Julius Le Blanc Stewart arrived in Paris in 1865 and for the following fifty years was known as the "Parisian from Philadelphia" who assured his career and reputation by depicting the grand life in Belle Époque Paris and members of Parisian high society. By the mid-1880s, the only American to receive more critical attention at the Salon Exhibitions was John Singer Sargent.
Stewart was influenced by his father, William Hood Stewart, a well-recognized collector and connoisseur on both sides of the Atlantic known for his passion of art. Originally from Philadelphia, the elder Stewart made his fortune in Cuba managing the family's sugar plantation which bestowed them with a great fortune. As early as the 1860s, William began collecting pictures, both American and European, and at the end of the Civil War moved his family to Paris where Mr. Stewart befriended and collected works by many contemporary artists. Among them were Spanish artists such as Eduardo Zamacoïs, Mariano Fortuny, Raimundo de Madrazo, Martin Rico and Jose Villegas. Stewart's collection of paintings was so well-known that visitors to Paris would ask to visit the collection, including American artists such as Julian Alden Weir.
As a result of his father's connections, Julius became a student of Zamacoïs in his early 'teens. Upon the artist's death, he entered the atelier of Jean-Léon Gérôme in May 1873 and was one of the master's "beloved pupils". By the mid-1870s, Stewart moved into his own studio next to that of Madrazo's and was known to have been greatly influenced by the Spaniard in his use of a rich, vibrant palette, gestural brushwork and sumptuous scenes of young society ladies, as seen in After the Ball (Private collection) from 1877. In this painting, Stewart established his long preoccupation with the theme of "fashionable ingénues in fancy costume."
The following year, Stewart debuted at the 1878 Paris Salon with two works and by 1883 his painting, Portrait of a Lady (Private Collection), was enthusiastically labeled by The Art Amateur as "the most sensational picture of all" at the Salon. Stewart furthered his reputation the next year with Five O'Clock Tea (Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Collection, New York), portraying the leisured life of American expatriates in Paris--ladies and gentlemen enjoying afternoon tea in a posh salon interior. Here Stewart showcased his range of painterly abilities in his sumptuous depictions of still lifes, ladies' luxurious costumes, the elegant domestic furnishings and the virtuosity of depicting reflective light through the salon windows.
Five O'Clock Tea also showcased Stewart's interest in depicting multi-figured compositions. Like his friend Jean Béraud (1849-1906), the French genre painter, Stewart specialized in elaborate, multi-figured compositions incorporating celebrities of the day. The French critic Gaston Jollivet noted in 1888, "Between portraits and genre pictures proper, there is a mixed style of composition, partaking of the character of both which excites a two-fold curiosity." Jollivet proceeded to note that Stewart and Béraud were the principle practitioners of this art. Stewart included a self-portrait in Five O'Clock Tea, placing himself in profile at the far left corner, as well as a portrait of his collie, Jinny, politely begging favors from the tea table. At the Salon of 1885, Stewart's painting, The Hunt Ball (Private Collection), became one of the most talked about pictures. Beyond its technical virtuosity, Stewart "transformed the picture into a gallery of contemporary portraits." The American art critic Theodore Child wrote, "the fact that the Duc de Morny and several other 'swells' figure in it, has made it the fashionable picture of the exhibition." (U.W. Hiesinger, Julius LeBlanc Stewart: American Painter of the Belle Époque, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1998, p. 39) Those depicted include Stewart, the Viscount de Janzé, the Duke de Morny, the Count de Morny, the Comte de Lindemann, the Baron Benoit-Méchin, Captain Barclay, among others. The presence of these figures emphasize Stewart's connections to the social, literary, musical and artistic worlds of Paris.
