Raised on a farm in northeastern France, Jules Bastien-Lepage left rural Damvillers for Paris in 1868, with the ambition of becoming a painter. The recipient of several drawing awards during his apprenticeship with the respected artist Alexandre Cabanel, Bastien-Lepage was expected to easily win the Prix de Rome of 1875, the annual travelling scholarship for art students, awarded by the Académie des Beaux-Arts.
Each year the ten finalists for this award were assigned a set topic by the jury and were required to complete their paintings within ninety days, working in strict isolation and under guard. In 1875 the New Testament subject of the Annunciation to the Shepherds was selected by the Académie as the theme for the competition. While respecting artistic tradition – as he wrote at the time to a friend, ‘I will imagine Jusepe de Ribera when painting my shepherds, and rely on Ingres for the conception of my angel’ (quoted in Marie-Madelaine Aubrun, Jules Bastien-Lepage, catalogue raisonné de l’oeuvre, privately printed, Paris, 1985, p. 88). Bastien-Lepage approached the subject with the uncompromising naturalism that was to become a hallmark of his style. He asked his parents to procure worn goat-fleece coats and gnarled crooks from the local Damvillers peasants, so that he could accurately attire his shepherds. This approach was in keeping with his stated belief that ‘If you take subjects from ancient history, at least let them be represented in an altogether human manner, exactly as you see the same things happen around you’ (quoted in William S. Feldman, ‘Jules Bastien-Lepage: A new perspective’ in Art Bulletin of Victoria, Vol. 20, (1979), p. 5) .
In 1885 the artist’s friend and biographer André Theuriet recalled:
as if it were yesterday that July morning when the gates of the Palais des Beaux-Arts were opened, and the crowd of eager inquirers rushed into the hall of the competition.
After a few minutes Bastien’s picture was surrounded, and a buzz of approval arose from the groups of young people gathered round that work, so real, so strongly conceived and executed that the other nine canvases disappeared as in a mist.
It may have been this heightened realism that swayed the competition’s more conservative judges against Bastien-Lepage’s entry – although the ostensible reason for his failure to secure the Prix de Rome was the fact that he had set the biblical story at twilight, instead of producing the night scene stipulated by the Académie.
Following this disappointment, Bastien-Lepage turned his back on his academic training, writing to a friend: ‘When I came to Paris I knew nothing at all, but I had never dreamed of that heap of formulas they pervert one with’ (André Theuriet, Jules Bastien-Lepage and his Art. A memoir, Unwin, London, 1892, p. 35-6). He focused instead, for much of his short but immensely successful career, on painting the rural life of Damvillers. As W. C. Brownell wrote in the Magazine of Art in 1883, ‘his studio in general one may easily believe to have been the fields and vineyards of his native province’.
Text by Dr Ted Gott from 19th century painting and sculpture in the international collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, p. 94.