The calm before the storm: Courbet & Tissot in Paris, January to June, 1870

To cite this article: Paquette, Lucy. The calm before the storm: Courbet & Tissot in Paris, January to June, 1870. The Hammock. <Date viewed.>


At the Salon in 1870, Gustave Courbet earned universal praise for his two paintings, The Stormy Sea (also called The Wave) and The Cliffs at Etretat after the storm.  Purchasers flocked to Courbet’s studio:  in April he sold almost forty pictures for a total of about 52,000 francs, and he received additional commissions from ten collectors.

The Stormy Sea (also called The Wave), 1870, by Gustave Courbet. Courtesy

The Stormy Sea (also called The Wave), 1870, by Gustave Courbet. Courtesy

The Cliffs at Etretat after the storm, 1870, by Gustave Courbet. Courtesy

The Cliffs at Etretat after the storm (1870), by Gustave Courbet. Courtesy

In June, 1870, the minister of Beaux-Arts in the cabinet of Napoléon III’s reform-minded new premier, Émile Ollivier, offered Courbet the Legion of Honor, the highest decoration in France.  But Courbet proudly refused it, in a letter that was published throughout the country and offered sentiments such as these:

My opinions as a citizen forbid me to accept an award that belongs essentially to a monarchical regime.  My principles reject this decoration of the Legion of Honor which you have bestowed on me in my absence.  At no time, in no circumstances, for no reason whatever, would I have accepted it.  I am fifty years old and I have always lived in freedom; let me end my life free; when I am dead let this be said of me:  ‘He belonged to no school, to no church, to no institution, to no academy, least of all to any regime except the regime of liberty.’

Courbet angered the Establishment but found himself very popular with those against the Emperor’s regime:

I am overwhelmed with compliments [for refusing the cross], I have received three hundred flattering letters such as no man in the world has ever received before.  In everyone’s opinion I am the greatest man in France…I have so many commissions [for pictures] at present that I cannot supply them.

Courbet had “taken nothing from the family purse for more than twenty years.”  As for Tissot’s friends Degas and Manet, at ages 35 and 38, they were still struggling and still being funded by their parents.  Tissot had made it in Paris on his own from the time he was 19, and was, at 33, so prosperous that he could continue to enjoy the lark of occasionally supplying his British friend Tommy Bowles with caricatures of prominent men for Vanity Fair, the new Society magazine that Tommy pitched as “A Weekly Show of Political, Social and Literary Wares.”  It débuted on November 14, 1868 at sixpence a copy, and its most popular feature was the weekly full-page, color cartoon of some man-of-the-moment that first appeared in February 1869.

Among people of this generation, especially in Paris, it was fashionable to mock tradition and ridicule authority or even oneself.  In 1869, there was a fad for the Grimatiscope, a patented French viewer for creating grotesquely, humorously distorted images from regular photographs.  Portraits of eminent people, friends or oneself could be squeezed into caricatures.  As Degas said, “a true Parisian…knows how to take a joke”; in contributing political cartoons to Vanity Fair, Tissot certainly seemed in his element.  He contributed his work under the pseudonym “Coïdé.”

Émile Ollivier, Vanity Fair, January 15, 1870 by “Coïdé” (James Tissot) . Caption reads “The Parliamentary Empire.”  (

One of Tommy Bowles’ closest friends was the dashing Gus Burnaby (Frederick Gustavus Burnaby, 1842 – 1885), a captain in the privileged Royal Horse Guards, the cavalry regiment that protected the monarch.  At 28 and already larger-than-life at six feet four inches, Gus Burnaby was looking for more adventure than his hot-air balloon ascents could provide.  Gus, a member of the Prince of Wales’ set, had suggested the name, Vanity Fair, lent Bowles half of the necessary £200 in start-up funding, and then volunteered to go to Spain to chronicle his adventures for the satirical magazine.  Queen lsabella II had been forced to abdicate her throne; the country, under the rule of a provisional government, was on the eve of a revolution.  All Burnaby’s letters, which were first published on December 19, 1868 and continued through 1869, were titled “Out of Bounds” and signed “Convalescent” (he suffered intermittent bouts of digestive ailments and depression throughout his life).

