Finding A Neglected French Genius At The National Gallery

I grew up in a city “lousy with Impressionists,” as some fellow New Yorkers might have jokingly put it. I found them in the Museum of Modern Art, The Guggenheim, and most amazingly of all, the gloriously mammoth Metropolitan Museum of Art.

These painters became friends of mine so early—thanks to school visits and Sunday visits with my family—and got to know them so well that I developed contrarian favorites, like the lesser known Sisley and Caillebotte.

But despite all those visits over the years, my extensive reading, trips to museums in Europe as well, and the documentaries I watched, Frederic Bazile was a painter I never got to know. Not surprisingly: His career lasted less than a decade, cut short by the Franco-Prussian War. He died at 28.

I was recently in D.C. where I spent a wonderful morning at the National Gallery’s well-curated Bazile Exhibition. The info on the walls was engaging, precise, and enlightening. You learned all the ways Bazile intersected with other Impressionists like Manet and Renoir, and what painters like Berthe Morisot thought of him.

Best of all, you saw the young man’s talent blossom. Some of the early work was slightly awkward or even dull, but as you traveled through time, other paintings were touched with graceful melancholy, especially his intimate portraits. And Bazille was unique for his time in working with the male nude as well as the female.

The show was small enough to plunge you into all sorts of reveries without clobbering you, the way some blockbuster exhibitions can do. You could feel transported to another time and place. I was there on a Saturday when the museum opened at 10AM and it didn’t start to get crowded for an hour. That meant I had plenty of time to study all the paintings in relative quiet and then go back and re-examine my favorites. And wonder what would have happened if he’d live even a decade longer.

And I kept wondering why nobody’s made a film about his life. He was a lucky man, lived on an allowance from his family, shared what he had with less fortunate painters. But then his luck ran out, just when people were beginning to think he was verging on greatness. What a story.

Lev Raphael’s novel Rosedale in Love is set in the hothouse world of Gilded Age New York, and paintings play a not insignificant role in the life of one of the main characters.

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