A Theatrical Evening at Prince Napoleons House
by James Jacques Joseph Tissot


  • Country of origin: France

  • Medium: Oil on canvas laid on board

  • Signed: Signed lower right

  • Dated: c. 1860

  • Condition: Some small old repairs otherwise very good for age

  • Size: 17.00" x 25.00" (43.2cm x 63.5cm)

  • Framed Size: 20.00" x 28.00" (50.8cm x 71.1cm)

  • Provenance: Private french collection
    This work has been expertised by Krystyna Matyjaszkiewicz - expert on the painter and author of James Tissot (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2019)

  • Literature: With many thanks for the following essay on the painting prepared by Krystyna Matyjaszkiewicz...............

    This is a hitherto unrecorded oil painting by the 19th century anglophile French artist James Tissot (1836-1902).

    Named Jacques Joseph Tissot at his birth in Nantes, north-west France, in 1836, he was called James by the time of his registration in 1847 at a Jesuit college in Flanders, and thenceforward was known as James Tissot, though he continued to use the double initials ‘J J’ for many of his signatures on artworks, as here. Tissot arrived in Paris to study art in 1856 and first had works accepted for exhibition at the Paris Salon in 1859. His early sale successes were portraits and historical-dress compositions. From 1863 he focused on the painting of modern life besides continuing portrait commissions.

    The inscription on this painting’s backboard identifies the depicted subject as a theatrical evening at Prince Napoleon’s [Parisian] house in the ‘avenue des Veuves’. Tree-lined and shady, the Avenue or Allée des Veuves [of Widows] was so called because widows came there to promenade out of the public eye. It had previously been called Allée des Soupirs [of Sighs], and in 1850 was renamed Avenue Montaigne. Running south-east from the Place de l’Étoile to the River Seine, the Avenue Montaigne is today renowned for couture fashion houses. In the early 19th century it was a deserted area, where a temporary pavilion was built to house Fine Art for the 1855 Exposition Universelle. Prince Napoléon was closely involved in the Exposition as President of the organising Imperial Commission. He decided to have a Pompeian-style house built on part of the site, at 18 avenue Montaigne, where he hosted theatrical and literary evenings for select guests from 1860 to early 1865.

    Napoléon-Joseph-Charles-Paul Bonaparte (1822-1891), known as Prince Napoléon, or by his nickname Plon-Plon, was the younger son of Jérome Bonaparte and nephew of Napoleon I. His early years were spent in Rome then Florence, Jérome and his family being exiled in Italy. Training at a military academy was followed by travel in Europe. Prince Napoléon developed a great interest in the arts, sciences, and modern social and economic ideas. He amassed important collections rich in Greek and Roman antiquities, as well as including French paintings. The idea of building a Pompeian-style house was inspired by one of his mistresses, the actress Rachel, known for playing roles in Classical tragedies. She died in 1858, before the house was completed. After Prince Napoléon’s marriage in 1859 to Princess Clotilde, he lived with his wife at the Palais-Royale but entertained guests from his literary, artistic and scientific circles, as well as a succession of mistresses, at the Avenue Montaigne house. Its Pompeian atrium and Classical aspirations were famously captured by the artist Gustave Boulanger in a painting commissioned by Prince Napoléon (and bequeathed to the Louvre by Prince Napoléon’s sister, Princesse Mathilde), Répetition du ‘Jouer de flûte’ et de ‘La Femme de Diomède’ chez le prince Napoléon (1861; Musée d’Orsay, Paris).

    The setting in Tissot’s painting is not the Atrium but the adjacent Library (Bibliothèque), which had a narrow gallery supported along the room’s length by slender columns, as seen in the painting’s background. Tissot was likely working from memory, as the gallery and columns in his oil are slightly different to those in photographs of the Library taken in 1865 and later. A backdrop may have covered the end wall for the performance, and Japanese and Chinese-style lanterns have been hung from the ceiling. They may be part of decorations for the performance, along with the round shield, sword and gauntlet visible on the gallery railings, which are likewise not present in photographs of the Library as fitted out by 1865.

