On the morning of February 23, 1870, painter Edouard Manet and art critic Edmond Duranty traveled to the Saint-Germain-en-Laye forest on the outskirts of Paris. Relations between the two former friends had become tense: After Duranty published a lukewarm review of Manet’s work, the artist reportedly slapped the writer at the popular Café Guerbois. Then, Duranty challenged Manet to a duel.

Both men selected observers to bear witness to their sword fight. Manet decided to bring French novelist Émile Zola, who produced a handwritten account of the incident that could fetch up to £6,000 (~$7,565) in an online Christie’s sale closing December 15.

Thomas Venning, Christie’s head of Books and Manuscripts in London, told Hyperallergic that the document uses the exact same words and phrases as one might find in other standardized chronicles of such incidents. But the “slightly mad” duel between the critic and the aggrieved painter, he added, was made stranger by the fact that the era’s pre-eminent novelist penned the witness statement.

“I love the fact that Zola, who is famous for his sweeping, large-scale ultra-realist novels, witnesses what must have been an extraordinary scene and then signs off on a description which is completely formulaic,” Venning said. 

Émile Zola, “Official record of the duel between Edouard Manet and Edmond Duranty, Paris” (1870) (image courtesy Christie’s)

According to Zola’s testimony, signed by the duel’s other observers, the 11am fight entailed a “single engagement” of violence resulting in two bent swords. Duranty sustained a small injury on the right side of his chest after Manet’s weapon “slipped on a rib.” 

“In the face of this wound, the witnesses declared that honor was satisfied, and that there was no need to continue the fight,” Zola concluded. 

Manet and Duranty were both fixtures of Paris’s artistic and intellectual scene in the late 19th century. Degas sketched and painted the critic, and artist Henri Fantin-Latour included both Manet and Duranty in “Hommage à Delacroix” (1864), a group portrait of artists and writers. Even Manet himself painted Duranty into his 1862 canvas “Music in the Tuileries Gardens.” 

Duranty eventually became frustrated that Manet declined to identify with the Realism movement that the author strongly supported. The critic was also disappointed that Manet, a bourgeois man obsessively committed to the upkeep of his public appearance, continued to seek the approval of the Salon establishment. The squabbling came to a head when Duranty barely mentioned Manet’s contribution to an 1870 group show. 

In characteristic fashion, Manet reportedly purchased a new pair of shoes specifically for his upcoming sword fight. He later wrote that he attempted to give the footwear to Duranty afterward, but that the critic refused them “because his feet were larger than mine.” 

Against all odds, the slap and subsequent duel weren’t enough to destroy Manet and Duranty’s relationship. The two men continued their friendship until Duranty’s death in 1880.

“It takes you to the heart of French cultural life at this period, when the painters, the critics, and the writers were all attending the same cafés and were friends, and/or enemies,” Venning said.

Duranty’s lukewarm review of Manet’s “Beggar with Oysters (Philosopher)” (1865-1867) launched the duel. (image courtesy Art Institute of Chicago)

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.

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