Genius, or only strange tricks? Tissot’s friends Whistler & Alma-Tadema at the Royal Academy, 1870 (Part II)

James Whistler,

At the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1870, James Tissot’s friend from his student days, the American expatriate, James Whistler (1834 — 1903) showed Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony.  It was so exotic that a critic commented, “It might have been painted in Japan.”

Another wrote, “The picture, though clever, is singularly slight for its place in the Academy; we may next expect to see on the walls the Japanese screens sold in Regent Street.”  Whistler was still in his long artistic crisis – he had not exhibited at the Royal Academy or the Salon since 1867 — and this picture is all he had to show for the last few years of struggle.

Whistler’s professional struggles were intertwined with his personal issues.  Over the past few years, and while his pious and adoring mother resided with him at 2 Lindsey Row, Whistler had begun what biographer Roy McMullen called “a lifelong process of losing friends.”

At the end of 1864, Whistler’s warm, six-year friendship with French artist Alphonse Legros ended when they quarreled about money – and Whistler mocked Legros’ marriage to Miss Frances Rosetta Hodgson, a British girl who was fifteen when he wed her.  As if that weren’t enough, in April 1867, when Legros accused Whistler of lying about a business matter, Whistler sent him to the floor with a fist to the face.

Whistler’s 45-year-old half-sister, Deborah (whom he called “Debo” or “Sis”), lived in London, but his once-close relationship with her became difficult after he pushed her husband, Seymour Haden, through a plate-glass window in Paris in 1867.  Haden, a surgeon, collector and etcher, had encouraged Whistler in his etching from 1858 on, but the two were no longer on speaking terms.

The fact that Whistler had any friends at all is perhaps explained by French painter Henri Fantin-Latour in July 1866:  “For to me, Whistler is like a wife, like a mistress whom one loves in spite of all the troubles she gives you.  He is, after all, seductive.”

It was about 1870, through D.G. Rossetti, that Whistler befriended the shipping entrepreneur and art collector Frederick R. Leyland (1832 – 1892) of Liverpool, who could be indulgent and generous as well as cold and bad-tempered.  Over the next decade, Whistler and Leyland – along with his wife — would form an interesting relationship.

On June 10, 1870, Whistler became a father.  His son was borne by Louisa Fanny Hanson, a 21-year-old parlourmaid from Clapham.  Whistler later referred to the boy as “an infidelity to Jo,” and it was Joanna Hiffernan – his former mistress – who adopted and raised the boy, Charles James Whistler Hanson, called John.

As for James Tissot’s Brussels-based Dutch friend, Lourens Alma Tadema, he by now styled himself Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836—1912).  This shrewd move put him at the beginning of alphabetical catalog and exhibition listings as he showed three paintings at the Royal Academy in 1870:  The juggler/Un jongleur, (No 119), A Roman Interior/ Un Intérieur Romain, and A Roman art lover/Un Amateur Romain (No 120).

A Juggler/Un Jongleur (No 119), by Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Wikipedia Commons

A Roman art lover/Un Amateur Romain (No 120, 1870), by Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Milwaukee Art Museum

There were the British critics to contend with:

“The artist has not lacked literal truth so much as sincere conviction.  With Mr. Tadema, sneer and irony discolor truth; moreover, this eccentric Dutchman dresses up history in so grotesque a garb that he casts ridicule on scenes which he might seem to honor.  He paints a “juggler,” and he is himself a juggler; he astounds by startling feats.  Whether he has genius, or only strange tricks, the world can scarcely judge.  Genius lays hold of essential truth; pseudo-genius exaggerates accident.”  (The Saturday Review, June 18, 1870)

Nevertheless, in just his second exhibition in London, the short, blond and bespectacled Alma-Tadema – an extrovert with a pronounced Dutch accent – already was gaining a following among English collectors, thanks to his agent and advocate, Ernest Gambart.  Gambart also saw to it that Tadema’s work was included in an exhibition at St Mary’s Hall in Glasgow.  Scottish poet and artist William Bell Scott (1811 –1890) commented that Gambart was “working the oracle for Alma-Tadema very successfully.”

With his sister, Artje, helping him to raise his two young daughters, the recently-widowed Alma-Tadema worked toward completing the forty-eight paintings that Gambart had commissioned from him in late 1867.  He finished Catullus reading his poems at Lesbia’s house (No 121) in March and then, through August, worked exclusively on The vintage festival (No 122).

The Vintage Festival (No 122), by Lawrence Alma-Tadema

A reviewer for The Athenaeum commented extensively on Alma-Tadema’s work at the 1870 Royal Academy.  He expressed “regret that these works show signs of haste to reap the fruits of skill with less cost of study than usual.  [He] has soon begun to forget the steps by which he won honors and fame.”  After describing these paintings for his readers in minute detail regardless, the writer is exhausted with foreigners and writes, “It is time we turned to an English painter; and we may begin with the works of Mr. Millais.”

Stay tuned for The Royal Academy Exhibition:  London, 1870 (Part III) – featuring J.E. Millais

 © 2013 Lucy Paquette.  All rights reserved.

Exhibition notes:

Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design, 1848-1900
February 17–May 19, 2013 at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The first major survey of the art of the Pre-Raphaelites to be shown in the United States features some 130 paintings, sculptures, works on paper, and decorative art objects.

For more information, visit


Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity                                                                          February 26 – May 27, 2013 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

A revealing look at the role of fashion in the works of the Impressionists and their contemporaries. Some eighty major figure paintings, seen in concert with period costumes, accessories, fashion plates, photographs, and popular prints, will highlight the vital relationship between fashion and art during the pivotal years, from the mid-1860s to the mid-1880s, when Paris emerged as the style capital of the world.

 For more information, visit

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

Watch my new videos:

The Strange Career of James Tissot” (2:33 minutes)


Louise Jopling and James Tissot” (2:42 minutes)