The Cleveland Museum of Art recently acquired an exquisite portrait by Frédéric Bazille depicting his close friend and fellow Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Although not as well known as the other Impressionists, Bazille played a seminal role in the early history of the movement.
Bazille was born to a wealthy family in Montpellier, France, and began studying medicine in his hometown in 1859. After moving to Paris in 1862 to continue his training, he also began studying art and met Renoir, Claude Monet, and Alfred Sisley while attending private classes in the studio of Charles Gleyre. Bazille soon began sharing his studio with Renoir and Monet. They also went on outdoor painting trips and joined several other artists in forming the core of the nascent Impressionist movement. Their close collaboration came to a sudden, tragic end when Bazille was killed while serving in the French army during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.
Bazille’s Portrait of Renoir offers a rare glimpse into the intimate relationship between two close friends at a time when they were in the early stages of developing an Impressionist style. They were both young, relatively obscure artists struggling to make their way in the complex maze of the Parisian art world. Bazille and Renoir were only 26 years old; Monet was 27. Bazille painted this striking, poignant portrait in the studio he was sharing with Renoir and Monet on the rue Visconti near the École des Beaux-Arts in the 6th arrondissement.
Renoir is portrayed sitting in a red chair and looking directly at the viewer with a pensive expression. His jacket and blue cravat are rendered with quick, fluid brushstrokes; his features are modeled with tenderness and affection, highlighted in places with lively strokes of pure color. The white, rectangular shape in the upper right suggests a framed painting, or perhaps a mirror with a reflected figure, but the forms are so vaguely defined they inject a sense of mystery into the portrait. The entire surface is animated by lively, spontaneous brushstrokes, giving it a sense of sketchiness and informality that is unlikely to be found in a formal, commissioned portrait of the period.
Bazille painted another portrait of Renoir around the same time depicting his friend sitting on a chair with his legs propped up. Renoir may even be wearing the same jacket and blue cravat. What is most striking about these portraits is the amazing freedom and spontaneity of the painting technique, seen, for example, in the way the jacket lapel in the first portrait is rendered with quick brushstrokes that flash across the surface without completing the shape, or in how the brushstrokes in the second portrait flow freely around the figure, vigorously surrounding and animating it, but barely covering the ground in other areas. This technique, evident in both portraits, emphasizes fleeting, momentary sensations rather than traditional, academic standards of drawing or “finish.”
Significant paintings by Bazille rarely appear on the art market due to his early death and relatively small oeuvre. The museum was fortunate to acquire Portrait of Renoirfrom a private collector. It was inherited by the artist’s brother and remained in the family collection in Montpellier for generations. The painting’s acquisition is particularly significant for the museum since Bazille had been the only major Impressionist not represented in the collection. It now forms a wonderful companion to the museum’s Impressionist portraits by Renoir, Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet, and Gustave Caillebotte. It also joins Monet’s Spring Flowers and Renoir’s Romaine Lacaux, both painted in 1864, as significant early works by this trio of closely allied artists.