Frederic Bazille (1841-1870) was painting down on his parents’ ancestral estate near Montpelier in the south of France when the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870. A close friend of Manet, Renoir, and Monet, Bazille was a prime mover in the so-called Batignolles group, named after the area in Paris’s Right Bank where their members, led by Manet, used to meet.
Down in the country, things were really happening for Bazille. He was growing daily in confidence. He was loosening up. He was, above all, letting in sunlight — the kind of bright light that carves through foliage, blocks out stark shadows, leaves bare skin soapy with sweat. This penchant for capturing bright outdoor light became so notable that art historians now look on his paintings as vital heralds of Impressionism.
“Summer Scene” hangs at Harvard Art Museums. Measuring 63 inches by 63 inches, it’s one of the most striking works in their entire collection. It was begun in Bazille’s studio in Paris, but he worked it up into a finished picture during this summer sojourn down south.
The male figures bathing and frolicking in the water may seem a bit stiff and academic. Scholars believe some are based directly on figures in Renaissance pictures by Sebastiano del Piombo and Andrea Mantegna. From their very calculated dispersal in and around the water, there’s certainly a feeling that Bazille wanted to show off his ability to handle contorted anatomy and various challenges of foreshortening and perspective.
But the musty smell of the mid-19th-century academic studio is blasted away by Bazille’s handling of the southern light. Zacharie Astruc, the critic and artist who was a friend of Bazille (and Manet’s first champion), wrote of Bazille: “The sun inundates his canvases.”
I’m not sure if that sounds so good in French, but I suspect it probably does.
Scholars have found another source, this one literary: a scene in an 1867 novel by the Goncourt Brothers called “Manette Salomon.” It describes young men bathing in bright sunlight.
Such scenes had no real future in Impressionism, which for the most part shunned bare male skin. They had no future in Bazille’s life either. When war broke out, he enlisted in a regiment of Zouaves, well known for their dangerous feats. On Nov. 28, before his 30th birthday, he was killed in the Beaune-la-Rolande.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.