    Prince Napoléon had his portrait painted in 1860 by Hippolyte Flandrin (1809-1864), in whose studio Tissot was a pupil in 1857-1859. It may have been through Flandrin, or mutual acquaintances in literary and dramatic circles, that Tissot was invited to a theatrical evening at Prince Napoléon’s house, which he subsequently captured on canvas. The painting is a private work, perhaps a commission (although not listed in his notebook of sales), and does not have the finish Tissot gave to oils intended for exhibition and sale to art dealers. Figures on the left are only sketched in outline. Their fluid brushstrokes reveal the facility with which Tissot caught poses, expressions, clothing, and gestures. His usual technique was to sketch figures and setting in thin brown paint onto a canvas or panel prepared with overall tone, then to work in colour, as seen here and for example in his Self-portrait, c.1865 (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco), or a Study of Kathleen Newton, c.1879 (Fondation Custodia / Collection Frits Lugt, Paris). Highlights have been added in scribbles and dashes of thicker paint. Bright, pigment-rich colours, with little added thinner, have the visual quality here of oil pastel, especially in the blue-clad dancer. There is Tissot’s characteristic interest in, and detailed knowledge of, male and female dress, hairstyles, and comportment. Similar figures appear in his later depictions of society evenings, such as Hush! (1874; Manchester Art Gallery) and Too Early (1873; Guildhall Art Gallery, London), Evening (1878; Musée d’Orsay, Paris) and Political Woman (1883-1885; Albright Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo).

    The Pompeian-style house had been inaugurated in February 1860 with a lavish reception for 200 guests, headed by Prince Napoléon’s cousin, Emperor Napoleon III, and Empress Eugénie. The cousins differed greatly in their political views: Prince Napoléon was a supporter of liberty, and they clashed frequently. Despite siding with the Emperor rather than her younger brother, Princesse Mathilde Bonaparte (1820-1904) was a frequent guest at Prince Napoléon’s social evenings. She may be the woman in profile on the far left of Tissot’s painting. Other figures may also be identifiable, though none of the men closely resemble Prince Napoléon. Dating of the theatrical evening can be conjectured from the women’s hairstyles and gowns. Their severe centre partings, with hair drawn back to reveal ears and large drop earrings, and gathered in understated low chignons, were fashionable around 1860-1861. Full sleeves and boat-shaped necklines to evening gowns date from the early 1860s. The event is therefore likely to have taken place about 1860-1861 but might have been painted a year or two later. Inclusion of Japanese-inspired costumes for two of the actors would have been topical for a performance in 1860-1862, and their fudged detail suggests they were painted before Tissot had acquired a good knowledge of authentic items through his collecting of Japonaiserie. It could not be later than early 1865, as in May that year Prince Napoléon gave a speech in which he championed liberty, condemned the Pope’s temporal powers, and praised the United States, so enraging Napoleon III that he rebuked his cousin publicly, and Prince Napoléon had to leave Paris immediately for his country residence. In early 1866 he sold the Pompeian house, and in 1891 it was demolished.

    Performing to the invited audience in Tissot’s painting are dancers and actors in the roles of stock Commedia dell’Arte characters. Centre left is Harlequin, wearing his signature multi-coloured, diamond-patterned costume and black mask. Beside him is Columbine, with makeup and powdered hair but no mask, and dressed in a pale-blue tutu decorated with black ribbon. Standing near them, in greatcoat and bicorne hat with a military drum at his feet, is the cowardly braggart Captain, wearing a mask with exaggerated large nose. To his right sits a figure in green and red kimono-type costume and the mask of old blind sage Tartaglia, beside whom is someone in bright-red clothing and Japanese-inspired hairdo. Behind them is a person dressed as the goddess Athene or Minerva, with red-crested helmet and sword, a character probably included in honour of Prince Napoléon’s collecting interests and the Pompeian-house setting. While Tissot’s friend, Edgar Degas, would later depict many theatrical scenes and dancers (including Harlequin and Columbine), these are not subjects that Tissot took up much in other works. However, in 1867-1868 he painted a series of single actors (comédiens) in various roles and costumes, one of whom has a pierrot-style outfit and stands near a military drum.

