleep-walking scene in Macbeth.

The doctor and the chamber woman, I said, do not see the terrible things that dilate the pupils of Lady Macbeth, but from her face and gestures they know that there is something terrible. The effect is only the greater, because after having perceived this, the imagination of the spectator increases it. Suppress your phantoms and your picture will gain in sincerity and dramatic intensity.

Painting "Jeanne d'Arc"   

"'Come," he wrote to me, about the 15th of September. '"My picture is getting on, and getting on well; all, except the voices, is sketched, and some parts are begun. I think I have found a head for my Jeanne d'Arc and everyone thinks she expresses well the resolution to set out while keeping the charming simplicity of the peasant."
Jeanne d'Arc (detail) by Bastien-Lepage

Jeanne d'Arc
Also I think the attitude is very chaste and very sweet, as it ought to be in the figure that I want to represent, but if I am to see you soon, I prefer to leave you the pleasure of surprise and of the first impression of the picture. You will judge of it better and you will be able to say better what you think of it.

Jeanne d'Arc appeared in the Salon of 1880 but did not produce all the effect that Jules expected. The picture had its enthusiastic admirers, but also passionate detractors. The critics attacked first the want of air and of perspective; then, as I had foreseen, the voices represented by three symbolical personages, too slightly indicated to be understood, and yet too precise for apparitions. But the public did not do justice to the admirable figure of Jeanne.

The rapid and brilliant success of the young master had ruffled the amour propre of many. They made him pay for these precocious smiles of glory by undervaluing his new work. He had hoped that the medal of honour would be given to his Jeanne d'Arc. This distinction was given to an artist of talent, but whose work had neither the originality nor the qualities of execution, nor the importance of Bastien's picture. He felt this injustice strongly and went to London. There the reception and appreciation of English artists and amateurs consoled him a little for this mortification.

An Unfinished Work
His stay in London and the reading of Shakespeare had inspired him with the idea of painting one of the heroines of the great poet, and in 1881 he went back to Damvillers full of a project for painting the Death of Ophelia."

The unfinished painting

In a letter on August, 1881, he wrote, "I have begun and already advanced a large picture of Ophelia. I think it will be well to do something as a contrast to my Mendicant (Beggar). It is to be a really touching Ophelia, as heartrending as if one actually saw her.
The poor distracted girl no longer knows what she is doing, but her face shows traces of sorrow and of madness. She is close to the edge of the water leaning against a willow; upon her lips, the smile left by her last song; in her eyes, tears! Supported only by a branch, she is slipping unawares. The stream is quite close to her. In a moment she will be in it.
She is dressed in a little greenish blue bodice and a white skirt with large folds; her pockets are full of flowers and behind her is a riverside landscape. One bank under trees with tall flowering grasses and thousands of hemlock flowers, like stars in the sky; and in the higher part of the picture, a wooded slope, and the evening sun shining through birches and hazel bushes. That is the scene.
This picture was never finished. The landscape and flowers were rendered as the artist wished, but the face and the costume of Ophelia recalled his Jeanne d'Arc too much. Bastien-Lepage no doubt saw this, and for this reason put the picture on one side to return to his peasants.  
The Diner de l'Est
We [Jules Bastien-Lepage and Andre Theuriet] were both members and even founders of an Alsace-Lorraine dinner, the Diner de l'Est, which was always given in summer in the country. One of the last meetings at which he was present, took place a the end of May, 1881.

A boat had been engaged, which was to take the diners to the bridge at Suresnes, and to bring them back at night. When we arrived at the landing stage, a blind man was standing by the footbridge, attended by a young girl, who held out her sebilla to the passers-by. 

"Come, gentlemen! all of you, put your hands in your pockets!" gaily commanded Bastien, and he passed over first, preaching by example. And the eighty or a hundred guests of the Diner de l'Est passed one after another over the footbridge, each one leaving in the child's sebilla [a wooden receptacle] a coin, large or small." 

