Frederic Bazille: How to be a Great Artist

If I ask you who your favorite Impressionist painter is, would you say: Frédéric Bazille? Would you more likely say Monet, Renoir, Degas, Cezanne or Cassatt?  My favorite Impressionist is Vincent van Gogh.  So, as I was walking from the National Gallery of Art’s (NGA) West Building to its East Building, I was totally planning to skip its newest exhibit, Frédéric Bazille and the Birth of Impressionism.

Then, I saw the huge exhibit banner, and I thought maybe I will take a little peek.  In the very first gallery, this little girl stopped me in my tracks.

Little Italian Street Singer by Frédéric Bazille, 1866 Source: Musée Fabre

I immediately thought that this painting, done by Bazille at age 24, showed promise.  I wondered: How did Bazille go from this painting to being an Impressionist?  If Bazille is one of the founders of Impressionism, why has no one heard of him before?

These are great and valid questions!  This exhibit definitely answers them.

What I did not expect is that this exhibit is also a Masterclass from Frederic Bazille on “How to be a Great Artist.”

Why do I say that?  Look again at the little girl above.  Remember, he painted her at age 24.  Here is his family’s portrait, painted only two years later, at age 26.


The Family Gathering by Frédéric Bazille, 1868 Source: Musée d’Orsay

Now look at what he painted the year he died, two years later, at age 28.  Bazille’s 7 year artistic career was cut short by the Franco-Prussian war.

Young Woman with Peonies by Frédéric Bazille, 1870 Source: National Gallery of Art

These three paintings were each created 2 years apart.  You can see a clear progression in Bazille’s mastery.

NGA has done such a masterful job of organizing this exhibit!  It isn’t just a retrospective of Bazille’s paintings.  This is a must-see show, if you want to become a better artist, or if you are interested in the behind-the-scenes peek at how artists evolve.  So, walk through the exhibit with me and let’s deconstruct how Frédéric Bazille became a Master in 7 short years.

Lesson One: Copy the Masters

When he started painting at age 20, Bazille copied Masters at the Louvre such as Peter Paul Rubens.  Here, he copies Veronese.  We all know that this is a very effective learning technique.

Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine, copy after Veronese by Frédéric Bazille, 1864. Source: Commune de Beaune-la-Rolande

Lesson Two: Paint Still Life

Bazille painted a lot of still life in his studio.  He painted anything on hand from fish and fowl to soup bowl covers.  Daily Art, anyone?

Still Life with Fish by Frédéric Bazille, 1866. Source: Detroit Institute of Arts

Lesson 3: Go Outside and Paint Some Landscapes

Bazille went on painting trips with Monet and other artist friends.  At this point, Bazille struggled with seascapes.  So, what did he do?  He copied Monet’s painting!  What a direct example of Steal Like An Artist!

Monet-The Coast at Sainte-Adresse
The Seashore At Sainte-Adresse by Claude Monet, 1864. Source: Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The Beach at Sainte-Adresse by Frédéric Bazille, 1865. Source: High Museum of Art

Lesson 4: Work Closely With Other Artists

Bazille worked in six studios in his 7 year career.  He shared these studios with Monet, Renoir, and Sisley.  These artists often painted the same subjects and copied from each other.  Another direct example of Steal Like An Artist!

Lesson 5: Innovate – Modern Figures in Sunlight

Now, it gets even more interesting.  Bazille starts introducing contemporary figures in the landscape!  We take this idea for granted now.  When he did this, it was shocking.  He was often rejected by the show all artists wanted to be in – the official Paris Salon.  Do you see the light that Impressionists are famous for?

Bazille,_Frédéric_-_View_of_the_Village,_1868 (1)
View of the Village by Frédéric Bazille, 1868. Source: Musée Fabre

Lesson 6: Jump on a Trend and Make It Your Own

In 1860s, florals came back in fashion.  Bazille embraced it and made it his own.  By this point he was also painting modern nudes and landscapes in his own unique voice.

Vase of Flowers on a Console by Frédéric Bazille, 1867. Source: Musée de Grenoble

If you go see this exhibit, you will see Bazille’s movement towards Impressionism along with Monet, Sisley, and Renoir.  If he had not tragically died at age 28, he would have been just as well known as the other founders of Impressionism.

This is the only American venue of this exhibit.  Not only is it a masterclass from Bazille on how to be a great artist, it is also a masterclass from the NGA on how to create engaging exhibits.

Frédéric Bazille and the Birth of Impressionism
April 9 – July 9, 2017
The National Gallery of Art
150 4th St NW, Washington, DC 20001
Hours: Monday–Saturday: 10:00–5:00
Sunday: 11:00–6:00
Cost: Free

Have you bumped into an unexpected masterclass lately?  Tell me in your comments below.


One thought on “Frederic Bazille: How to be a Great Artist

Add yours

  1. What a great article! I learned so much! I’ll be sure to recommend this to all of my friends. I’m not an artist, but this really caught my eye. Keep writing!

    One question – how do I recognize a masterclass?


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