In nineteenth century France, the sketch was the essential prerequisite to the conception of a work of art. It revealed an artist's première idée, the earliest stage in its réalisation
Having studied under Alexandre Cabanel in the late 1860s and having been wounded in the Franco-Prussian War, Bastien-Lepage resumed his career by exhibiting Le Printemps , a mock rococo sous bois, at the Salon in 1873. Although La Chanson du Printemps and Mon Grandpère followed in 1874, the painter realised that as a result of the war he had missed the normal age to submit works for the Prix de Rome - an arduous competition, conducted under strict supervision and rigorously assessed. Success would lead ultimately to a scholarship at the Villa Medici, and the possibility of prestigious mural commissions from the French government
Sketches were central to the Prix de Rome process. On the basis of a sketch, twenty competitors from over one hundred applicants were selected to proceed to the later stages of the competition. They then faced a second competition that entailed producing a study for the principal figure to be used in a composition, and as a result, the twenty were further reduced to ten finalists. Subjects set for preliminaries were not carried forward. It was only when he reached the final in April 1875 that Bastien-Lepage would have known that his new subject, set by one of the judges, Isidore Pils, would be L'Annonciation aux bergères.
'I will', he wrote to the dealer, Charles Deschamps, 'imagine Jusepe de Ribera when painting my shepherds. I will rely on Ingres for the conception of my angel'
When all was unveiled in the competition exhibition, visitors marvelled at the skill with which Bastien-Lepage had rendered the scene. André Theuriet recalled that
'Bastien's picture was surrounded, and a buzz of approval arose from the groups of young people gathered round that work, so real, so strangely conceived and executed that the other nine canvases disappeared as in a mist.'
He was the clear winner. However, as the judges deliberated, political considerations over-ruled the obvious popular choice and the prize was awarded to Léon Commerre. There was an outcry. Sarah Bernhardt, no less, left a laurel wreath beneath the picture, mocking the judges, signifying her admiration, and confirming the public vote.
Aubrun lists 14 etudes, most of which are drawings and are unlocated. Four were exhibited posthumously in 1885 at the Hôtel de Chimay.
The discovery of the present study is therefore of considerable importance. It fully confirms the freedom of handling which the chefs d'école advised for this stage. Brushwork should be active, yet controlled, and the emphasis must be upon the total impact of the compositional statement, rather than detail. Such a study would enable the painter to discover the positions of the main elements within the overall harmony, and show which areas required more detailed thought - the purpose of the study
We would like to thank Professor Kenneth McConkey for authenticating this work on the basis of a photograph and providing the catalogue note for this work