‘Both blades buckled’: the day Edouard Manet fought a duel

In a witness statement offered in an online sale of letters and manuscripts, the novelist Emile Zola describes a violent encounter between Manet and his erstwhile friend, the novelist and critic Edmond Duranty. So how was it that, after years of solidarity, the two men came to blows?

On the cold, grey morning of 23 February 1870, two men set out from Paris for the Forest of Saint-Germain to fight a duel. One was France’s most notorious artist, the radical painter Edouard Manet. The other was the novelist and critic Louis Edmond Duranty, an ardent supporter of the Realist movement.

They brought with them two swords and their seconds: the celebrated novelist Emile Zola, the revolutionary writer Paul Lafargue, and the journalists Henri Vigneau and Eugène Schnerb.

At 11 o’clock the two clashed weapons with ‘such violence’, wrote Zola, ‘that both blades buckled’. Duranty was lightly wounded on his left breast, the result of Manet’s sword ‘slipping on a rib’, and the fight ended. Honour, it was agreed, had been satisfied.

Edgar Degas, Portrait of Edmond Duranty, 1879

Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Portrait of Edmond Duranty, 1879. Tempura, watercolour and pastel on linen. Burrell Collection, Glasgow. Photo: © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection / Bridgeman Images

Offered online from 1 to 15 December in The Alphabet of Genius: Important Autograph Letters and Manuscripts is a witness statement signed by Zola, documenting the duel between Manet and Duranty.

Unlike the passionate, magisterial tirades we most commonly associate with the great public intellectual, this statement by Zola is a standard text. ‘It is a document of record written in a very detached way,’ says Thomas Venning, head of Books and Manuscripts at Christie’s in London. ‘This was clearly standard practice, and makes you realise just how often these incidents took place in Parisian cultural life. I think it gives a good indication of the madness of the times.’

The specialist adds: ‘A really good autograph document takes you to a single moment in a person’s life. It is as if you are looking over their shoulder and seeing what they are seeing. This is an insight into how Parisian intellectuals conducted themselves.’

The events leading up to the moment of combat are curious to say the least. By all accounts, Duranty was a keen supporter of Manet, having championed the artist as a ‘painter of modernity’ and defended him in print from accusations of ‘debauchery’.

Duranty was part of the offensive against the cultural and political status quo. In his journal, Réalisme, he set out a pioneering vision of an art grounded in contemporary, urban experience, of which Manet was the master. He christened the artist’s inner circle ‘the Batignolles group’, after the district in which Manet’s studio was situated.

Henri Fantin-Latour, Hommage a Delacroix (Homage to Delacroix), 1864

Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904), Hommage à Delacroix (Homage to Delacroix), 1864. Oil on canvas. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Manet (standing immediately to the right of the Delacroix portrait) and Duranty (in side profile on the far left) are among the luminaries depicted, as are Whistler, Baudelaire and Champfleury. Photo: © Photo Josse / Bridgeman Images

In return, Manet included Duranty in his famous painting Music in the Tuileries Gardens (1862), in which the writer’s thoughtful face, beneath a light grey hat, can be seen among the frock coats and silks under a canopy of green foliage. Two years later, both men were memorialised by Henri Fantin-Latour in the 1864 painting Homage to Delacroix, alongside other great champions of naturalism including Charles Baudelaire, James McNeill Whistler and Champfleury.

By 1870, however, tensions were running high. Revolution was in the air, and battle lines were being drawn. Duranty was frustrated by the Batignolles’ refusal to describe themselves as ‘Realists’, which he believed to be the only legitimate path to follow in the face of a reactionary public.

Manet’s obsession with the salon and his desire to be accepted by the establishment disturbed the critic. Why would the artist try to cultivate such hypocrites? Manet’s response can be seen in the advice he later gave the Impressionists: ‘Instead of huddling together in a separatist group, you should carry the battle into the enemy’s camp. The bourgeoisie is under the impression that you do not exhibit at the salon because your work will not be accepted. You should put on a tailcoat and go out into the world. Why slop about in slippers?’

