Perspective | Her direct gaze was a jolt to France’s reactionary art world

Perspective | Her direct gaze was a jolt to France’s reactionary art world

Frédéric Bazille, who died in battle about six months after completing this picture, had a crush on Édouard Manet. It was the same sort of crush that, a century later, up-and-coming artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat had on Andy Warhol.

Just as those aspiring artists of the early 1980s were in no doubt about Warhol’s importance, Bazille saw how radical and transformative Manet was going to be for modern art, even when most arbiters of taste continued to deride him as talentless — and like Haring and Basquiat, he was desperate to inveigle his way into his idol’s circle.

They all got their wishes.

Bazille, the son of a Protestant landowner from the south of France, moved to Paris to pursue art in the early 1860s. He met up with Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir. The three became friends, sharing studios, painting together, agitating for change — and closely watching Manet.

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This was a convulsive period. These young artists, the future impressionists, loathed the autocratic regime of Napoleon III. They wanted to shake up the reactionary, state-sponsored art establishment and propose new subjects and meanings for art. “All those great classical compositions,” Bazille explained to Renoir, “that’s over and done with.”

In this painting, one of two depicting the same subject, Bazille shows us a model posing as a flower seller. Wearing a headscarf and coral earrings, she stands behind a low, parti-colored wall of lilacs, roses, tulips, white narcissus and forget-me-nots. In her right hand, she holds up a couple of plump, pale-pink peonies set off by pinwheeling green leaves.

Peonies were new to France, so they carried an exotic charge. They were Manet’s favorite flower; he had painted them in beautiful works in 1864-1865. Bazille had by now befriended his hero, so his decision to highlight the peonies was a kind of homage.

The painting was also an allusion to “Olympia,” Manet’s most famous and controversial painting, which showed a nearly naked prostitute being presented with flowers by a Black servant.

Here, however, Bazille not only made the Black woman — so often overlooked in discussions of “Olympia” — the central subject; he transformed her from a servant to a merchant. (Slavery had been legal in France’s colonies until 1848 and by 1870, as curator Denise Murrell has shown, formerly enslaved people had congregated in the Batignolles district of Paris where Manet and Bazille lived.)

In Bazille’s other version of this subject, the woman looks toward the flowers she is arranging in a vase. Here, however, she gazes directly at us, and her gaze has an unsettling charge.

Bazille’s brushwork is beautiful — and very Manet-esque. That’s to say, he is less interested in creating a perfect illusion of three-dimensionality with subtle gradations of dark and light than in bold, local color and lively paint textures. The leaves extending into space above the yellow flowers at far right are as flat and efficient as something by Alex Katz. The yellow tulips are juicy and vivid thanks to the visible vectors of Bazille’s sculptural brushstrokes and the simple clarity of his contrasts.

But in the end, what makes this painting so intriguing is the tension between the gaiety of the flowers and the woman’s expression. A more sentimental portrayal might show the woman smiling warmly at her “valued customer.” Here, however, her eyes, and the lines under them, suggest an unmistakable melancholy.

Intentional? It’s hard to say. But Bazille’s willingness to paint an expression so frank, so real, suggests that something powerful was afoot in the art of painting, which, from this year — 1870 — on, and despite Bazille’s early demise, would never be the same again.

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