Today is April Fool’s Day – and my birthday – so here’s something a little offbeat.
Among the contemporary subjects painted by French artists in the second half of the nineteenth century were various incarnations of Polichinelle, a comic figure based on Pulcinella in the Italian Commedia dell’Arte – in English, Punch. In Paris, Polichinelle featured in a marionette theater that opened around 1860 in the Tuileries Gardens.
Tissot’s enormously successful friend and mentor, Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier (1815 – 1891), painted at least a dozen versions of Polichinelle, including Polichinelle à la Rose (1879; oil on canvas, 17 by 11 in./43.18 by 27.94 cm; Private Collection) and Portrait of Harlequin Polichinelle (above; The Wallace Collection, London).
Harlequin Polichinelle is painted on a pine panel which once formed part of a door in the Paris apartment of Apollonie Sabatier (1822 – 1890), a famous courtesan whose salons were attended by artists and writers including Baudelaire, Flaubert and Meissonier. In 1861, a year after Meissonier painted this picture, it was cut from the door and retouched by the artist for sale by Madame Sabatier, who was said to be the mistress of Sir Richard Wallace (1818 – 1890). His father, Lord Hertford, who lived in Paris and owned the finest private art collection in Europe, bought the painting for the generous sum of 13,000 francs (about £520).
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 recently had moved into the sumptuous new villa he had built at the most prestigious address in Haussmann’s renovated Paris: the twelve-year-old avenue de l’Impératrice (Empress Avenue, now avenue Foch). His new studio, a showcase for his renowned collection of Japanese art, quickly had become a landmark to see when touring Paris. His Salon exhibits included Young Women Looking at Japanese Objects and A Widow.
Rather than paint Polichinelle, Tissot exhibited two of a series of six comedians at the Cercle de l’Union Artistique in 1869. These were character studies of comedians who ran the gamut from Le premier comédien, an elegant entertainer with the Comédie-Française, to Le sixème comédien, a sad clown with a travelling circus.
Tissot’s Le deuxième comédien, a comical vision of a Renaissance scholar with a long, fur-trimmed coat and an armful of heavy books, was exhibited at the Cercle de l’Union Artistique in Paris in 1869. It found its way to The Fine Art Society in London by December, 1993 and sold at Christie’s, London, on December 11, 2014 for $ 35,370 USD/£ 22,500 GBP (Premium).
In 2006, Le troisième comédien (above) was sold as The Actor at the Dorotheum, Vienna. In 2008, it was sold at De Vuyst, Lokeren, in Belgium for € 8,400 EUR (Premium; $ 11,313 USD/£ 6,641 GBP).
Another of Tissot’s friends, Edouard Manet, painted Polichinelle.
In a cover design for a group of 1862 etchings, Manet showed the comedian peeking out from behind a curtain that reads, “Polichinelle Presents: Etchings by Edouard Manet.”
In 1873, the year Manet painted The Railway and sold it to Paris opera baritone Jean-Baptiste Faure, he gave his painting of Polichinelle to Faure. It was sold at Hôtel Drouot, Paris, in 1878, to Madame Martinet, Paris who sold it at Hôtel Drouot in 1893 to Claude Lafontaine, Paris. It was purchased by French margarine magnate and art collector Auguste Pellerin, Paris and sold at Hôtel Drouot in 1926 to Belgian art collector and dealer Joseph Hessel, Paris. In 1999, it was sold at Christie’s, New York to a private collector, and in November, 2014, it was sold at Sotheby’s, New York for $ 3,525,000 USD/£ 2,202,299 GBP (Premium).
In 1874, when The Railway was exhibited at the Salon and ridiculed by the critics and the public, Manet made a series of prints of another Polichinelle, above.
After enduring the Franco-Prussian War, the Siege of Paris, the Commune, self-imposed exile in London for eleven years as he built a new career but ultimately was left behind in both the French and British capitals, and the death of his lovely young mistress, Tissot returned to Paris.
There, with Manet dead and Impressionism well established as the prevailing art trend, Tissot exerted himself to re-establish his reputation with a series of fifteen large-scale paintings called “La Femme à Paris” (Women of Paris). He painted these large works between 1883 and 1885, illustrating the fashionable parisienne in various incarnations using brighter, more modern colors than he had in his previous work.
Women of Paris: The Circus Lover (1885) is one in this series. The setting for this picture is the Molier Circus in Paris, a “high-life circus” in which the amateur performers were members of the aristocracy. People of beauty and fashion attended the circus and mingled with the performers during the interval.
The man on the trapeze wearing red is the Duc de la Rochefoucauld, one of the oldest titles of the French nobility; he was said to have “the biceps of Hercules.”
Under him in the ring, competing for the attention of the sophisticated, bored Parisians in the audience, Tissot painted a forlorn, comic character played by Jules Ravaut. Tissot’s last clown, he wears the Union Jack on his costume.
© 2015 by Lucy Paquette. All rights reserved.
If you do not have a Kindle e-reader, you may download free Kindle reading apps for PCs, Smartphones, tablets, and the Kindle Cloud Reader to read The Hammock: A novel based on the true story of French painter James Tissot. Read reviews.
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 http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009P5RYVE.