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Manet and the Lion Hunter

by Simone Pertuiset

Rating: *****

When Simone Pertuiset chanced upon a painting by Edouard Manet, “Monsieur Pertuiset, Chasseur de Lions” in an Art History class, her curiosity was piqued given the relative rarity of her surname. Family investigation confirmed that the subject of the painting, Eugene Pertuiset, was an ancestor.

Although interesting, Simone did not think much more about Eugene until fate intervened again when she happened upon a journalistic piece exploring La Belle Epoque that included an intriguing depiction of him, prompting Simone to delve deeper to discover exactly who Eugene Pertuiset was…

Having read Simone’s earlier historical work* and finding it an absolute gem, I was excited to begin Manet and the Lion Hunter and my enthusiasm was not misplaced. It’s an excellent book that I struggled to put down, one of those reads that makes you feel bereft upon finishing.

Simone has a wonderfully engrossing and richly rewarding subject in Eugene Pertuiset who, with her innate skill as a historical writer and intrinsic talent as a storyteller, is brought vibrantly to life together with the age in which he lived, the places he traveled to, and the people he met.

The man is a riveting character full of eccentricities, intrigues, and conflicts. He is, on the one hand, a deeply charismatic raconteur who occasionally might have embellished his adventures for a good tale, yet on the other, a deceptively astute and inventive individual, not to be underestimated, and who certainly ensured he experienced the full texture of his existence.

The book opens in the mid-nineteenth century and finds twenty-something Eugene as a traveling strongman/wrestler known as the “Tyrolean Hercules”. This opening chapter is beautifully evocative and instantly captivating. Within a few sentences, Simone effortlessly conjures the rusticity of the Normandy countryside and its inhabitants, not to mention the larger-than-life Eugene.  

Weaving fact and fiction, Simone unfolds Eugene’s remarkable story in poised and intelligent prose. Alongside his absorbing narrative, most chapters contain side sections with pertinent historical information and accompanying illustrations. It’s supremely interesting and skillfully inserted, ensuring it does not detract from Eugene’s trajectory but, instead, enhances it.

From his days as the Tyrolean Hercules, Eugene fully embraces, among other pastimes, being an expert marksman, arms dealer, hunter, art collector, chemist, and inventor as well as painting and producing commercial artwork. He also practiced the art of animal magnetism and dabbled in the occult, not forgetting a near-ruinous expedition to search for Incan gold on the South American island of Tierra del Fuego.

This mind-boggling list of pursuits is punctuated and facilitated by two important relationships; one with Alexandré Dumas and the other with Edouard Manet.  Eugene and Dumas cut a merry swathe as a pair of bon viveurs through Paris as it nears fin de siècle but there is unspoken depth and regard between both men.

Eugene’s dynamic with Manet is complex. The men become close friends and Eugene is one of the few champions of Manet’s work at this time and consequently, possibly pivotal, but certainly present at the dawn of the  Impressionism movement.

Nonetheless, Manet brings Eugene’s insecurities to the fore, perhaps on purpose, although Eugene is aware he is often presented as a bit of a lightweight buffoon. However, the reader suspects Manet may have been secretly envious of Eugene’s disarming style and seemingly happy-go-lucky existence hence his strangely unflattering portrait that was seen as a betrayal of their friendship.  

Indeed, despite his experiences, Eugene is a touch naïve and gullible as his doomed relationships with hunter Jules Gerard and stage performer, Geraldine, who prefers to be known as Estrella di Corazon demonstrate. The latter, especially, takes sound advantage of Eugene which makes for poignant reading.

Beautifully presented, meticulously researched, and superbly written, Manet and the Lion Hunter is a rich and incredibly fascinating account of an unconventional man and his extraordinary life.  Highly recommended.

*Click here for my review of Three Tales from the Tip of an Era

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