In addition to his depictions of Belle Époque interior scenes, Stewart also excelled in painting images of outdoor leisure pursuits: picnics, lawn parties and yachting excursions, continuing his interest in depicting society figures. One of these figures was the notorious American, James Gordon Bennett (1841-1918). Bennett was a colorful character who enjoyed a life of wealth and privilege due to the success of his father who founded New York's Herald newspaper in May 1835. The elder Bennett was considered the first real reporter the American press had known and has been described as having made the newspaper world "impudent and intrusive." (D.C. Seitz, The James Gordon Bennetts: Father and Son--Proprietors of the New York Herald, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1928, p. 15) The younger Bennett, bestowed with this wealth, was admitted into realms such as the sacrosanct world of New York's Union Club, the "citadel of the jeunesse dorée," where his father had not been permitted. Bennett was an avid sportsman in yachting, polo, coaching and aviation and upon his move to Europe in 1877, after a social scandal, he established the Paris Herald, now published as the International Herald Tribune.
Most relevant to Yachting in the Mediterannean is Bennett's role as an avid and bold yachtsman. In 1857, he was the youngest member ever to be elected to the New York Yacht Club at the age of sixteen. Ten years later he was elected to Vice-Commodore, then was twice elected Commodore serving terms from 1871 to 1874, and again from 1884 to 1885. Several Challenge Cups were presented by Commodore Bennett including the Brenton Reef and Cape May Challenge Cups, which were ways for Bennett and other members of the Club to encourage racing amongst its members and competing clubs. (J. Parkinson, Jr., The History of the New York Yacht Club from its Founding Through 1973, New York, 1975, vol. II, p. 611)
Bennett is known for having commanded the winner of one of the most notable cross-Atlantic races, from Sandy Hook to the Needles, in the winter of 1866 between his own schooner the Henrietta, against the Vesta and Fleetwing, the latter two owned by Pierre Lorillard, Jr. and George Frank Osgood, respectively. The race took a rapid fourteen days, six hours and ten minutes and Bennett sailed with his friends Charles Longfellow, Lawrence Jerome and Stephen Fiske. In 1870, Bennett nearly won the America's Cup in England, and it was a combination of these races that pushed his ambitions further, inducing him to upgrade to a larger boat. He purchased the schooner Hirondelle from Dexter Bradford, Jr. of Newport, Rhode Island, lengthened her by fifteen feet and rechristened it Dauntless.
In 1879 Bennett sold Dauntless to Commodore John Waller of New York who, in turn, sold it to Caldwell H. Colt of the arms family in Hartford, Connecticut. At this point, he gave up "sails for steam" and in 1882 built the yacht Namouna (Fig. 1), named after the heroine of Alfred de Musset's epic poem of Spain and of Édouard Lalo's ballet. Built at the Newburg, New York boatyard of Messieurs Ward, Stanton & Company, the swift screw-propeller measured 226 feet and 10 inches overall, weighed 845 tons and in 1883 was one of twenty-three steam yachts in the New York Yacht Club's fleet with Namouna being by far the largest. The interior was designed by the firm of McKim, Meade & White and furnishings were provided by Louis Comfort Tiffany, making Namouna one of the most renowned pleasure yachts of the Gilded Age. John Parkinson describes it as "a craft of Oriental magnificence, that [Bennett's] Herald staff referred to as the Pneumonia." The yacht had a crew of fifty and cost $150,000 a year to operate.
Steam yachts were becoming increasingly popular at the turn of the century and their existence is ascribed to the "great untaxed wealth accumulated by numerous financiers for social and sporting reasons." (The History of the New York Yacht Club from its Founding Through 1973, New York, 1975, vol. I, p. 111) This reasoning rings true with the afore descriptions of Bennett and the luxuriousness of his Namouna. Similarly well-fortuned and famed men owned similar yachts, including J.P. Morgan and his Corsair, T.A. Havemeyer's Ideal, J.A. Bostwick's Orienta, and Pierre Lorillard's Radha.
