PAR MARIE SIMON MALET
at the Musée d’Orsay
It seems almost like an apparition. Canvases hang from the picture rails of a completely deserted Musée d’Orsay, lacking both lights and decorative framing. It’s a phantom exhibition that has been seen by no one. Unfortunately, the March 24 th opening never came to fruition due to coronavirus concerns, a sort of irony that Cyrille Sciama, a specialist in Tissot’s works, tells me would have quite amused the painter. Tissot, an uprooted artist who changed his classically French name Jacques Joseph to the in vogue English name James, was deemed “too English” by his countrymen upon his return to
France after an 11-year self-imposed exile in London. With his last Parisian retrospective having occurred in 1985 (35 years ago at the Musée du Petit-Palais), this latest exhibit would certainly have displayed both philosophy and elegance, were it not for this unexpected crisis.
When will we be able to see the Tissot, l’ambigu moderne exhibit, whose wistful title and exquisite poster compel us to dive into the world of Tissot? Will we ever be able to see it? Though the exhibit had initially been scheduled for March 24th through July 19th of this year, the abounding uncertainty and complication of the present day mean that no one knows for sure if the end date will be pushed further into the future.
Thank you, Florence
for giving me the opportunity to write this article on James Tissot. The surrounding circumstances make this a bit surreal, but I hope to share my admiration for this masterful painter. For some time now Tissot has captivated me, ever since I was an art history student, I had been doing research on the links between fashion and painting in the 19th century (the topics of my first book) and the decisive role that fashion played in the advent of modern-life painting. Tissot understood that a beautiful dress, as stunning as it might be, does not necessarily make a quality painting. He was extremely innovative in his compositions, brilliantly arranging decorations, clothing, accessories, and moods, giving viewers many ways to interpret his work. He truly knew how to play with the rules of fashion and high society in a uniquely dazzling way.
Tissot in the United States
The Tissot exhibit is a long-standing project initiated by the Musée d’Orsay in collaboration with the Fine Arts Museums (Legion of Honor/Musée des Beaux-arts) of San Francisco, where it was presented from October 12, 2019 until February 9, 2020 under the title, James Tissot: Fashion and Faith. In the United States, the painter is relatively unknown, and this was his first retrospective on the West Coast. Though the French and American teams collaborated, the two exhibits are quite different from one
another. Co-curator Melissa Buron (director of the Fine Arts department), had chosen to highlight his paintings depicting both fashion and religion. Though a lesser known fact about him, Tissot devoted the last 15 years of his life illustrating the Bible and the life of Jesus. That said, fashion remains what he is most well-known for.
Visitors of the American exhibit were greeted by one of Tissot’s most emblematic paintings, October (1877, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Montréal), where Kathleen Newton, his muse and lover, is captured on a walk surrounded by the branches of a chestnut tree with golden leaves falling to the ground around her. This large painting is highly intriguing, and here Tissot proves his talent with color and texture. The golden hues of the foliage offer a dramatic contrast to Kathleen’s dark embroidered jacket, hat, and aubergine-tinted skirt. His gift for reproducing textiles in paintings is often traced back to his roots. In Nantes, where he was born in 1836 and lived until his twenties, his father owned a flourishing drapery business, while his mother was a milliner. Though growing up surrounded by fashion may not necessarily have given him an innate sense of style, it more than likely instilled within him a visual memory and a love of patterns, textures, and fabrics.
James Tissot, October, 1877, The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. (Detail)
The taste with which Tissot composes his figures and the attention he pays to accessories placed him under the tutelage of French Neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, whom he admired greatly and whose pupil Hippolyte Flandrin was
his teacher at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The composition October evokes Japanese prints, and the subject is particularly interesting due to its alluring nature. The piercing look, as well as the petticoat and boots revealed by the gesture of raising her skirt were quite daring at a time when great pride was placed upon modesty. But in October, Tissot pays tribute to female seduction.
