Bazille, Frédéric: The Family Reunion (1867)

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The Independent Culture

It happens in dreams. It's an old stage trick. You thought you were watching a play, but somehow it seems that you've crossed over, you've moved from the audience to the stage, from reality into fiction, and now you're part of the play, and even though you don't know your lines, the play seems to accommodate you and incorporate you and carry you along with its action, and finally, there's no escape, you try to break out, to hold back the plot, but you're caught up in it, and you must stay in the drama to its end.

That's how it often goes in dreams, at least. There are plays, too - from Beaumont and Fletcher's The Knight of the Burning Pestle to Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound - that take up this idea of audience participation. Characters, representing audience members, climb on to the stage and enter the drama. Sometimes, these spectator-characters get helplessly sucked in. Sometimes, on the other hand, they aggressively take over.

The participation device can go either way, and it highlights the ambiguous power-relationship that exists in general between audience and stage. With any play or performance, you can wonder: who is in control, who's running the show? The players who are putting it on, or the spectators who can walk out? There are pictures that raise a similar question. Who's looking at whom?

A picture has a viewpoint. There's the angle or direction from which the scene is shown. And a picture can suggest that this viewpoint is occupied. It's usually a matter of how the figures in the picture behave. They make some gesture of address or recognition, which implies that there's someone in front of the scene, looking at it - someone more or less in your position, viewer, as you stand and look at the picture.

That's how a picture brings the viewer into its acting arena. You the viewer are identified with a character, a witness or bystander, who is present at the pictured scene. You may be cast as a quasi-participant or even be given a definite role.

There are pictures of thieving and trickery in which the villains, as they rob someone blind, give roguish, complicit glances to the viewer, that say: you can see what we're up to, and you won't give us away, will you?

There are scenes of voyeurism, where you the viewer are cast as a voyeur yourself, as the bathing woman catches your eye with a flinch of shame and shock. There are scenes where poor Jesus is pushed forward, presented to the crowd for judgement, and the viewer is identified as a member of this hostile crowd, about to cry, "Crucify him!".

There are scenes in which characters bid you welcome, or command your attention, or offer themselves for your inspection. The viewer has many possible roles and relationships vis-à-vis the pictured scene and its inhabitants. Sometimes the boss. Sometimes the guest. Sometimes made to feel very awkward.

Frédéric Bazille's The Family Reunion is a group portrait, or that's how it would normally be classified. It's a portrait of the artist's own high-bourgeois family, on a sunny terrace, in the shade of a tree - the parents on a bench, siblings and in-laws and cousins sitting or standing around.

It isn't quite like a normal group portrait, because it doesn't observe the usual forms of visibility. The figures aren't consciously lining-up, as in a wedding photo, co-operating with the picture's view of them, showing their faces. And they aren't unconsciously but conveniently arranged, either, so that their faces all just happen to be easily in view. No, this is a gathering of people whose orientation is not towards the view in which they find themselves. The focus of their attention is inward, towards the heart of their gathering. Or it was, a moment ago.

All their faces can, of course, be seen. They can now. But what the picture makes clear is that this visibility is a recent turn of events. This gathering has become a "group portrait" as the result of an interruption. The reason why most of the people are looking straight out of the picture is that they've just turned to look at someone who has just arrived.

Just arrived: the group is some distance away, and already they're looking round. The most vivid turner is the young woman in the centre. She had her back turned, but now she looks sharply over her shoulder to see who's there. Then you notice the three shady figures on the wall, far off, but their three gazes aimed, as one gaze, towards you. You've appeared - and nobody seems exactly pleased to see you.

Who's looking at whom? They, very clearly, are looking at you, with looks that say: and who are you?

It is a dream-like effect. It's a picture that brings the viewer into its scene, makes you part of its action. You enter it, but as an outsider, an intruder, a trespasser, an unexpected or unwanted visitor, who has broken into an intimate circle and broken a charmed mood. It feels like an apology is required - or a hasty retreat.

And who are you? Are you perhaps looking through the eyes of the painter himself, the son who (by this device) declares his uneasy relations with his family? In fact, not. Frédéric Bazille has included himself in the picture. He's the long, lean, shrinking man, squashed against the left edge. But he's evidently not very happy in The Family Reunion. He seems to want not to be part of it. He can imagine all to clearly - as his picture shows - what it's like to be under the family's wary, excluding eyes, to be an unwelcome presence meeting the collective Bazille gaze.


Frédéric Bazille (1841-70) was tall and rich. He was one of the first generation of Impressionists, and in the 1860s, he both portrayed and funded contemporaries such as Monet and Renoir, recording their artistic life in paintings of his studio.

His colours are a little artificial, but his eye for tone is extraordinarily accurate. Put The Family Reunion or the studio paintings into black-and-white reproduction, and they could easily pass as photographs.

There aren't that many paintings -before he was 30, Bazille was killed in action in the Franco-Prussian War.