Excerpts from Part I, pp. 16-30 of Crastre's book of the same title, translated into English by Frederic Taber Cooper, and formatted for the Victorian Web by Jacqueline Banerjee. Omissions are shown by ellipses, and page numbers are given in square brackets. All the illustrations come from the same source. Click on them to enlarge them, and for Crastre's full captions — except for the first, which prefaces the text and is not captioned.
Jules Bastien-Lepage was born at Damvillers, in the department of the Meuse, on the first of [16/17] November, 1848. His parents were of the well-to-do farming class, occupied from one year's end to the other with the work of the fields. Consequently, all the early boyhood of the artist was passed in daily contact with the soil of Lorraine and with the sons of that soil.... These childhood impressions were destined to abide with him throughout his life; he cherished to the end a fervent love for his native land, and he felt that he had an infinitely noble task in painting that life of the fields which the Second Empire affected to despise. [17/18]
But though he came of peasant stock, it was Bastien-Lepage's good fortune that these same peasants were in prosperous circumstances and could afford to give him an education.... so, when the time came, young Bastien-Lepage wended his way towards Verdun, where he entered upon his college course.... In due time he obtained his bachelor's degree, which at that period was highly prized. His father, [18/19]... already foresaw him a distinguished official, supervising some great branch of the public service. As a matter of fact, a position was found for the young baccalaureate in a government department which was neither the most desirable nor the one of least importance; namely, the Post Office Department. Bastien-Lepage was not vastly delighted with the choice, but, dutiful son that he was, he accepted the modest clerkship offered him. One circumstance contributed, in a large degree, towards overcoming his reluctance: the post assigned to him from the start was in Paris, of which he had often heard marvellous things, and in which he hoped that he would be able to follow his secret inclination. For, in the interval his vocation had revealed itself; he had conceived a passion for drawing, for colouring, for painting; and, like Correggio, he was eager to say in his turn, "I too am a painter!"
Accordingly he set forth, leaving behind him [19/20] no suspicion of his purpose. Upon arriving at the capital, he acquitted himself scrupulously of his official duties, but every leisure moment was consecrated to visiting the museums and exhibitions. He saturated himself with the wealth of beauty strewn broadcast through the Louvre, and was thrilled with admiration at contact with the masters of every school and country. He did not care equally for them all, in spite of their genius; his intimate preferences leaned to the side of Flemish rather than Italian art; but he was not insensible to the lofty inspiration, the severe harmony, the faultless composition, which have made the great masters of the Renaissance the most astonishing prodigies in the history of painting.
But while the older schools of art delighted him, he followed with no less attention the movement of contemporary painting. At the hour when his critical spirit awoke, certain new elements and new formulas had come to light and had been put into practice by two audacious and gifted artists [20/21] by the names of Courbet and Manet. Although the prolonged struggle between the classicists and romanticists had not yet come to an end, these two rival schools were entrenched in their positions and refused to stir forth from them. Supporters of Delacroix and of Ingres confined themselves strictly to their respective hostile formulas, doing nothing either to expand or to rejuvenate them. Whoever dared to venture outside of one of these two beaten tracks was regarded as a madman, and his attempts were greeted with derisive clamours by both parties, who declared a momentary truce, for the purpose of annihilating him by a joint attack. Courbet, who was scorned by Ingres, met with equally harsh criticism from Delacroix; and as for Manet, he had managed to call down universal wrath upon his head, and at the Salon of 1863 it became necessary to place his Olympia in the very topmost line upon the wall, in order to protect it from the fury of the public, hounded on by the hue and cry of the critics.
[21/22] Bastien-Lepage made mental notes of all the episodes of this struggle; he listened to the criticisms and passed them through the crucible of his unspoiled mind, in the presence of the very works under indictment. His good sense showed him how large an element of injustice entered into these hostilities. Moreover, his peasant blood inclined him to sympathize with those artists who refused to bind themselves to seek for beauty only within the limits of academic form, and who had the ability to make it flash forth from the humblest and even the most vulgar type of subject. Furthermore, this constant study of matters pertaining to art, day by day added fuel to the hidden fire smouldering within him; he was conscious of its mounting flame. Back of the rude sketches, drawn and coloured in the tiny chamber befitting an humble postal clerk, he perceived vaguely that he also possessed the temperament of a painter, and little by little he witnessed the unfolding of his artist's soul.
Plate III: The Artist's Mother (following p.22).
What a kindly and gentle face this is, the face of the woman to whom the artist applied the tender endearment of "Good little mother"! In this work, it is evident that the heart guided the hand of the painter. None but a son could have rendered with such emotion the humid tenderness of those eyes and the maternal caress of those lips. It is a powerful work, which enrolls Bastien-Lepage in the foremost rank of portrait painters.
