“Hurling towards the abyss”: The Second Empire, 1869

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For Tissot’s friend Édouard Manet, 1869 started badly with the government forbidding the exhibition of his new painting, The Execution of Emperor Maximilian.

Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian (1832 – 1867), the idealistic younger brother of the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, had been installed in power in Mexico in 1864 by French Emperor Napoleon III as a means of recovering huge debts and of interfering with the United States during its Civil War. Three years later, Napoleon withdrew French military support for the puppet emperor, and Maximilian and two of his generals were captured by Mexican loyalists. They were executed by firing squad on June 19, 1867 under the orders of the Mexican president who had been displaced when the French took control.  When the news reached Paris, Manet, an ardent republican, went to work, first using an eight and a half foot wide canvas, and then restarting on another over nine feet wide before ending with a new one ten feet wide, to portray the outrage that shocked the French. He painted the Mexican soldiers in French uniforms and depicted the executioner in a goatee resembling the one worn by Napoleon III.  Manet also prepared a lithographic version of the scene which could be reproduced and sold to the public as prints. But in January, the government denied permission for the lithograph to be printed, and his incendiary painting was not allowed at the 1869 Salon.

Execution of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico

Execution of Emperor Maximilian, by Manet (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Princesse Mathilde (1862), by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux.  Philadelphia Museum of Art.  Photo by Lucy Paquette

Princesse Mathilde (1862), by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photo by Lucy Paquette

In August, 1869, the twenty-three year liaison between the suave, pompous Comte de Nieuwerkerke and Napoleon III’s influential cousin, Princess Mathilde Bonaparte, ended.  She had been as devoted to him as a wife, and she had secured numerous advantages for him.  It was due to Mathilde that Nieuwerkerke had been appointed by Napoleon III as director-general of museums in charge of the Louvre and the Luxembourg as well as the annual Salon.  Nieuwerkerke had been the most powerful figure in the French art world since 1849, and he dominated the Princess in her own home.  But while Mathilde always believed Nieuwerkerke would marry her someday (perhaps when his wife – and her husband –both died), it was well-known in Paris that he had never been faithful to her.  When he abruptly announced to her that he had proposed to a young girl, she turned him out of her house, later telling a friend, “And he had to go on foot across the fields, because I didn’t order a carriage for him.”

Emilien de Nieuwerkerke.

Emilien de Nieuwerkerke (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Napoleon III and the Empress Eugénie, who always had disapproved of Princess Mathilde’s infatuation with Nieuwerkerke, had their own problems.  Napoleon’s health declined and, at the age of 61, he had to manage both painful rheumatism and a bladder stone.  By early September 1869, he was well enough to ride in a carriage in the Bois de Boulogne and to attend the theater.  But while the Empress Eugénie, now 43, attended what would turn out to be the Imperial court’s last masked ball dressed as Marie Antoinette, the Legislative Assembly elections in May brought twenty-five Republicans, and nearly half of the voters selected candidates who opposed the Emperor’s regime.  There were socialist and working-class uprisings in Paris, repeated riots at night in June, and workers’ strikes.  During one, government troops fired on striking coal miners and killed fourteen people, including a baby girl.  Foreigners fled the country.  “The Second Empire, a British diplomat wrote, “is hurling itself […] towards the abyss.”

Gustave Courbet would contribute mightily to that end.  From October 1868 to May or June 1869, Courbet was in Ornans, his home town in the east of France.  He was not painting; he was tinkering with his invention of a light carriage with only one wheel (his father had invented a cart with five wheels).  One friend observed to another, “His volcanic imagination is stimulated by the new invention to such a degree that he will forget to get drunk until the work is completed.”

In 1869, Courbet exhibited three paintings at the Salon which he had already shown at his pavilion near the 1867 Paris Exposition:  Siesta, the Hallali and Mountains of the Doubs.  The young painter Frédéric Bazille (1841 – 1870) wrote that Courbet’s paintings were like masterpieces among universal dullness.  But financial misfortunes seemed to dog Courbet; an art dealer who owed Courbet 30,000 francs went bankrupt.  “I really have no luck,” Courbet wrote.

The Cliffs at Etretat (1869), by Gustave Courbet. (Photo: Wikiart.org)

In mid-August, Courbet was at Etretat, in northern France, sea-bathing and painting.

Guy de Maupassant (1850 – 1893), a young scholar who was to become a prominent writer of short fiction, recalls seeing Courbet on a visit to Etretat in September, 1869:

In a vast, empty room, a fat, dirty, greasy man was slapping dollops of white paint on a blank canvas with a kitchen knife.  From time to time he would press his face against the window and look out at the storm.  The breakers came so close that they seemed to batter the house and completely envelop it in foam and the roar of the sea.  The salty water hammered the panes like hail and ran down the walls.  This work became ‘The Wave’ and caused a public sensation.

Courbet completed nine seascapes at this time (including Cliffs at Etretat and Stormy Sea) and sold five of them for a total of 4,500 francs.  As he began a large new one to exhibit at the 1870 Salon, he learned that his work had been awarded a gold medal at the International Exhibition in Brussels (by a unanimous vote) and that he had received another official decoration at an exhibition in Munich.  He traveled there in September to accept, and in addition to the fêtes in his honor, there was a beer-drinking contest.  Courbet won.  He was asked to give a technical demonstration to the edification and delight of the members of the Bavarian Academy, and before he left Munich, he dashed off a souvenir painting for his admirers, which he signed, “COURBET, without ideals and without religion.”

He would live up to that slogan within the next two years.

© 2013 Lucy Paquette.  All rights reserved.

The 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.