Within three years of his arrival in Paris, Tissot was ready to exhibit his work at the Salon, the huge government-administered annual art market showcasing the glory of France. Each spring, the Salon provided a six-week spectacle throughout Europe and Great Britain for the hundreds of thousands of visitors who flocked past the floor-to-ceiling rows of paintings.
The Salon was an art competition as well as the social event of the year. Artists struggling to build a reputation – and make money – chose conventional mythological, historical or religious subjects and hoped to win at least an honorable mention, if not a first-, second–, or even third-class medal. The government would buy paintings considered noteworthy for the national collection, a distinction for any artist. The highest prize available was the Prix de Rome in historical painting; the five-year scholarship to study classical art in Rome could make a career. As of 1857, decisions about Salon entries and winners were made by the forty members – the “immortals” – of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. Their average age was 68, and most of them were (or had been) acclaimed painters of heroic historical dramas or large-scale church murals and ceilings.
Competing with established artists, the 23-year-old Jacques Joseph Tissot — likely borrowing the name from his friend James Whistler — submitted his paintings to the jury under the name James Tissot. Each year, seven to eight thousand pictures were submitted. Fewer than half met with acceptance, indicating official government approval. Rejected paintings would be stamped on the back with a red R – destroying the picture’s value to art buyers.
Édouard Manet, who had opened his own studio in 1856, was now 27. Like Whistler, he had dodged the Académie des Beaux-Arts, instead choosing to study for six years under the relatively innovative young history painter, Thomas Couture (1815 – 1879). Manet also had spent hours copying paintings in the Louvre as well as museums and churches in Italy, Amsterdam, Vienna and Prague. His 1859 painting, The Absinthe Drinker, was the first he had submitted to the Salon jury. A large-scale, full-length depiction of a street drunk, it was summarily rejected as debauched and lacking in detail and technique.
Jimmy Whistler had been studying art in Paris a year longer than Tissot, and he had seized on a Paris revival of etching, teaching himself this ancient technique of reproducing drawings as prints. In 1858, he published a remarkable series known as the French Set, etchings which mainly were spontaneous depictions of people and places he had observed on his travels. Two of these prints were accepted by the 1859 Salon jury, but his strikingly original oil painting, At the Piano, was rejected. He was far from the only artist rejected, however, and his painting earned praise from Gustave Courbet, the notorious socialist and artistic agitator who had returned from his travels in Germany in February 1859. Whistler at 24 had transformed himself from an amusing foreigner at the cafés of Paris to an admired etcher and a figure of note within a growing group of rebellious painters.
James Tissot, on the other hand, had five entries accepted for the 1859 Salon, one called Portrait de Mme T…, a small painting of his mother. There was another small portrait (Mlle H. de S…), and two designs for stained glass windows. The fifth painting was Promenade dans la Neige, which depicted a young medieval couple taking a winter’s walk. While Tissot’s portraits received some positive notice, one critic — an admirer of Courbet’s — wondered if Tissot was amusing himself by placing student work in a frame and suggested he should have left Promenade dans la Neige in his studio. Of the medieval subject matter, the critic sniped at the young artist, “What are you, blind to the life around you?”
James Tissot ignored the criticism and pressed on. His career in the capital of the European art world was launched.
© Copyright Lucy Paquette 2012. All rights reserved.