"The Mendicant"

When we were on the deck, Bastien turned round to look at the blind man and his girl, who were amazed at this unexpected windfall and were slowly counting their money. "What a lovely group," he said to me. "How I should like to paint that child!"

 Painting "L'Amour au Village"
Muffled in a warm jacket and a travelling cloak that covered him [Jules Bastien-Lepage] down to the feet, he made his models pose for him in the piercing days of February, in the little garden where he had already painted the portrait of his grandfather.

In March the work was well advanced and he invited me to go and see it at Damvillers before it was sent to the Salon. Our hosts were awaiting us on the doorstep. Around them Basse the spaniel and Golo and Barbeau were bounding and barking joyfully to give us a welcome. The next morning, early, we went up to the studio to see L'Amour au Village," which was to go to Paris that day.

"L'Amour au Village"
The subject of this picture is well known. The daylight is waning. At the gate of a village garden a lad of twenty, who has been binding sheaves and still wears his leggings of leather, is talking with a young girl. What he is saying may be guessed from his awkward manner twisting his stiff fingers and also from the attentive but embarrassed air of the young girl. There is in this picture a true and manly poetry, which is stengthening and refreshing, like the odour of ripe corn."

Bastien was glad to have completed this difficult work, and his satisfaction enable him to bear with cheerfulness the pains in his loins and the digestive troubles which were becoming more and more frequent.

Last Days
And now we sadly cross the threshold of Jules Bastien-Lepage's final time on earth. The slow decline is recorded in his letters, such as "This is to let you know that I am not a stay-at-home, as you might think. I find it important to walk a good deal, for in this way I regain a little health. My stomach was beginning to get wrong, but it is better!" But a mutual friend told Andre Theuriet, "Our poor Bastien is very ill. They think it is hopeless."

In the midst of all this, the Arabs, of astonishing calmness and splendid carriage, under their earth-coloured and ash-coloured draperies. They all wear a shirt and burnous, not one is like another. It seems as if each one gave expression to his thought by his manner of draping his garment.

It is once more the triumph of blank truth over arrangement and conventionalism. The sorrowful man, whether he wishes it or not, in spite of himself is not draped like the gay. Beauty, I am convinced, is exact truth; neither to the right nor to the left, but in the middle.

"Moonrise in Algiers"

 The improvement he [Jules Bastien-Lepage] had experienced on arriving in Algiers ceased about the end of April. His strength and his appetite gradually failed, and at the end of May it was decided to take the invalid back to France. He settled again in the Rue Legendre with the poor little mother, who never left him afterwards. When I saw him again I was shocked at the progress the disease had made. His thinness was such that my unhappy friend was nowhere in the garments that were made for his journey. His legs refused their service; he could no longer work.

For months this cruel agony was prolonged. On the 9th of December during a great part of the night, he talked of Damvillers with his mother and his brother. Then at about four in the morning he said to them with a kiss, "Come, it is time for children to sleep." Two hours later asked for something to drink, then shortly afterwards slid gently from sleep into death. He expired at six in the evening, December 10, 1884.

On the 12th of December a long train of friends and admirers accompanied his remains to the Eastern Railway Station. The next day, Sunday, the whole population of Damvillers waited at the entrance of the town for the funeral carriage. The sad procession advanced slowly on that road where the painter had loved to walk with his friends. A pale mist blotted out those hills and woods whose familiar outlines he had so often reproduced.

The cortege stopped before the little church where he had intended painting his "Burial of a Young Girl." The morning was showery. The wreaths and festoons of flowers were helped up upon the grave where they seemed to come to life again, and to send out with their renewed perfume a last adieu from Paris to the painter of the peasants of the Meuse.          

Bastien's Grave in Damvillers. Statue by Rodin.
*The above is excerpted from Andre Theuriet's biography, "Jules Bastien-Lepage and His Art. A Memoir." The entire book is free and online for the reading at https://archive.org/details/julesbastienlepa00theu

** There are several videos showing Bastien's work. Here is one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zPAUmkI0xcQ