The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler
Home > On-line Edition > Biography

Octave Mirbeau, 1848-1917

Nationality: French
Date of Birth: 1848
Place of Birth: Trévières
Date of Death: 1917.01.16
Place of Death: Paris


Octave Mirbeau was a novelist, playwright, art critic, journalist, anarchist and amateur painter. He was born into a rural middle class family.


Mirbeau was educated by the Jesuits in Vannes. He unsuccessfully sought to attain a law degree in Paris from 1866-68. As a lieutenant in the Garde Mobile de l'Orne in 1870-71, he fought in the Franco-Prussian War and was wounded. For a time in 1877 he acted as Chef de cabinet to the Prefect of l'Ariège. He also worked on the Paris Stock Exchange in the early 1880s.

Mirbeau was an influential literary figure, who sympathised with anarchist philosophy. He worked as art and theatre critic for the bonapartist paper L'Ordre from 1872-77. He also contributed at different times to such politically diverse papers as L'Ariégeois, Le Gaulois, Le Figaro and La France. In 1883 he became editor of Paris-Midi, Paris-Minuit and founder of Les Grimaces. A close friend of the Impressionist painters, he critically defended their work. He was also friends with Auguste Rodin, Guy de Maupassant and Emile Zola.

Mirbeau greatly admired the work of Whistler. When Whistler sent Arrangement in Black: Portrait of Señor Pablo de Sarasate (YMSM 315) to the Salon in 1886 Mirbeau, who described the work as 'one of the most beautiful works in the Salon', protested that it was badly hung. The two men were good friends, and Mirbeau was often to be found at Whistler's Parisian residence at 110 rue du Bac.

In 1895 when Whistler challenged George Moore to a dual, Mirbeau and the French Symbolist poet Francis Vielé-Griffin acted as his seconds. Moore had publicly sided with William Eden who in March 1895 had brought an action against Whistler for not handing over a portrait of Lady Eden, Brown and Gold: Portrait of Lady Eden (YMSM 408). After the trial Whistler sent Moore a scathing letter (#04178) and Moore responded by goading Whistler with old age (#04179). This reply was published in the Pall Mall Gazette and reprinted in the French papers. Whistler challenged Moore to a duel (#04181, #04182) and Vielé-Griffin seconded him. However, Moore did not agree (#04183) and Mirbeau and Vielé-Griffin sent a procès verbal to the press to say that they had waited eight days for an answer and, having not received one, considered the affair to be at an end.


Pennell, Elizabeth Robins, and Joseph Pennell, The Life of James McNeill Whistler, 2 vols, London and Philadelphia, 1908; Monneret, Sophie, L'Impressionisme et son époque, Paris, 1978-79; Jean-François Nivet et Pierre Michel (ed.), Octave Mirbeau: Notes sur l'art, Caen, 1990; Carr, Reg, Anarchism in France: The Case of Octave Mirbeau, Manchester, 1977; Young, Andrew McLaren, Margaret F. MacDonald, Robin Spencer and Hamish Miles, The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler, New Haven and London, 1980; MacDonald, Margaret F., James McNeill Whistler. Drawings, Pastels and Watercolours. A Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1995; McCaffrey, Enda, Octave Mirbeau's literary and intellectual evolution as a French writer, 1880-1914, Lewiston, New York and Lampeter, 2000.