James Tissot enlisted in the National Guard of the Seine, the Fourth Company of the Eighteenth Battalion, in 1855 – as soon as he had arrived in Paris at age 19. (His father might have purchased an exemption from military service for him, but did not.)
When France declared war on Prussia, Tissot soon became a Franc-tireur.
A Franc-tireur was a sharpshooter, or sniper, fighting independently of the regular army. They were also referred to as tirailleurs.
But the French army needed every man and organized the Volunteers of the Seine by August 15, 1870. The Éclaireurs (Scouts) of the Seine was an elite unit of Franc-tireurs founded to defend Paris. James Tissot, the elegant painter of the avenue de l’Impératrice, became a sharpshooter. In addition to his rifle, Tissot also carried a small sketchbook (17 by 10 cm or about 6 3/4 by 3 7/8”) In the field. Click here to see Tissot’s drawing of the Éclaireurs.
When not on duty, the Éclaireurs, like other National Guard units, could live at home. On Friday, September 9, British war correspondent Tommy Bowles [Thomas Gibson Bowles, 1841 – 1922, who founded the British Society magazine Vanity Fair in 1868] was surveying the scene of Garde Mobile squads drilling or wandering around along the avenue de l’Impératrice [near Tissot’s sumptuous villa at No. 64], when he encountered James Tissot, in the blue uniform of the National Guard.
On October 21, 1870, 62 of the Éclaireurs of the Seine – “one and all Parisians of the purest type” according to Tommy Bowles – were sent to fight in the Battle of Malmaison (also referred to as the Battle of Rueil-Malmaison, or La Jonchère, for the nearby towns), west of Paris.
As unbelievable as it may be that the refined, cultured painter James Tissot became a sniper during the Franco-Prussian War, he was hardly alone. Others who served with Tissot in the Artists’ Brigade at the Battle of Malmaison on October 21, 1870 included:
Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry (1828 –1886). Like many artistic children from the provinces in 19th-century France, Baudry went to Paris with a grant from his municipality to pay his tuition fees. He began studying painting at 16, in 1844, and enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts in 1845, studying under French Neoclassical painter Michel Martin Drolling (1789 – 1851.) Baudry made five successive attempts at the coveted Prix de Rome, finally sharing the award with William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825 –1905) in 1850; his winning painting was Zenobia Found by Shepherds on the Banks of the Araxes (c. 1848).
Among the works Baudry sent from Rome to Paris was Fortune and the Child (1853–54, Paris, Musée d’Orsay), inspired by Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love (Galleria Borghese, Rome).
At the Salon in 1857, he exhibited The Martyrdom of a Vestal Virgin and The Child, which were purchased for the Luxembourg, while his Leda, St. John the Baptist, and a Portrait of Beul both won him first prize. In 1861, Baudry exhibited his only historical painting, Charlotte Corday after the murder of Marat, and in 1862, he painted The Wave and the Pearl.
In 1865 or 1866, Baudry began work at the Opéra Garnier (the Paris Opera house under construction), painting the ceilings of the Grand Foyer with scenes from the history of music — more than thirty paintings that would occupy him for a decade.
Still, Baudry found time to paint portraits of eminent men such as the architect of the new opera house, Charles Garnier (1825 – 1898), in 1868.
At the Battle of Malmaison in October, 1870, the 42-year-old Baudry was seen standing guard on the ramparts (as was Bouguereau).
Louis-Eugène Leroux (1833 – 1905) studied with the distinguished history painter François-Édouard Picot (1786 – 1868). Leroux was described at the time as a “young artist of great promise, standing over six feet high, and as handsome as Apollo.” At the Salon in 1870, his painting, The New Born Baby (Breton Interior), won medal and was purchased for the Luxembourg Museum by the French government. At the Battle of Malmaison, the 37-year-old Leroux was severely wounded in both legs and taken prisoner by the Prussians.
Jules Ferdinand Jacquemart (1837 – 1880), considered the undisputed genius of etching, was the son of Albert Jacquemart (1808 – 1875), an amateur artist, botanical illustrator, collector and author. Jules executed some of his finest etchings for his father’s books, The History of Porcelain and The Gems and Jewels of the Crown. In 1859, he made an etching of Japanese and Chinese artifacts and, with a few like-minded artists, he founded a society to study and promote Japanese culture, all the rage after the signing of the first commercial treaty between Japan and America in 1854, when more than 200 years of Japanese seclusion came to an end. Also in 1859, Jacquemart also began contributing engravings for the Gazette des beaux-arts illustrating objets d’art from the Louvre and from prominent collectors such the Rothschilds. In the 1860s Jules Jacquemart was commissioned by the Louvre to produce sixty etchings of the French crown jewels.
