James Tissot and his friends, including James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet and Berthe Morisot, did not work in a vacuum. In addition, creative personalities can be strong, and the public and the critics could be merciless. Career success or failure sometimes led to rivalries, but competitive friendships inspired all the artists in their circle.
Gustave Courbet’s Woman with a Parrot, displayed prominently at the Salon in 1866, was a tremendous success with the public. In 1867, the Salon jury rejected Edouard Manet’s work, and all his entries also were rejected that year for the Paris International Exposition, which, like the Salon, was sponsored by the French government. The International Exposition was a far bigger event than the Salon; it was held from April 1 to November 3 and included exhibitors from forty-one nations. Courbet and Manet teamed up to present their work in an independent exhibition, building a large, temporary wooden pavilion across the street from one of the entrances to the International Exposition, at the Place d’Alma. Manet showed fifty-six paintings, including his homage to Courbet’s Woman with a Parrot, called Young Lady in 1866.
Manet’s student, Eva Gonzalès, not quite 21, made her Salon debut in 1870 with three paintings including Enfant de troupe, her take on Manet’s The Fife Player (rejected by the Salon jury in 1866). Her picture was understood as an homage.
But Manet, who struggled enormously to gain acceptance in the Paris art establishment, found himself accused of plagiarism rather than an homage in 1873. Painter Alfred Stevens, enormously rich and successful, was overheard at the Salon in 1873 sniping at Manet for plagiarizing Le Bon Bock from Frans Hals’ The Merry Drinker (1628–1630). Manet publicly rebuked Stevens, stopping short of a physical confrontation. Le Bon Bock won an honorable mention.
Manet borrowed ideas from Old Masters, but Edgar Degas accused Manet of plagiarizing from him, complaining to a friend, “That Manet. As soon as I did dancers, he did them. He always imitated.” However, prominent biographer Jeffrey Meyers points out that Manet painted milliners and women bathing in a tub before Degas did. Art historian Jean Sutherland Boggs noted that Degas’ The Steeplechase (1866) was significantly influenced by Manet’s The Dead Toreador (1864). Phoebe Pool, another art historian, wrote, “A great deal of nonsense has been written about Manet’s plagiarism…Critics do not object to Degas or the young Picasso using the works of older artists, yet they deplore this practice in Manet.”
In September 1875, Eugene Manet found his brother at work on an extraordinary new picture. He told his wife, Berthe Morisot, “Edouard has started a painting that is going to upset all the painters who think they own plein air and light-colored paintings. Not a drop of black. It seems Turner appeared to him in a dream.” The picture, Laundry, showed a housewife happily doing the family laundry. Later, Degas would be known for his depictions of laundresses, but they were workers paid to do other people’s drudgery.
Degas’ The Absinthe Drinker (1875-76) was denounced at the Salon in 1876; Manet painted Plum Brandy the next year – but Manet also had painted The Absinthe Drinker in 1858-59. Who copied whom?
Meanwhile, James Abbott McNeill Whistler was afraid that Gustave Courbet would steal his idea for Wapping (1860-64). In a letter to a friend, Whistler ecstatically described the “masterpiece” he was working on, adding, “Ssh! Don’t talk about it to Courbet!”
But Whistler copied Dutch Old Masters (as in his Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, [Portrait of the Artist’s Mother], 1871), Velázquez (1599 – 1660) and, as Berthe Morisot pointed out, J.M.W. Turner (1775 – 1851):
In a letter to her sister Edma from London, while on her honeymoon with Eugène Manet in 1875, Berthe Morisot wrote: “I visited the National Gallery, of course. I saw many Turners (Whistler, whom we liked so much, imitates him a great deal).”
Did Berthe Morisot ever borrow ideas from the artists in her circle?
In 1869, Manet painted Berthe Morisot with a Muff. Almost a decade later, in 1878, James Tissot painted A Winter’s Walk.
In 1879-80, Manet painted Isabelle Lemonnier with Muff.
In 1880, Morisot painted Winter (Woman with a Muff).
These artists, all about the same age and with similar family backgrounds, were friends who lived and worked together. Each absorbed the influence of the era and of their fellow painters to paint with a distinctive style, though their subject matter may at times have been identical. They drew inspiration from one another but also competed with each other for critical notice, public attention – and the purses of patrons.
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