About two years ago, I flew to South Africa to visit my mother’s family (she moved to America shortly before I was born). The last time I had visited Johannesburg I was not quite seven years old.
As I walked into the home of my great uncle, I could smell that we were related. Maybe it was the scent of a home that had cooked every week for 50 years the same Shabbat dinner that I grew up eating. Maybe, on a purely genetic level, we produce the same pheromones. Maybe I was just smelling myself, stale and musky from an 18-hour flight and clashing rudely against an otherwise freshly clean foyer. It was indistinct and unplaceable, but clear as anything I have ever felt.
A cat braided itself about my ankles. Pictures on the wall featured strangers who looked like me, smiling the way I smile in photographs (a little uncomfortable but aiming to please). The heap of keys, unopened bank statements and unsolicited business cards from irrelevant people teetered on the console table the same way it did in my empty apartment on the other side of the world.
My great uncle Dov came through the kitchen. The comportment of his gait had an uncanny familiarity, gracelessly warm, generous, a little clumsy. He smiled and I recognized his crooked teeth.
I had never seen this man, but I knew him.
I have had this feeling one other time in my life, and it was last month at the National Gallery of Art as I saw for the first time the paintings of Frédéric Bazille.
At the National Gallery through July 9, “Frédéric Bazille and the Birth of Impressionism” will introduce you to an Impressionist painter you have never known and a body of work both new and deeply familiar.
Born in Montpellier on the southern coast of France in 1841, Bazille, like many progressive artists of his and everyone’s day, came from a wealthy family that did not want him to be an artist. He received his bachelor’s in science and enrolled in medical school in 1859, while pursuing a passion for drawing.
Moving to Paris to continue his medical studies, he enrolled himself in the studio of Swiss painter Charles Gleyre, a tremendous artist who is better remembered as a sort of Lee Strasberg of Impressionism: a progressive teacher who profoundly influenced the young careers of an outsized number of groundbreaking and canonized artists, including Monet, Renoir, Sisley and Whistler.
Bazille lost himself in art, failing his medical exams and traveling with Monet to Normandy, where he finally persuaded his parents to let him abandon medicine for a career as a painter. Born within a year of one another, Bazille and Monet seem to have been inseparable for the better part of their 20s. They took a studio together in Paris in 1865. Through the late 1860s, they spent their summers painting in the country, often with Renoir and Sisley. In 1868, Bazille was godfather to Monet’s first son.
Then, rather abruptly, in August of 1870, for reasons that remain muddled and against his family’s wishes, Bazille enlisted to fight in the Franco-Prussian War. He was killed in battle on Nov. 28, shortly before his 29th birthday.
It is impossible to say what his career would have been had he survived the war. But what is made clear by this exhibition is that up to the end of his brief life he was on a level with Monet. Many of his paintings are better than those of a young Sisley. It is not difficult to imagine that, had he painted for a lifetime, the name Bazille would be as synonymous with Impressionism as his closest friend’s.
On the whole, these are not the works of a fully developed master, but neither are any of the featured paintings in this exhibition by Monet, Renoir or Sisley. What we see are young men working, living, traveling and painting together, feeding off shared energy and ambition and taking each other seriously.
To that end, the exhibition is a curatorial master class, injecting new history, insights and perspectives into a familiar environment to create a seductive and engrossing narrative.
Many of the early galleries are filled with what can only be described as the work of a talented student. However, some of the later works begin to verge on remarkable, particularly Bazille’s 1867 landscapes of the coastal flatlands of Aigues-Morte in his hometown of Montpelier and “Summer Scene (Bathers)” of 1869.
Bazille once wrote to his father that it didn’t matter what he painted as long as it was successful or interesting as a painting. This may as well be the tagline of Impressionism, the defining, groundbreaking principle of a movement that changed the meaning of art in the Western tradition. And Bazille was positioned along the front lines when his life was cut short.
As for my great uncle Dov, for three days we spoke about art, drank whiskey, ate cured beef and watched midcareer Paul Newman movies until we passed out. He prefers the Post-Impressionists. I wanted to stay forever.
I could almost say the same for Bazille. It was closer to three hours than three days that I spent with his work, but it was hard to leave the museum that day. Bazille was family, and I fear that I will never see him again.