But Bowles’ staff writers were perhaps, too exceptionally trenchant: Vanity Fair – steadily increasing in circulation and beginning to turn a profit — had gained a reputation for unabashed impudence.  “These boys,” Bowles later observed, “were continually getting me into hot water.”  Around 1870, Burnaby ceased his involvement with Vanity Fair at the command of His Royal Highness The Duke of Cambridge (1819 – 1904), Field Marshal Commander-in-Chief of the British Army who supposedly rebuked an intelligent underling by crying, “Brains? I don’t believe in brains! You haven’t any, I know, Sir!”

The Duke of Cambridge, Vanity Fair, April 23, 1870, by Alfred Thompson. Caption reads: “A military difficulty.” (

In 1870, Tommy Bowles, now 29, commissioned James Tissot to paint a small portrait of Burnaby.  Tissot presented Gus in his “undress” uniform as a captain in the 3rd Household Cavalry – and as an elegant gentleman in a relaxed male conversation.

Captain Frederick Gustavus Burnaby (1870), by James Tissot. Oil on panel, 19.5 by 23.5 in. (Photo:

All the while, Napoléon III was ill with gallstones and prostate trouble, aging and losing his grip on the Empire, but the Princess Mathilde continued to surround herself with all the most vital men in France.  Another young man of talent who had caught her attention, the poet and new playwright François Coppée (1842 – 1908), wrote of his first visits to her:

“She was still in enjoyment – but, alas!  Not for much longer – of all the privileges of her rank of Imperial Highness.  In the sumptuous saloons of her house in the Rue de Courcelles, as also in the pleasant shades of her château at Saint-Gratien, swarmed the official world of the Court, gold-laced generals, ambassadors and ministers covered with orders and ribbons, fair and charming ladies sparking with diamonds, and also, in their sober black coats, the famous writers and artists of the day.  They were all there, or nearly all; at least as many in number as the wonderful pearls in the Princess’ necklace, that famous ornament which was much less precious in her eyes than the intellectual aristocracy which her grace and goodness had succeeded in attracting to her and keeping at her side.”

Was the handsome and self-made James Tissot, whose painting Beating the Retreat in the Tuileries Gardens she had purchased out of the Salon just two years ago, one of the Princess Mathilde’s “intellectual aristocrats”?  It is strange, the life Tissot led – an exclusive address and titled patrons in Paris (and an ongoing friendship with that rising paragon of the British Establishment, J.E. Millais) and yet closer friends with the individualistic Edgar Degas (who ceased to exhibit in the Salon after this year, due to his discontent with it), the illegitimate and irreverent London publisher Tommy Bowles, and the renegade James Whistler, who was considered belligerent and uncouth by this time.

James Tissot’s friendship with the rebellious Édouard Manet is not well documented, especially during this period, but Tissot was not a defender worthy of inclusion in Henri Fantin-Latour’s A Studio in the Batignolles (Homage to Manet), exhibited at the Salon in 1870.  It shows Manet surrounded by the writer and critic  Émile Zola, the painters Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, and Frédéric Bazille, and the sculptor Zacharie Astruc.

English: Henri Fantin-Latour's art

A Studio in the Batignolles (Homage to Manet), by Henri Fantin-Latour.  (Photo: Wikipedia)

Neither was Tissot included in Frédéric Bazille’s 1870 painting, The Artist’s Studio on the rue de la Condamine (which Bazille shared with Renoir from January 1st 1868 to May 15, 1870).  Bazille and Manet stand at the center in this criticism of the Salon, with rejected canvases hung on the studio walls; with them are Renoir, Monet, Astruc and Bazille’s friend Edmond at the piano.

The Artist’s Studio in the rue de la Condmine (1870), by Frédéric Bazille (

Tissot appears to have been content to live well, contribute wicked caricatures of world figures to a slightly subversive London Society magazine, and maintain a fairly low profile in the art world he had conquered within a decade of his arrival as a provincial art student.  Oddly, there are almost no references to Tissot in letters, journals or accounts of his chatty friends and acquaintances during this time, even though his studio was a chic gathering place, and it is likely he visited crowded, gossipy weekly receptions such as those hosted by Princess Mathilde on Fridays and the extremely successful and hospitable painter Alfred Stevens on Wednesdays.  It seems that James Tissot was a peaceable and refined gentleman, truly his own man, with all the advantages and disadvantages that accrue to an individual of independent temperament and means in a circle of talented and passionate associates – and rivals – in a world about to implode.

Related posts:

Tissot’s Last Salon: Paris, 1870

1869: Tissot meets “the irresistible” Tommy Bowles, founder of British Vanity Fair

© 2013 Lucy Paquette.  All rights reserved.

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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.

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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.

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