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February 11, 2006

Bastien-Lepage: Forgotten Influential

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

For many years, casual students of art history have been shown the thundering Main Line locomotive of 19th century Western painting passing through Classicism (David), Romanticism (Delacroix) and then, most importantly, Impressionism before crossing into the 20th century and the enlightened highlands of Modernism.

Academic art was the Manichean evil against which the heroic Impressionists struggled, but only a few especially ridiculous examples were shown to get the point across. And the non-Academic, non-Impressionist painting that didn't conveniently fit the narrative was sidetracked to footnote status. That was the situation around 1960, anyhow.

Today, brief histories of painting still tend to follow this simple scheme. However, over the last several decades, art historians, museum curators and publishers of art books have been making more and more room for serious studies of Academic painters along with other non-Impressionists whose reputations plunged around the time of the Great War.

For example, it's not hard to find books about Lawrence Alma-Tadema and J.M. Waterhouse, the latter's work even being calendar fodder these days. Pre-Raphaelite artists, especially Rossetti and Burne-Jones, have regained much of the esteem they lost following their deaths. Sargent and Whistler are back big-time.

Still missing in action, below the radar -- pick your favorite metaphor -- are artists lumped into the juste-milieu (loosely translated as "middle of the road") category. Actually this category isn't very useful because it has been applied to more than one 19th century setting; the extremes defining the middle differing over time. Morever, the term implies what the art is not and tells one nothing about what it is. For now, I'll focus on a man whose work influenced this amorphous group in the 1870s and 80s.

This is Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848-84). He deserves a modern biography, but one has yet to appear. Material about him is sketchy, dispersed, or out-of-print. Such sources as there are nearly all agree that he was highly influential to important non-Academics and non-Impressionists.

Here are highlights of Bastien-Lepage's life. He was born in Damvillers in the Meuse département and first studied art in Verdun. Showing great talent he went to Paris and gained admission to the École des Beaux-Arts and studied under Alexandre Cabanel. He fought in the Franco-Prussian War and received a severe chest wound. Returning to his studies he placed second in a quest to win the prestigious Prix de Rome. This near-miss so discouraged him that he returned to Domvillers to paint local scenes. He also painted portraits and an historical work (see below), being widely exhibited in France and Britain. His health was weak following the war and he died young, in Paris, of cancer of the stomach (according to one source).

Roger Billcliffe in his book "The Glasgow Boys" explains Bastien-Lepage's influence on the Glasgow Boys, a group of (initially) non-establishment painters whose main work (of this school) appeared in the period 1875-95. Other artists of the time were similarly influenced.

After mentioning the Hague School and the Barbizon painters Billcliffe states (page 33):

What would have attracted the attention of the Boys was the muted colour range that these painters used, again having an affinity with Whistler, and their choice of simple domestic subjects rather than historical or anecdotal genre. What was also common to both French and Dutch painters was a tendency to place their figures on the frontal plane of the canvas, making them dominate the composition and causing them often to be silhouetted against a receding landscape or a low horizon. Nowhere was this particular device to be used so effectively as in the work of a young French painter called Jules Bastien-Lepage.

Where Millet was concerned with the general, a synthesis of rural life, Bastien-Lepage applied himself to the particular. Millet's paintings reflected the life of rural France but Bastien-Lepage chose one particular task, performed by one particular person at a specific moment and recreated it on his canvas.

From page 34:

His models stand on the frame of his paintings, almost ready to walk out of them. They are placed against a landscape background which Bastien-Lepage painted from a standing position as he believed it to be crucial in our understanding of the relationship of figures to their surroundings. His grasp of aerial perspective was much criticised but he defended it vehemently....

In many of his paintings the figure defines the size of the canvas by filling it completely; in a similar way the landscape around the figure is defined by the size of the brushstrokes used to depict it. Detailed marks are used to render the foreground grasses or stones; broader, square brushes model the middle distance; and a series of softer, less definite strokes indicate the far distance. Perspective, therefore, is indicated by a change of handling rather than by any pictorial indication of recession. The central figure of these paintings ... cuts across all these changes in brushstroke and they are therefore emphasised by a vertical reference point to the foreground which can be charted by the handling of the figure. Other similar reference points are often introduced by the use of vertical features having their origin at the bottom of the picture, and therefore the frontal plane of the composition. Such features included trees and tall grasses....

[ Long-lists alert!!] Besides the Glasgow Boys (including Sir John Lavery, George Henry, E.A. Hornell, Alexander Mann, E.A. Walton, Sir James Guthrie and Joseph Crawhall) other artists cited as having been influenced by Bastien-Lapage’s plein-air style include Sir George Clausen, Alexander Stanhope Forbes, Joaquin Sorolla, Christian Krogh, Albert Edelfelt, Elin Danielson-Cambogi, Abram Arkhipov, Léon Fréderic, Walter Frederick Osborne and Sven Bergh.


