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While Tissot studied classical art in Italy, his friend, Edgar Degas, left Italy and returned to Paris. From 1860 to 1862, Degas worked on four historical paintings in an attempt to appeal to the jury for the next Salon, in 1863. One of his paintings, Semiramis Building Babylon, depicted the legendary Assyrian queen.
Degas and Tissot exchanged letters, with Tissot writing in 1862, “And Pauline? What about her? Where are you now with her? That pent-up passion is not being wasted only on Semiramis. I can’t believe that by the time I’m back your virginity in relation to her will still be intact. You must tell me all about it.”
Also in Paris, Édouard Manet had earned a reputation as a rising leader of the avant-garde from his Salon début in 1861, where he exhibited a portrait of his parents and The Spanish Singer. This painting, which won Manet an honorable mention, was such a success with the critics and the public that a group of younger painters made a pilgrimage to his studio to admire the elegant man with the innovative technique, including his bold use of black, flattened perspective, and visible brush strokes.
Tissot’s friend Jimmy Whistler was in Paris on a jaunt that year and met Manet. Whistler had moved to London, where he had well-to-do relatives, after his painting At the Piano had been rejected by the 1859 Paris Salon jury. But the Royal Academy, the English equivalent of the Salon, accepted At the Piano for its 1860 Exhibition. It was called “the finest piece of painting in the Royal Academy” and immediately purchased, for £30, by an Academician. Whistler rapidly made a name for himself in London by his flamboyant behavior – and some misbehavior. In 1861, the Royal Academy exhibited The Thames in Ice and La Mère Gérard, which one critic noted was “replete with evidence of genius” while others indicated the American painter was not living up to his potential.
Whistler worked throughout the winter of 1861–62 on a highly individualistic painting he called The White Girl. He described it as “a woman in a beautiful white cambric dress, standing against a window which filters the light through a transparent white muslin curtain – but the figure receives a strong light from the right and therefore the picture, barring the red hair, is one gorgeous mass of brilliant white.” The Royal Academy’s Hanging Committee rejected The White Girl for its 1862 Exhibition, but accepted two other oil paintings (including Alone with the Tide, later called The Coast of Brittany) and an etching that Whistler submitted.
In 1862, Tissot traveled to London, where the first exhibition of his work was not at the Royal Academy but the International Exhibition. Over six million visitors viewed works by 28,000 exhibitors from 36 countries – a range of wonders in the arts, industry and technology. Tissot showed one of his début paintings from the 1859 Salon, giving his medieval picture the English title, A Walk in the Snow. By showing his work in England along with works by artists he had learned from, including Ingres, Flandrin and Leys, Tissot signaled his ambition and widened his reputation.
He also must have met Britain’s most popular painter, John Everett Millais (1829 — 1896), who at the 1862 Royal Academy Exhibition showed The Ransom to general critical disappointment. A detailed historical picture of a medieval knight ransoming his two young daughters, it was stiffer and much less compelling than his acclaimed The Black Brunswicker from the 1860 Royal Academy Exhibition, which had sold for 1,000 guineas (a record in his career to date).
Upon that success, Millais had moved to London with his wife, Effie, who in 1854 had annulled her marriage to the influential art writer and early champion of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, John Ruskin. With a wife and five children to provide for by this time, Millais found a steady source of income drawing illustrations, for periodicals such as Once a Week and The Cornhill Magazine as well as Tennyson’s Poems (1857) and Anthony Trollope’s novel Framley Parsonage (1860).
Degas and Whistler were 28; Manet was 30. James Tissot, at 26, having inherited his parents’ business sense, was cautiously exploring a new art market and prudently making useful contacts.
© Copyright Lucy Paquette 2012. All rights reserved.