The competition: Tissot’s friends Whistler, Degas, Manet, Courbet, Alma-Tadema & Millais in 1866

While Tissot had found his artistic entrée to the Paris aristocracy by 1865, what were his friends doing?

In February, 1866, Manet was introduced to the young writer Émile Zola (1840 – 1902), who passionately and publicly defended Manet in the liberal newspaper L’Événement when Manet’s The Fifer and The Tragic Actor were rejected by the Salon jury in 1866.  Zola encouraged collectors to invest now in Manet’s work, predicting, “The future is his.  A place is marked for Manet in the Louvre.”  Rather than make converts, Zola made enemies of his own, and resigned.

Edouard Manet: Young Flautist, or The Fifer, 1866

Edouard Manet: Young Flautist, or The Fifer, 1866 (Photo: Wikipedia)

Degas’ Salon entry in 1866 differed from his début with a medieval subject the previous year.  He showed Steeplechase — The Fallen Jockey, another image from Longchamp, the thoroughbred race course in the fashionable Bois de Boulogne.  This was a painting of modern life that no one could miss – it was painted on a canvas of more than seven feet by five feet.  Still, Degas’ epic scene received very little critical notice.

By early 1866, Whistler was frustrated with his work, writing to a friend, “It’s always the same thing, always work that’s so painful and uncertain!  I am so slow — I produce very little, because I rub everything out.”  This friend wrote about Whistler to a mutual friend, “I have a feeling that our happy days are over.  He believes too much in making a stir, and not enough in quality, which is the only way to success.”  Restless and perhaps craving action and adventure – or fleeing creditors — Whistler sailed for Valparaiso, Chile and stayed for seven months, embroiling himself (not heroically) in the political crisis between Spanish imperialists and the Chilean government.  While there, he painted five pictures of the harbor, including Nocturne in Blue and Gold:  Valparaiso.  His first biographers, Elizabeth and Joseph Pennell, wrote that Whistler gave his paintings to the ship’s purser to bring home:

The purser kept them.  Once they were seen in his house in London by someone who recognized Whistler’s work.

Why, they must be by Whistler!’ he said.

‘Who’s Whistler?’ asked the purser.

‘An artist,’ said the other.

‘Oh, no,’ said the purser.  ‘They were painted by a gentleman.’

Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Valparaiso Bay (186...

Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Valparaiso Bay (1866) by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (Photo: Wikipedia)

Though a dandy, the pugnacious Whistler’s conflicts were not merely artistic:  he had started a brawl on board the ship home, and then received a beating – from no one knows whom — upon his arrival back in London.  At some point before or after this, he took boxing lessons from a professional pugilist in London.

While Whistler was away from London, he gave power of attorney to his flame-haired mistress Joanna Hiffernan so she could look after his finances and sell his paintings.  Jo had spent the previous summer with him and Courbet in Trouville, France.  In those leisurely months, they had enjoyed seafood, casinos and dips in the ocean with Claude Monet and others.  Jo clowned around to cheer Whistler up and sang Irish songs in the evenings.  She had modeled for Courbet several times; he painted her as La Belle Irlandaise (The Beautiful Irishwoman).  Now she went to Paris, posing for Courbet’s erotic painting Sleep (for the Turkish ambassador who had missed the opportunity, the previous year, to buy Venus jealously pursuing Psyche), and likely had an affair with him.  Whistler broke off with her some time after his return from South America.

Courbet’s Woman with a Parrot was not only accepted by the Salon jury in 1866, but it was a tremendous success with the public – and with the Comte de Nieuwerkerke, who insisted it be displayed prominently.  Nieuwerkerke offered to purchase Courbet’s other Salon painting, Covert of Roe Deer, for the Empress Eugénie’s private collection, but it already had sold.  Nieuwerkerke then paid 2,000 francs for one of the many versions of Courbet’s Puits Noir (this one was also known as Shaded Stream) for the Empress’ collection.  Courbet, at 47, suddenly was flooded with commissions, and even with compliments from prominent Academicians, to whom he referred in a letter to a friend as “that bunch of scoundrels.”  He wrote in 1866, “The success I am having in Paris at the moment is unbelievable.  In the end, I am the one and only.”

Gustave Courbet - Woman with a Parrot - WGA5504

Woman with a Parrot, Gustave Courbet

Tissot’s Dutch friend, Lourens Tadema (later Lawrence Alma-Tadema), had moved from Antwerp to Brussels, where his paintings won him acclaim and honors.  His highly detailed and scholarly pictures now showed the influence of the archaeological excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum that he had seen on his honeymoon in 1863.  In mid-May, 1866, Tadema and his wife, Pauline, traveled to London for a fancy-dress ball given at the St. John’s Wood home of his dealer, Ernest Gambart.  For the occasion, Tadema had painted In the Peristylum (No. 75, 1866).  Gambart had purchased fourteen of Tadema’s paintings to date, but he had not sold them:  Tadema found thirteen of them hanging on Gambart’s own walls.  Gambart actually was selling some of Tadema’s early work to a client in America, and he reassured the artist that his work would sell in Britain soon.  Two of Tadema’s pictures, Returning home from market (No. 70, 1865) and Entrance to a Roman theatre (No. 74, 1866), were on view through Gambart in London and earning praise.  In the autumn of 1866, Tadema’s Preparations for the festivities (No. 72) won a major award in Brussels.

Millais did not exhibit at London’s Royal Academy in 1866.  Distinguished art dealers William Agnew and Ernest Gambart hounded him to meet the constant demand for water-color and oil replicas of his most popular paintings [such as Ophelia (1852), The Huguenot (1852), Sir Isumbras at the Ford (1857), The Vale of Rest (1858) and The Black Brunswicker (1860)].  He spent the fall shooting grouse and stags among friends in Scotland.  He met his responsibilities as a successful artist and grasped the business side of his profession — and he reaped the rewards.

The Vale of Rest

The Vale of Rest, J.E. Millais

Certainly of all Tissot’s artist friends, Millais must have seemed the one with a career worth emulating.

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