Lepage - photo.jpg
Jules Bastien-Lepage.

Lapage - The Haymakers - 1877.jpg
"The Haymakers" 1877.

Lepage - The Potato Gatherers - 1878.jpg
"The Potato Gatherers" 1978

Bastien-Lepage - Sarah Bernhardt - 1879.jpg
Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt, 1879.

Lepage - StJoan - 1880.jpg
"Joan of Arc Listening to the Voices" 1880.

Bastien-Lepage The Wood Gatherer - 1881.jpg
"The Wood Gatherer" 1881.

Lapage - Pauvre Fauvette - 1881.jpg
"Pauvre Fauvette" 1881.

Lepage - Pas Meche - 1882.jpg
"Pas Meche" 1882.
The image quality is poor, but the best I could locate. The painting's details appear more like those in the one above.


Although it’s possible that I’ve seen a Bastien-Lepage painting, I can’t remember doing so. I might not have noticed for two reasons: (1) I was unaware of his significance until I read Billcliffe’s book, and (2) based on reproductions I’ve seen, his art doesn’t reach out and grab me by the throat like a work by Sargent will.

I suspect the reason why Bastien-Lapage fails to grab me has something to do with his subject-matter as opposed to his technique. Peasants staring out at me from the canvas seem to elicit a similar (though much weaker) ick-reaction to that invoked by William Bouguereau's waifs series. I really need to think about this; a post will follow if I come up with anything interesting or worthwhile.

Also expect some posting on the Glasgow Boys, whose work I generally prefer to Bastien-Lapage’s. I’m also considering doing an article on the state of European art about the time Bastien-Lapage died, and no doubt he will receive major attention.



posted by Donald at February 11, 2006


I was hoping that you would do something on Jules Bastien-Lepage. Although I know nothing about him or about his work in general, his "Joan of Arc Listening to Voices" has been one of my favorite paintings since I was a teenager and I happened upon it during a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Although I realize that "realism" is not (and should not) be the "be all and end all" when it comes to judging a painting (and I realized that even as a teenager), what is impressive about this painting is the way the realism of the Joan of Arc figure has been used to create a greater artistic effect. The life-sized figure of a haunted Joan of Arc is amazingly real, while the rest of the (very large) painting also seems "real," but in a more painterly kind of way. So there seems to be two realities -- just as there was for Joan of Arc -- and the viewer seems to be sharing her out-of-body experience of both "being there but, at the same time, being somewhere else."

However -- sometime in the early 1990s(?), I believe -- I saw this painting after it had been re-installed in the Met's brand new European galleries. For some reason (e.g., I was taller?; I now wore eyeglasses?; the painting was hung at a different angle?; the lights were positioned differently?; etc.), I experienced a problem with glare, and I found it difficult to look at the painting without being hit in the eye with a bright reflection. As a result, the experience was not quite as impressive as I had remembered it.

Side note: During my high school years, I would go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art quite a bit on the weekends -- especially in the summer. It was totally free [no requested donation in those days], and the Museum was, of course, climate controlled. Surprisingly, in those days the Museum wasn't nearly the tourist attraction that it is today. A good number of the galleries -- of a museum that was considerably smaller than today's Museum -- were virtually empty. It was just you, the paintings and, occassionally, a "stray" security guard.

P.S. -- Please forgive me if the following has been mentioned already, but recently I haven't had time to read all the 2 Blowhards posts as carefully as I would like.

1) There is a book review in the "New York Times" of a book, "The Judgement of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade that Gave the World Impressionism," that is about the rise of Impressionism (and the battle between it and Salon art). The book is by Ross King and is reviewed by William Grimes in the 2/10/06 "Times." (The book review discusses, for instance, the rising reputation of Manet vs. the falling reputation of Meissonier.)

Although I haven't read the book (and only skimmed the book review), it appears as though the book provides, in a way, some additional historical background for your essays.

Here's the url:

2) Another book that comes to mind is Tom Wolfe's very funny historical/sociological sketch, "The Painted Word" (and with regard to architecture, "From Bauhaus to Our House"). In some ways I see your very interesting posts as being a fleshing out -- an illustrated companion volume, so to speak -- of Wolfe's book. (Your essays would be, of course, illustrating in a more detailed way what is/has been overlooked/ignored.)

