The Société des trois: Constructing Artistic Identities in Paris and London, 1850-1870




Berry, Melissa

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In the mid-nineteenth century, Paris served as the epicentre for artistic creation; artists flocked to the French capital in search of training, camaraderie, and, ultimately, success. Henri Fantin-Latour, Alphonse Legros, and James McNeill Whistler were amongst these hopeful artists in the 1850s. While each eventually created a thriving practise for himself, each also fought to establish his artistic career and identity during these early years. Because the narrative of a young, struggling artist is not an uncommon one, this stage is often brushed aside when examining the trajectory of these artists’ careers. However, such a dismissal does not allow for a full contextualization of an artist’s life and oeuvre. Fantin, Legros, and Whistler evidence this truth, both individually and as a small group. While attempting to define their maturing artistic identities, these three artists deliberately elected to join forces and become the Société des trois. This era bore witness to the birth of the artistic avant-garde, which elevated expression and individualism; with this in mind, the decision to develop a closed artistic society is unique. Fantin, Legros, and Whistler adhered to specific societal tenets and maintained loyalty to each other in an artistic environment that praised the individual. There are many reasons that supported their decision; for example, the Société enabled them to transition from the student to professional phases of their careers between 1858 and 1868. Eventually, as the choices the artists made in the formation of their artistic identities diverged, the Société was no longer necessary, and each member went his own way. In light of their decisions to unite as a formal society, Fantin, Legros, and Whistler’s period of maturation must be understood through the lens of the Société des trois.



Art History, Whistler, Fantin-Latour, Legros, translocal, nineteenth century