Mavourneen (ma chérie)
Kathleen Newton is a romantic character. A young Irish divorcée and mother of two, she lived a tumultuous life in India and met Tissot in London around 1876. Here, they were neighbors in the district of Saint John’s Wood, where Newton settled with her sister and where Tissot acquired a large house that he lavishly decorated. He also built up a half-English, half-French garden, as he had erected a colonnade similar to the one found in the Parc Monceau in Paris. Kathleen was 18 years junior to Tissot. She was a beauty with lightly colored eyes, luxurious hair, and a complexion rendered pale due to her affliction with tuberculosis. She became Tissot’s passion and his muse, and he did not cease painting her until her tragic death in 1882 at the age of 28. Having been Catholic, he never could marry her, but she nevertheless took up residence with Tissot. This earned him the disapproval of his wealthy customers, who then stopped giving him business. The exhibition displays several photographs that he took of the young woman, her children, and the unconventional family they formed; many paintings were born as a result of these photos. Barely a week after Kathleen’s death, Tissot left London and returned to Paris.
At the Musée d’Orsay, co-curators at the Musée d’Orsay Marine Kisiel and Paul Perrin, along with Cyrille Sciama head of the Musée des Impressionnismes de Giverny since June 2019, adopted a different perspective, preferring to focus on the ambiguity and modernity of the artist. They also focused on garden themes, as well as the influences he had on film. Their vision was to highlight his virtuosity, not only as a fashion painter, but also as a storyteller of his social surroundings leading us to discover his underlying mysteries.
Tissot occupies a special place in art history. While he saw immense success during his life, he became largely forgotten, and later reconsidered with a measure of disdain. He remains unable to be classified, and though he was friends with Whistler and Degas, he embarked on his own artistic path by departing for London in 1871. He truly paved his own way by refusing to associate himself with other Impressionists and declining to participate in the famous 1874 exhibition.
From Marguerite to portraits
At the Musée d’Orsay, the exhibition is mostly chronological, beginning with paintings about the story of Faust and Marguerite de Goethe that Charles Gounod’s opera had made popular. These paintings, which were very in vogue under the Second French Empire, transport us to the 16th century and already show Tissot’s apt perception of the era’s fashion. The young painter was criticized for having copied Belgian painter Henri Leys, but nevertheless he earned the official recognition of the French state, which ultimately bought his work The Meeting of Faust and Marguerite (housed at the Musée d’Orsay).
In 1864, Tissot’s style changed. At the exhibition, Tissot presented two more contemporary pieces. These large works, The Two Sisters and Portrait of Miss L.L. (housed at the Musée d’Orsay), allowed Tissot to assert himself as a portrait artist for the first time. The subject of the latter portrait had not yet been identified, but she was a convincing depiction in the eyes of critics. She appears simply as herself, without trying to be anything else. “Ah! How far we are from the fashionable portraits, with their air of pretentiousness and flashy attire!” said Thoré-Bürger. Because at the exhibition, there were mostly low-cut ball gowns, which had become a sort of uniform imposed upon portraits of the time. In The Two Sisters, the younger girl is vividly depicted in her short dress (according to conventions of he era, short meant mid-calf), the older girl wears a white dress with a high waist, holding a parasol in one hand and a large hat in the other.
The painter’s wardrobe
At the exhibition, grooming was given much attention as the influence of fashion began to grow, and the distinction between the aristocracy and the upper-middle class started to blur. During the Second French Empire, fashion became a widely known art form. For instance, Charles Frederick Worth, recognized as the father of haute couture, dared to proclaim himself an artist. On top of that, there was the rise of garment manufacturing, department stores, and fashion publications. Clothing represented an artistic challenge, with writers and art critics pointing out that portraits had become quite popular and even following the same democratization as fashion.
Tissot was a refined and elegant man, very much in line with his time. As a fan of the avant-garde, he collected Japanese treasures imported by Parisian merchants. Following the trend of Japonisme, he decorated his home, located on the current Avenue Foch, in a similar taste, portraying kimonos in some of his paintings (notably, the sensual nude The Japanese Bather, 1864, housed at the Musée de Dijon).
He created an atelier with grooming at the forefront in his paintings, which were often completed years apart from one another, further highlighting his desire to be up to date with the latest fashions. He used dress models often, who in the paintings give off a frilly voluptuousness with their flowy ribbons, as well as a touch of eroticism with bustles that highlight their curves.
« Ta ligne de hanche, ma ligne de chance. » (Belmondo to Anna Karina in French film Pierrot le fou -J.L Godard)
A modern girl
Portrait of Miss L.L., dated February 1864, is daring in its unconventional and somewhat cheeky pose:
The young lady seems to be perched with half of her rear on the corner of a table. Her bolero, adorned with fashionable pompoms, is a nod to the Spanish origins of the Empress Eugénie. The camisole is of a bright red (“too red,” according to Bürger), and underneath her black skirt, we can see the point of a shoe. There is, for this corseted society that minds good manners, a certain freedom in the attitude of the model whose charm still resonates today. Tissot gives us these hints of liberation.