3) Also, a few days ago, I read an essay in a Wolfe anthology "Hooking Up" which also might be of interest. It's about the "lost," but very talented, traditional sculptor (I forget his name) who designed/sculpted (among other things) the traditional sculptural component of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in D.C.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on February 12, 2006 06:39 PM


These are the first paintings I've seen of Bastien-Lapage. Thanks for spotlighting another excellent realist painter. I think that one of the reasons his work doesn't grab you like a Sargent painting are manifold. Sargent had a way of getting himself out of the painting, especially in his more personal work (landscapes, portraits of friends, travel/genre paintings and watercolors). His scenes don't look staged at all, but very natural. Bastien-Lapage's work looks very definitely as if it has been composed. Sargent also had a much greater command of color, and the ability, from his considerable landscape painting experience and painting with impressionists like Monet, to convincingly paint sunlit scenes. This adds to the realistic effect. Just my thoughts.

Thanks again.

Posted by: Brian Minder on February 12, 2006 09:29 PM

Bastien LePage at ARC

Had "Marchande de Fleurs a Londre" 1882 coincidentally as my wallpaper for an hour today.
I rotate randomly from a huge collection.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on February 12, 2006 10:06 PM

"Peasants staring out at me from the canvas seem to elicit a similar..."

Ooh, I like me some peasants and waifs. Aversion to sentimentality is my problem, I think, that needs to be overcome. Bacon and Kahlo shouldn't provide the only kinds of subject matter.

Millet, L'Hermitte, Jules Breton for naturalists. And, yes, Bouguereau.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on February 12, 2006 10:22 PM

Benjamin,the sculptor Tom Wolfe wrote about was Frederick Hart (1943-1999).

Posted by: Bill on February 13, 2006 08:46 AM

"Rural Life" is very popular with Russian art calendars' publishers; I don't remember seeing it at Pushkin museum - probably didn't impress me enough (last time I was there about 20 yrs ago).
"Potato gatherers" were mentioned in my FIT Western Art History class as prerequisite and in comparison to Van Gogh's "Potato Eaters", to demonstrate different treatment of the same subject.

Posted by: Tatyana on February 13, 2006 09:51 AM

Oops, that should've been "Rural Love".

Posted by: Tatyana on February 13, 2006 09:53 AM

Re: Benjamin Hemric's description of the underutilized Met back when (1950's?): I feel for those teenagers with a genuine calling for art, who are nowadays up against today's roaring-conveyor-belt-move'em-along-museums. How can they possibly get the quiet soaking in art that was once so available and is so necessary for that love to mature?

Posted by: ricpic on February 13, 2006 12:28 PM

I have two thoughts. One is that I just ordered Peter Brooks' "Realist Vision," responding to a glowing review by Larry Shillock in the Bloomsbury Review. The review makes it sound as though realistic painting is coming back together as a legitimate practice, which you and Brian Minder keep saying.

The other is that one refuge of educated realistic painting has been Western Art. I will be curious to see what happens now -- will Western art disappear as a genre, reabsorbed into a renewed mainstream? Or will the subject matter continue to ghetto-ize it into something only suitable as trophies for industrialist Republicans?

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on February 13, 2006 02:23 PM

I used the Joan of Arc painting in an exercise in one of my classes for years, and over time came to truly appreciate it -- it's wonderfully complex and evocative.

Thanks for the discussion.

Posted by: missgrundy on February 13, 2006 04:11 PM

Benjamin -- When I first visited the Met in 1962 American artists including Sargent were off in a dingy ghetto. Now they have a really nice gallery and the Sargents are handsomely displayed. I also like the increased number of coffee ships, etc. that give patrons a chance to take breaks. As a result I spent 5 hours in the museum instead of my planned 2 the last time I was there. So some of the change seems okay.

I'm about halfway through "The Judgment of Paris" but I'm not sure if I'll post about it (I've been giving this thought, though).

Brian -- Interesting comments.

Mary -- Thanks for the citation; I'll try to check into it.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on February 13, 2006 09:21 PM

Like Benjamin Henric, the painting of Joan of Arc hearing the Voices in the Met has always been a vewry attractive, vivid painting for me (even though I've only seen it in its new inferior location). I have always been ashamed to like it so much but maybe I shouldn't be.

Posted by: jult52 on February 14, 2006 12:22 PM

I believe that Lapage used a camera in order to capture the details of his figures (as did Norman Rockwell and many others). A bad thing to do. When the machine takes over, the imagination dies. Baudelaire wrote about this phenomenon. And it may account for the inability of most people to enjoy works in the classical tradition: their brains have been dulled by exposure to the machine made pictures.

Posted by: Elliott Banfield on February 15, 2006 08:38 AM

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