[24/25] At last, unable to bear it longer, he resigned from the postal service and enrolled his name at the Beaux-Arts. At this time, when he entered the studio of Cabanel, he was but little more than nineteen years of age. Cabanel, to be sure, was not the painter of his choice, but Bastien-Lepage was not for that reason any the less appreciative of a system of instruction which was dominated by a worship of line-work. His training under Cabanel was not without value to the young artist, who throughout his life, even in his most realistic paintings, proved himself to be an impeccable master of design.
At the outset, however, he was beset with difficulties. Now that his salary as a postal clerk had ceased and remittances from the family were necessarily restricted, Bastien-Lepage exerted himself to gain a living by his own efforts. He had no lack of courage, and he had in addition that Lorraine tenacity which enabled him to confront all difficulties with tranquil assurance. He worked [25/26] with desperate energy, and in the intervals of respite from his labours he overran all Paris in search of orders from business houses. It was an inglorious task, but at least it enabled him to live; thus it happened that about 1873 he produced a widely circulated advertisement for a perfumery house. Up to this time he had remained wholly unknown; and although he had already exhibited one painting, at the Salon of 1870, it was passed by unheeded both by the critics and the general public.
Plate I, The Song of Springtime (frontispiece).
This lack of success in no wise discouraged him, for he had faith. It was in the year 1874 that he exhibited The Song of Springtime. It was a veritable revelation. There was no neglect this time. The public gathered in throngs before his canvas, and the critics, notwithstanding a few objections to details, were lavish in their praise and hailed him as having the qualities of a true artist. Naturally, the picture was not perfect, but it well merited the flattering reception which it received. In a springtime landscape a young [26/27] peasant girl is seated beneath a tree, looking before her over a sunlit plain. Around her skirts a whole bevy of Cupids are gathering blossoms and offering them to the girl. Here, at the first stroke, is an assertion of the young painter's independence, his formal determination to emancipate himself from the accepted formulas in his treatment of the eternal theme of a young girl's soul, opening to the first appeal of love. As a matter of fact, the allegory is somewhat clumsy; you realize that the author's talent does not run to sentimental compositions. Yet the young girl is brushed in with an energetic hand, and all that rather coarse robustness that distinguishes the women of peasant stock is blended in a masterly manner with the naïve innocence of simple souls. The Song of Springtime was Bastien-Lepage's first attempt in that vein of realistic painting in which he was soon destined to excel.
That same year he produced Grandfather's Portrait, which also attracted much attention. [27/28] The artist had placed his model in the little garden adjoining the home of his birth. This portrait, which belongs to-day to the painter's brother, is remarkable for its naturalness, its touch of intimate understanding, and its vigour of execution.
Bastien-Lepage had now acquired a name. His Song of Springtime won him a third class medal, and the State purchased the painting for the museum at Verdun, where it at present hangs.
In the following year he exhibited Her First Communion, picturing a young and pretty country girl, stiff and self-conscious under her white veil. This work was the product of keen observation, and is deliberately stilted and traditional in its style of execution, recalling in some measure the French primitive school. Bastien-Lepage evidently had in mind the portraits by François Cluet: his little communicant is infinitely artificial in her spotless finery, yet infinitely alive under the thin surface wash of colour which recalls the Elizabeth of Austria, wife of Charles [28/29] IX, as painted by the greatest of the French primitives.
Plate VI, M. Hayem (following p. 48). [Note: This portrait is misidentified in the text as that M. X —. — JB]
Simultaneously with this picture he exhibited the Portrait of M. Hayem, in which the vigorous treatment of the face, with its clear, firm colour tones and sober workmanship, proclaimed him already a portrait painter of the first order.
His success this time was more marked: he received a medal of the second class. A less modest artist would have allowed himself to be borne tranquilly along by the mounting tide of glory; but Bastien-Lepage did not yet feel that he was sufficiently sure of himself. He wished to continue for a while longer, working, learning, perfecting himself; he even conceived the idea, in spite of his renown, of competing for the Prix de Rome. Accordingly, the painter of The Song of Springtime and Her First Communion might shortly after have been seen entering the lists like any ordinary nobody. He obtained only the second prize.[29/30]
He presented himself again the following year, but with no better success. The subject assigned for the competition was Priam at the Feet of Achilles. It is easy to understand that such a theme was little calculated to inspire an artist of Bastien-Lepage's temperament; he found it impossible to attain full development unless in the presence of nature herself. No amount of manual dexterity can take the place of inborn faith, and the young artist had no faith in antiquity; he never could muster any enthusiasm for the Greek or Roman gods, nor for historic scenes in which the very attitudes are dictated by the rules and regulations of time-honoured tradition.
Nevertheless, the work is not without merit; it is forceful, its colouring is good, and it falls short of perfection only in failing to conform sufficiently with what we know of ancient life. This painting is at present to be found in the Museum at Lille.
This rebuff did not discourage Bastien-Lepage unreasonably; but he decided to confine himself in the future to painting portraits and picturing the life of the fields.
Crastre, François. Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848-1884). Frederick A. Stokes, 1914. Internet Archive. Contributed by University of California Libraries. Web. 12 March 2020.
Created 12 March 2020