Stewart was known to be a frequent guest of Bennett on yachting excursions and his depictions of Bennett's luxury yachts during the 1880s and 1890s show the artist's continued practice of depicting multi-figured compositions with high society characters on board. Bennett was known to have cruised around the world in his various yachts, but the Mediterranean was his favorite cruising grounds and he enjoyed the company of a multitude of guests (Fig. 2). When the Namouna departed on her maiden voyage in 1882, the Sun recorded the various locations to be visited and guests that would join Bennett on his travels. At port in New York, visitors included the Duke of Manchester, Lord Randolph Churchill and Lord Mandeville. Sailing to Washington, boarded guests were Alfred Grymes, Gardner Howland, Charles A. Longfellow, son of the poet, Lawrence R. Jerome, Captain Talboys, John Whipple and Winnie Grey. After Washington, the Namouna made a short stop in Newport, then headed for European waters: Palmas in the Canaries, Teneriffe, Madeira, Gibraltar, Malta, Corfu and Constantinople. Afterwards, she sailed to Cowes, Sweden, Norway then headed to the Mediterranean for the winter.
In 1890, Stewart produced a large-scale yachting picture, related to the present work titled The Yacht Namouna in Venetian Waters (Fig. 3, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut). Originally conceived as one of four in a series titled The Four Seasons, this work was long referred to as Summer. Whereabouts are currently unknown for the remaining works in the series, Spring and Autumn and the Winter canvas was never commenced. The work is a resplendent example of Stewart's abilities to depict the hay day of yachting, showing all the glories of the infamous Namouna.
The painting depicts Bennett dressed in his characteristic white linen suit and boater hat, seated along one of the teak banquettes at left. To the right, Stewart painted two ladies reclining in their chairs, with a male suitor to their right. It is believed that the woman in blue is the British actress Lillie Langtry (1853-1929), whom Stewart had previously depicted in The Hunt Ball. The suitor to Langtry's right is meant to be her one-time beau, Freddie Gebhard (1860-1910), an avid playboy-sportsman. Stewart's friend, the American art critic John Van Dyke, accompanied Stewart on this trip and described the journey as follows: "One summer in Venice, Jules Stewart was painting a large picture of a yachting party at sea. James Gordon Bennett's yacht, the Namouna, was lying off San Marco out of commission, and it was the foredeck of that yacht that furnished the background of the picture. Bennett had given Stewart the run of the yacht, and we practically lived on her, going ashore for luncheon and dinner at the restaurants." (Julius LeBlanc Stewart: American Painter of the Belle Époque, p. 51)
In 1896, Stewart completed another magnificent yachting work, the present painting, Yachting in the Mediterranean, with a daring and modern perspective of the waters in which Stewart and Bennett sailed. Whereas the celebrity figures in The Yacht Namouna in Venetian Waters are the major focal point of that painting, Stewart's 1896 masterpiece emphasizes the ocean landscape and the power of the Namouna. Stewart's composition and glorification of the vessel within its elements emphasizes the action of the speeding steamer and the panorama of sky and sea. In both, familiar figures scan the horizon from the upper and lower decks and bask in the sun outfitted in similar costumes.
The figures depicted are secondary to the emphasis placed on the technical and mechanical power of the Namouna and her ability to forge with great speed through the open sea. The immense power, sleek linearity and size of this modern yacht with all its engines, turbines and numerous crew members to run it, is emphasized by the clean, equally linear lines of the composition and detailed recordings of the ship's riggings and accoutrements. A strong horizon line divides the picture horizontally just above the bow and the ship cuts through the water at an angle to her starboard side. The strength and power of the yacht's maneuvering is enhanced by the woman standing on the lower deck, swept slightly off balance by the turn, grasping for an out-held hand from her male companion.
As Hiesinger adeptly describes Stewart's oeuvre, "The paintings of Parisian high society that earned him fame as a mature artist also distinguished him from every other American, not only for their subject matter but also for the artist's intimate involvement with the life he portrayed." (Julius LeBlanc Stewart: American Painter of the Belle Époque, p. 9) Stewart was well-placed within Parisian high society in both artistic and social circles. His familial wealth helped place him there, but it was his charm and artistic abilities that kept him ensconced in this world for the entirety of his career. Yachting in the Mediterranean is a testament to this fact, exemplifying Stewart's mastery as a Belle Époque artist. He moved easily within this rarified, luxurious world where folly and leisure were the pursuits of the day. Nowhere else is this life better depicted than on Bennett's grand Namouna, elegantly gliding through the Mediterranean waters capturing the joie de vivre essence of the age.