Things came to a head when Duranty’s review of an exhibition at the Cercle de l’Union Artistique only mentioned Manet’s painting Beggar with Oysters (Philosopher) (1865-67) in passing. Furious at the slight, Manet sought out the critic in the Café Guerbois and slapped him in the face.

Edouard Manet (1832-1883), Beggar with Oysters (Philosopher), 1865-67. Oil on canvas. Duranty’s failure to pay sufficient attention to this painting angered Manet and led to the duel. Photo: The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY / Scala, Florence

Official record of the duel between Edouard Manet and Edmond Duranty, Paris, 23 February 1870, signed by Emile Zola. Sold for £35,280 on 14 December 2023 at Christie’s Online

‘It doesn’t seem like much of a reason for a duel,’ says Venning, ‘but Manet had a notorious temper and a sense of entitlement. He expected the respect of his acolytes.’

Manet was the beau idéal of the upper class. Rich and mercurial, he had, said his close friend Antonin Proust, ‘a lithe charm which was enhanced by the elegant swagger of his walk… one was conscious of his breeding’. He adored socialising and, according to Zola, derived ‘a secret thrill from the brilliant and scented delights of evening parties’. It was Manet that Baudelaire was thinking of when he described the painter of modern life as a ‘dandy’.

By contrast, Duranty was not well-off. He was rumoured to be the illegitimate son of the novelist Prosper Mérimée, a pioneer of Romanticism. (If this is true, the critic’s rejection of the movement in favour of its opposite, Realism, could be interpreted as Freudian.)

‘After the duel, I wanted to give [my new shoes] to Duranty, but he refused them because his feet were larger than mine’
Edouard Manet

Like Zola and Manet, Duranty refuted the tradition of romanticising the oppressed and the poor. Through his writing, he showed the insignia of privation: the pallid skin, the wasted bodies and the desperation. His revolutionary novel The Misfortune of Henriette Gérard, published in 1860, is a cool, almost dispassionate scrutiny of contemporary life. He believed in accuracy and truth at all costs, and had the democratic conviction that ‘the masses are as open to pity, to misfortune, to anger, etc, as the writer addressing them’.

These ideas were vigorously debated by the intellectual habitués of the Café Guerbois, where the Batignolles group socialised with the radical writers of the age, among them Zola, Flaubert and Mallarmé. Following the altercation between Manet and Duranty, Zola was dispatched to the writer's lodgings to secure a time and a place for the duel.

In one of the more baffling aspects of the story, Manet spent the day shopping. ‘I can’t tell you what trouble I went to, the day before the duel, to find a pair of really broad, roomy shoes in which I would feel quite comfortable,’ he later wrote to Proust. ‘In the end I found a pair in the Passage Jouffroy. After the duel, I wanted to give them to Duranty, but he refused them because his feet were larger than mine.’

Edouard Manet, At the Cafe, 1869, depicting the Cafe Guerbois on Avenue de Clichy in Paris

Edouard Manet (1832-1883), Au café (At the Café), 1869, depicting the Café Guerbois on Avenue de Clichy in Paris, a place where artistic ideas were thrashed out in the early years of Impressionism. Photo: Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Having faced death together, the pair developed a post-duel camaraderie. The critic was one of the few friends able to temper Manet’s violent outbursts. In 1876, writing in his pamphlet The New Painting, Duranty identified Manet’s seminal role in the Impressionist movement: ‘Time and time again he has given the public, with candour and courage akin to genius, works full of breadth and intensity, a voice distinct from all others.’

When Duranty died suddenly, in April 1880, it had a profound affect on Manet. By this time the artist was gravely ill with syphilis, a condition that might have been responsible for his impetuous behaviour towards the critic. He spoke of him often before his death, once remarking, ‘It’s odd, but every time someone mentions poor Duranty’s name, I seem to see him beckoning me to join him.’

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As far as Venning is aware, this was the only duel that Manet ever fought. ‘What is surprising is that the altercation is treated as little more than a footnote in his life. He could easily have died,’ says the specialist.

‘It is what makes this such a wonderful document. It bears testament to an extraordinary event that deserves to be better known. It is among the dots that make up this remarkable story.’

Explore art from antiquity to the 21st century at Classic Week, 1 to 15 December 2023 at Christie’s in London

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