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  • Writer's pictureSimone Skopek

Manet's friend the lion hunter, and their strange relationship

Updated: Jul 8, 2023

Simone Pertuiset novel Mr. Pertuiset the Lion Hunter
The embarrassing portrait of his friend Eugene Pertuiset was one of Manet's largest paintings – almost life-size

I have done extensive research on Eugene Pertuiset based on his two memoirs, Les aventures d’un chasseur de lions (1873) that describe the tribulations of a great white hunter in the Algerian wilderness and Le Trésor des Incas a la Terre de Feu (1877) which tells of his madcap search for Inca gold in Patagonia. I have also found many 19th century articles on Gallica BnF including a fulsome biography in The Annuaire des artistes et de l’enseignement dramatique et musical 1899. Joining the dots, I have uncovered a story that seems to be not very well known, and which shines a bit of light on the enigmatic character of Manet.

Eugene was an entertaining, larger-than-life personality – a strongman behemoth, an adventurer, explorer, inventor, arms dealer, mesmerist, fortune hunter , writer and a teller-of-tall tales – all of which made him a media darling and a colorful celebrity-among-celebrities in Paris during the glittering years of la Belle Époque.

He knew everyone and everyone knew him. Some thought he was a genius; others saw him as a wacko, but most would say he was a likeable fellow. A close friend was Alexandre Dumas, who perhaps saw in Pertuiset something of a kindred theatrical spirit.

What is less known perhaps, is that Eugene idolized Edouard Manet, was his most loyal patron before Manet was famous and bought many of his paintings. Moreover, Pertuiset badly wanted to be a painter himself and to be taken seriously and accepted into the cool crowd of bohemian artists and writers.

Caricature drawing of a hunter with hat and moustache pointing a large two-barreled gun at the viewer
Caricature of Manet's portrait of the lion hunter

Manet, perhaps feeling he owed something to his most devoted patron, agreed to take Pertuiset on as a student, but it was an embarrassing relationship. The cool bohemian artist crowd found Pertuiset clownish and pompous – which perhaps partly explains why Manet made such an unflattering portrait of a man who was not only his student, greatest admirer and earliest benefactor – but also supposedly a friend.

Art historian, Ulrich Finke in his book, French 19th-century Painting and Literature: with Special Reference to the Relevance of Literary Subject-matter to French Painting (Manchester University Press, 1972) believes that the painting was a lampoon of Manet's friend the lion hunter – a view that is summarized as follows:

‘I believe that [another] visual clue to Manet’s mental state at the time [near the end of his life] is his portrait of M. Pertuiset, the Lion Hunter, painted in the period 1880 -1881.
Although Pertuiset loved to cast himself as a heroic adventurer in the bigger-than-life mould of the African game hunter, he also appeared in everyday life as a dandy and a witty raconteur, who specialized in tall tales, and was himself the subject of several comic anecdotes.
Manet chose to present him from a low angle, kneeling down next to a stuffed lion skin rather than standing triumphantly over a giant beast as in the standard depictions of wild animal hunters. Pertuiset seems barely able to support the heavy double-barreled carbine – a feature the cartoonist Stop delighted in exaggerating along with a stuffed lion skin. These satirical features of the work were thus evident to Manet’s contemporaries, and it would appear that Manet wanted to bring Pertuiset down a notch or two. The out-sized phallic gun takes on elements of irony in this context.’

Manet's friend the lion hunter becomes an artist himself

19th-century catalogue of an art exhibition
Catalogue and press reviews of the exhibition of Pertuiset's paintings 1889. Newspsapers reported that within the first days of its opening already 4,000 people had visited the exhibition

The fascinating denouement of this strange relationship was how Pertuiset turned the tables on the bohemian snobs with a popular show of his own in Paris in 1899, that garnered rave reviews from the critics. This helped him to market his show in London, which attracted more than 4,000 visitors - all of this thanks to his personal charm and his fame as a lion hunter as well as his reputation as a so-called ‘student of Manet’, who by then, had been dead for a number of years and had gained fame as the father of modern art.

Meanwhile, Pertuiset also ran a successful advertising business, which he used to market his two highly profitable inventions: a remedy for baldness and another for gout and produced two bestsellers of his adventures. Not much remains of his work. In addition to his paintings, he did the frontispiece illustration of his Lion Hunter book. I believe that he also drew the poster of la Pertuisine ( his baldness remedy) printed by Bouquet.

These bits of work and fact that none of his paintings had survived (or so I thought) suggested that Pertuiset probably wasn’t much of an artist – until I did come across one of his paintings for sale online at a French gallery – damaged and black with grime and badly in need of cleaning and restoration. Under the dirt, one could make out a female lion in an Algerian landscape. As a non-expert, I would say it’s quite a mishmash of styles – vaguely impressionist (maybe because he couldn’t draw well) – but nevertheless, it has a quiet charm, and is sincere and sensitive, with a touch of dreamy orientalism. The critics had said at the time that Pertuiset had a unique palette, captured foreign landscapes, and defied being categorized in any particular style.

As I happen to be a descendent of Pertuiset, I was so fascinated by this eccentric man, that I decided to write his story as a novel. Manet and the Lion Hunter is the little-known story of a man of myth-like proportions, juxtaposed with historical evidence, photos and vignettes, a timeline of his life, and a few selected articles from the 19th-century popular press.

My objective with the book has been to create an amusing, well-researched novel about the art world for a general audience, and a snapshot of Europe’s entry into the modern age.

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