James Tissot, Portrait of Mademoiselle L.L…, February 1864, oil on canvas, 48 7/8 ×
39 1/8 in. (123.5 × 99 cm) Musée d’Orsay, Paris. © image courtesy of the Fine Arts
Museums of San Francisco – Legion of Honnor Museum
A novel, like the one under the arm of the woman in October? He asserts with his work that women who read are attractive, and perhaps even dangerous because of it! Tissot loved literature and fashion, and he brought about Baudelaire’s wishes: With clothing, he extracted beauty and depicted modern life. But here lay the challenge of diverging from ball gown-clad figures and historical paintings portraying goddesses that were characteristic of the time. With these becoming to be considered as dated subjects, a new generation of painters had to then address the subject of the modern individual performing social duties, according to Duranty. This ultimately helped shape Tissot’s successful career as a renowned portrait artist.
The painter of “High Life”
The Marquis and the Marquise of Miramon commissioned Tissot to paint them a family portrait (Portrait of the Marquis and Marchioness of Miramon and their children, 1865, Musée d’Orsay).
They also commissioned him to paint a full-length portrait of the Marquise in a pink negligée, which was put on display at the International Exposition of 1867 under the title Portrait of the Marquise de Miramon. It is quite probable that the Marquis was also the commissioner for the group portrait The Circle of the Rue Royale (1866, Musée d’Orsay), which was an astounding 3-meter painting completed when the artist was 28. The scene depicts a gallery of worldly men on the terrace of the Hôtel de Coislin overlooking the Place de la Concorde. The composition borrows from both fashion prints and
the English tradition of group portraits, such as those of Hogarth. The painting displays the richness of the male wardrobe and is also a lesson in style. Perhaps the exhibition provides further background on the details and circumstances of these sophisticated outfits! In the gathering portrayed, bringing together both the Boulevard Saint-Germain and the bourgeoisie of industry and finance, the appearance of these men is stunning. One can observe the urbanity of some, the righteousness of others, the delicacy of the Prince of Polignac (seated on the right), and the vivacity of Charles Haas (appearing on the far right) who seems ready to leap into the conversation.
The 12 backers of the painting determined its ultimate owner would be determined by a special draw, of which Baron Hottinguer ended up being the winner.
There were then Tissot’s drawings during the War of 1870, his departure for London, his caricatures for Vanity Fair, etc. He achieved success in England with his many paintings whose subjects were disconcerting to many viewers, such as Holyday (1876, London, Tate), which Oscar Wilde saw as vulgar. Other paintings were similar to those of the pre-Raphaelites, where Tissot mixes clothing styles with 18th-century elements, in addition to scenes on the Thames. It is sad that these marvelous paintings that have come from major museums and private lenders across the world, will remain unseen within the walls of the old Orsay station. The final rooms in the exhibition are devoted to Tissot’s return to Paris, where his presentation of 15 paintings from his collection The Parisian Woman at the Sedelmeyer Gallery was deemed a failure. This marked a huge setback for the man Oscar Wilde said depicted women who were overly groomed. It then seemed that Tissot’s idea of a Parisian woman was out of style!
Work in film
Later on, mysticism seems to take hold of the painter, who seeks to communicate with the late Kathleen during spiritual séances. He also claims to have a vision in the Église Saint-Sulpice that convinced him to take up religious painting. Tissot made three trips to the Holy Land to create about 300 watercolor paintings of the life of Jesus Christ, which he presented at the 1894 Salon to tremendous acclaim. Published in 1896 when Tissot was 60, under the title The Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the watercolor album became a bestseller. The exhibition ends with a cinematographic tribute: extracts from films such as Maurice by James Ivory (1987), Le temps de l’Innocence by Martin Scorcese (1993), and Portrait of a Lady by Jane Campion (1996), all of which were strongly influenced by Tissot’s paintings. Several of the frames in these films depict Tissot’s work quite accurately.
Now, we must wait and hope that this exhibit is not forgotten in the midst of a prolonged quarantine. However, it is still possible to immerse yourself in books and catalogues. You can also watch Arte’s documentary, Tissot, l’étoffe d’un peintre. Or perhaps even watch the films mentioned above and challenge yourself to find the Tissot works within them!