In 1869, James Tissot was at the top of his game. His paintings, for the wealthy and titled collectors he attracted, depicted the leisured and refined life of the Second Empire: The Staircase, Le goûter/Afternoon Tea, At the Rifle Range, Les patineuses (Lac de Longchamps)/Women Skating (Lake Longchamps), and Rêverie. He executed at least one grisaille sketch, Tuileries Gardens, of a masked ball given by the Imperial court – perhaps its last.
Tissot’s Salon exhibits included Young Women Looking at Japanese Objects and A Widow. At the Cercle de l’Union Artistique, he exhibited two of a series of six portraits of Paris comedians.
Though he had been made hors concours (beyond the competition) three years ago and could exhibit anything he liked without submitting his work to the Salon jury, Tissot’s work still was subject to critical reviews:
“Tissot is the declared enemy of aerial perspective, and he has sworn that by the force of talent and mind he will make us forget that there is an atmosphere which serves to unite the tones of color, to graduate them in their plane, and from them to bring out harmony. We will not stop before the large picture, which leaves us too much to desire in this direction, but we pass rather to the two delicious portraits of comedians. There Tissot, who had but one figure to paint, was obliged to renounce his monomania, and show himself that which he really is, a very skillful painter, and an artist full of spirit.” (René Ménard, Gazette des Beaux-Arts, June, 1869)
Meanwhile, Edgar Degas’ career began to take off at last. In mid-February 1869, he traveled to Brussels with his brother, Achille. One of the king’s ministers there had bought one of Degas’ paintings, and when his work was exhibited at one of the most famous galleries in Europe, he sold two more. A well-known picture dealer offered Degas a contract for 12,000 francs a year. Back in Paris, the Salon jury rejected one of Degas’ paintings but accepted another — his portrait of a prominent former ballerina, Joséphine Gaujelin. [Mme. Gaujelin, who had commissioned the portrait, was so displeased with it that she refused it after it was completed, so we have to wonder what she thought of it being exhibited in public.]
For Berthe Morisot, the first months of 1869 brought the loss of her sister to marriage as well as the frustration and hurt of witnessing Manet’s new attachment to Eva Gonzalès (1849 – 1883). Gonzalès, who was introduced to Manet by Alfred Stevens, became Manet’s first and only student. The daughter of an influential Spanish-born novelist, she was beautiful, intelligent, talented and elegant — and only 20.
While Berthe Morisot looked to Manet as a mentor – and he used both Eva Gonzalès and Morisot as models – he clearly admired Gonzalès as a painter. Morisot submitted no work to the Salon jury in 1869; she was suffering from an eye infection that impaired her vision. But she was able to see Manet.
Considering that Manet had been forbidden by the French government to exhibit his incendiary new painting, The Execution of Emperor Maximilian, he was fortunate that the Salon jury accepted two other submissions, The Balcony and Luncheon in the Studio.
On the first day of the Salon, Berthe Morisot found Manet anxious about the reception of his work. She wrote to her sister, Edma, “I have never seen such an expressive face as his. He was laughing, then had a worried look, assuring everybody that his picture was very bad, and adding in the same breath that it would be a great success.” [Berthe’s mother, who was there, told Edma that Manet “looks like a madman.”] Then he was in “high spirits” and escorted Morisot around the exhibition. When they became separated in the crowd, she found him and chided him for leaving her side. Manet replied that he was not about to play the part of a child’s nurse. Still, Berthe wrote Edma, “I think he has a decidedly charming temperament, I like it very much.”
Manet was married, and his wife did not resemble either of the two slim, lovely and elegant young women painters in his life. But when Degas painted M. and Mme. Édouard Manet, Manet was so furious that Degas had portrayed his wife in an unflattering way that he slashed off the third of the painting that depicted her features, leaving only the back of her head. Degas took the canvas and stalked off; the two were not on speaking terms for some time. Interestingly, it was the prickly Degas rather than the charming Manet who was eager to patch up their quarrel. Degas said, “No one can remain at outs long with Manet.”
Manet had his boundaries; his friends knew he did not take criticism well. The new art critic for Le Figaro, after viewing Manet’s Salon paintings, declared, “Manet lacks imagination. He will never accomplish anything else, you can count on it.” After this and other reviews criticizing his technique, Manet fell into another depression. Berthe Morisot wrote, “Poor Manet, he is sad. His exhibition, as usual, does not appeal to the public, which is for him always a source of wonder.”
Morisot’s mother noted how people avoided Manet in the street so they wouldn’t have to discuss his paintings, and he no longer had the courage to ask anyone to pose for him – except for Eva Gonzalès, whose portrait he painted during that summer.
Morisot, lonely without her sister and, at 28, anxious about her future, spent the summer in Brittany. That winter, she wrote to Edma, “I feel a great weight on my stomach and am forever disgusted with painters and with friendship.”
As for Tissot, in 1869, he would make a new friend, from England, who would be invaluable to him in the turbulent years to come.
© 2013 Lucy Paquette. All rights reserved.
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Illustrated with 17 stunning, high-resolution fine art images in full color
Courtesy of The Bridgeman Art Library
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