Degas’ portrait: Tissot, the man-about-town, 1867

While Tissot’s luxurious villa and studio on the avenue de l’Impératrice were under construction, his friend Degas painted his portrait.  Tissot was described as having “a shock of jet-black hair, a drooping Mongolian mustache, an excellent tailor, and a small private fortune.”  Degas depicts his friend as a man of the world, fashionable and carefree.

Portrait of James Tissot

Portrait of James Tissot, by Edgar Degas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Degas, meanwhile, was making so little progress in his artistic career that his father, who financially supported him, had to defend him to relatives:  “Edgar is still working enormously hard, though he does not appear to be.  What is fermenting in that head is frightening.  I myself think – I am even convinced – that he has not only talent, but genius.”  To his son, he wrote, “You can be quite certain that you’ll succeed in doing great things.  You have a wonderful destiny ahead of you, don’t lose heart.”

Degas’ The Bellelli Family, painted on a seven by eight foot canvas, was exhibited at the 1867 Salon.  It captured the tension felt by his fragile and pregnant aunt in her unhappy marriage to an important politician from Naples, Italy.  Degas was pursuing the conventional path to official artistic acceptance, but the subject matter of his paintings was idiosyncratic, arresting.  The critics began to take notice of his work.

English: Bellelli family, paint of Edgar Degas.

The Bellelli Family, by Edgar Degas. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After winning the independence to exhibit what he pleased, Tissot exhibited two paintings in the 1867 Salon.  One was safely decorative:  Young Woman Singing at the Organ is a painting of a lady and a nun singing in an organ loft.  However, his second entry, The Confidence, surprised a few critics.  One wrote of it as “being typical of modernism and modern sentiment, and as such directly opposed to the spirit of classicism in its rejection of simplicity, feeling and form.”

The Confidence (c. 1867), by James Tissot. (Proto: Wikipaintings).

In London, at Ernest Gambart’s French Gallery, Whistler showed Crépuscule in Flesh Color and Green, a view of Valparaiso, Chile from his inexplicable escapade the previous year.  One critic praised Whistler for giving “an aspect of sleepy motion to the vessel” and noted how the artist “conveyed to the spectator the rolling, seemingly breathing, surface of the sea with a power that is magical.”  At the Royal Academy, Whistler showed Symphony in White, No. 3 (Two Little White Girls), Battersea (a Thames picture) and Sea and Rain (from his summer at Trouville in 1865).  While Tissot, Degas and other friends admired Whistler’s Symphony in White, No. 3 — which was purchased by a wealthy art collector — an eminent art critic wrote that he regretted Whistler had not met his early potential.  Another critic mocked Whistler’s new use of musical terminology, pointing out that there were, in fact, colors besides white in the “symphony” picture.  Whistler commented, “Does he then believe that a symphony in F contains no other note, but shall be a continued repetition of FFF?  Fool!”

Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl

Symphony in White, No. 3 (Two Little White Girls), James McNeill Whistler (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Paris Salon accepted two of Whistler’s paintings, At the Piano – which it had rejected eight years earlier – and The Thames in Ice.  Whistler earned little from his painting but had family money to live on.  He never felt satisfied with his pictures, never considered them finished; a friend of his observed, “He was painfully aware of his defects – in drawing, for instance.”  Hurt, angry and and self-doubting, Whistler wrote to a friend:  “Courbet and his influence were disgusting.  It’s not poor Courbet that I find repugnant, nor his works.  It’s that this damned Realism appealed immediately to my painter’s vanity.  I feel that one can go much further, that there are much more beautiful things to be done.  I’m sure I’m going to make up for badly used time.  But how painful it all is!”

For all the anxiety and anguish the official route to success often produced, both the Royal Academy Exhibition and the Salon would be overshadowed, in 1867, by the Paris International Exposition – the most extravagant World’s Fair yet.

© 2012 Lucy Paquette.  All rights reserved.

CH377762The Hammock:  A novel based on the true story of French painter James Tissot, brings Tissot’s world from 1870 to 1879 alive in a story of war, art, Society glamour, love, scandal, and tragedy.

Illustrated with 17 stunning, high-resolution fine art images in full color

Courtesy of The Bridgeman Art Library  

(295 pages; ISBN (ePub):  978-0-615-68267-9).  See http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009P5RYVE.