Étienne Prosper Berne-Bellecour (French, 1838 – 1910), studied painting under Félix-Joseph Barrias (1822 – 1907), Emile Signol (1804 – 1892) and, like Leroux, under François-Édouard Picot. Berne-Bellecour made his Salon début in 1864 with Low Road on the Coast of Normandy (1864). In 1869, he painted The Lover. Berne-Bellecour was described by a contemporary as being “tall and well-proportioned [with] a fine, military bearing, and might easily be an officer of the legions he depicts.” He was 32 during the Battle of Malmaison and made quick pen and ink sketches of scenes during the lulls in fighting. He later gained a reputation as a military painter with works like The Tirailleurs de la Seine at the Battle of Rueil-Malmaison, 21st October 1870 (1875), in which he depicted Leroux wounded, Jacquet firing a last shot, and Cuvelier supported by his comrades.
Jehan Georges Vibert (1840 – 1902), was born in Paris and entered the École des Beaux-Arts at age 16, in early 1857. He studied under Félix-Joseph Barrias (1822 – 1907) and then, for six years, under François-Édouard Picot. Vibert painted mythological and religious subjects including The Death of Narcissus and Christian Martyrs in the Lion Pit, as well as subjects such as Young Girl Arranging Flowers (1862). Vibert made his Salon début in 1863 with The Siesta and Repentance, then won his first medal at the 1864 Salon for Narcissus Transformed into a Flower – though its nudity caused a scandal. At the Salon in 1866, his Daphnis and Chloë (1865, Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, Virginia) received harsh criticism; one critic advised him, “Take on a live model.” Beginning in 1860 – 61, Vibert traveled a number of times to Spain with a young Spanish artist, Eduardo Zamacois * (c. 1841 –1871), who was in Paris studying with the illustrious Ernest Meissonier. The two friends collaborated on their 1866 Salon entry, Entrance of the Toreros. A critic noted that this painting was “new and interesting with lively bold coloring,” and around 1867, Vibert began painting less serious subjects, such as The Barber of Ambulart. He won a financial prize at the 1867 Paris International Exposition as well as another medal in 1868, when he painted a Napoleonic picture, Convent under Arms.
At the Salon in 1870, he exhibited Gulliver Fastened to the Ground and Surrounded by the Army. He traveled to the East, returning to France just before war broke out in 1870, when he joined the sharp-shooters in the Éclaireurs of the Seine. For suffering a wound at the Battle of Malmaison in October 1870, Vibert was made a Knight of the Legion of Honor. Vibert was an out-sized personality with diverse interests including play-writing and cooking, and he had a penchant for merriment and boasting. It is curious that although Vibert only received a slight wound in the knee, the reserved James Tissot, who was wounded in the same battle, did not receive the Legion of Honor. [*Meanwhile, Vibert’s friend Eduardo Zamacois traveled back to Madrid and died there of pneumonia on January 14, 1871.]
Gustave Jean Jacquet (1846 – 1909), born in Paris, was one of Bouguereau’s best students. He made his Salon début at 19, in 1865, with Modesty and Sadness. He gained immediate recognition, and received further notice with his Salon entry in 1867, Call to Arms in the Sixteenth Century. By 1867, a prominent art critic wrote of him, “Behold an artist, unknown today, who will be celebrated tomorrow.” Jacquet was a fine horseback rider, and his studio was crammed with a museum-quality collection of ancient arms and armor in his studio. His painting Sortie de Lansquenets was purchased by the French government for the royal Château de Blois in the Loire Valley. In 1868, he won a third class medal with a military painting set in the 1700s, Sortie d’armée au XVI siècle. When the war broke out, Jacquet, 24, became a sharpshooter in the same company as James Tissot, fighting in the Battle of Malmaison on October 21, 1870. Jacquet reportedly went into the battlefield with some of the weapons and armor he kept in his studio, and he nearly lost his life trying to rescue Leroux, a rival painter who was seriously wounded and taken prisoner by the Prussians. [I am indebted to Kara Lysandra Ross for her recent, fascinating article on Jacquet: click here to read it.]
Louis-Alfred-Joseph Cuvelier (? – 1870), the equestrian sculptor, was Edgar Degas’ great friend from the 1860s. His work included small bronzes such as Jockey (1869, 19 by 15 by 11 in./48.3 by 38.1 by 27.9 cm). Cuvelier, full of innovation and promise, was a source of inspiration to Degas. He was killed at the Battle of Malmaison on October 21, 1870. It is said that Leroux witnessed Cuvelier’s death, and that Tissot’s drawing, The First Killed that I Saw (1870), was of Cuvelier – much to Degas’ disgust.
Five days later, Berthe Morisot’s mother wrote to another daughter, Yves: “Monsieur Degas was so affected by the death of one of his friends, the sculptor Cuvelier, that he was impossible. He and Manet almost came to blows arguing over the methods of defense and the use of the National Guard, though each of them was ready to die to save the country.”
Tommy Bowles left Paris on February 8, 1871 (a week after Paris surrendered to the Prussians on January 28) and returned to London, where he would see James Tissot by June – without living through the horrors that Parisians suffered in the meantime.
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