    Krystyna Matyjaszkiewicz ©

    Krystyna Matyjaszkiewicz is an independent art historian and curator, a specialist in 19th century art, leading expert on artists James Tissot and David Roberts, author of entries for both artists in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and key contributor to James Tissot published by Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2019.

Artwork Biography

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James (christened Jacques Joseph) Tissot studied in Paris under Louis Lamotte, Hippolyte Flandrin, and Ingres. His interest for all things English profoundly affected his life and his career as an artist. Upon his Salon debut in 1859, for example, he anglicised his given name to James. In 1865, he illustrated Ballads and Songs of Brittany and, from 1869, contributed caricatures under the pen-name of Coldé to the English-language periodicals Vanity Fair and Century. Tissot lived in London for the first time as of 1869 and started to make a name for himself as a portrait artist. He returned to France to play an active part in the defence of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871 and is also thought to have participated in the Paris Commune. The latter activity doubtlessly precipitated his return to England, where he was lodged by the then editor of Vanity Fair, T. G. Bowles, who had previously employed him and who commissioned him in 1871 to illustrate an eyewitness ‘Account of the Defence of Paris’. Tissot settled in St John’s Wood, then in the outskirts of London, where he acquired a beautiful mansion and gardens which he often used as for his work. By this time, Tissot had acquired the airs and graces typical of a dandy. Bowles introduced him to London society, where he met Whistler and his brother-in-law, the physician and engraver Sir Francis Seymour Haden. He also became acquainted with Ruskin, from whom he received encouragement. In 1876, Tissot met Kathleen Newton, a free spirit who became his mistress and his exclusive model until her death in 1882.

In the course of the 1870s, the Impressionists with Degas, Tissot’s friend and fellow pupil, proposed to Tissot to exhibit his work alongside their own. Apparently Tissot did not consider his work compatible with that of the Impressionists as a whole, and he declined the offer. However his Henley Regatta, painted about 1877, demonstrates his familiarity with Impressionist technique.

In 1880, Tissot became member of the Royal Society of Painters and Etchers. In 1882, he illustrated the Goncourt brothers’ novel Renée Mauperin and, in November of that year, only days after Kathleen Newton’s death, Tissot returned to Paris. There, he enjoyed a brief liaison with a circus performer and became engaged to the daughter of the painter Louis Riesener, but they never married. By this time, Tissot was involved in spiritualism and magnetism, participating regularly in questionable séances in the vain hope of re-establishing contact with Kathleen. He eventually had a vision in the church of St-Sulpice in Paris; this prompted him to renounce formally all things secular and to devote his time to illustrating episodes drawn from Holy Scripture. In order to gather material, he travelled to Palestine in 1886 and again in 1889. The 350 or so watercolour drawings he brought back from Palestine were reproduced in two volumes, published in Paris by Lemercier and Marne and in London by Sampson Low. The sale of royalty rights earned Tissot a vast sum. The volumes, commonly known as the James Tissot Bible, are formally entitled Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Following publication, Tissot returned to Palestine in 1896 to research companion volumes to illustrate episodes from the Old Testament. He returned to France, specifically to the Abbey of Buillon in the Doubs region, in order to complete the scheduled illustrations but died before he could do so.

James Tissot first exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1859 with a painting entitled Walk in the Snow together with preliminary drawings for stained-glass windows for a church in Nantes. His entry to the 1861 Salon, a painting entitled Faust’s Meeting with Marguerite, was widely acclaimed and subsequently acquired by the French state. In 1864, he was invited to exhibit at London’s Royal Academy and at the Society of British Artists. Then, in 1882, the Dudley Gallery exhibited paintings and etchings by him on the theme of ‘the Prodigal Son in modern times’. After returning to Paris in 1882, he was accorded a solo exhibition at the Palais de l’Industrie. In 1885, he exhibited at the Sedelmeyer Gallery, showing the fifteen large paintings that formed his ‘Women of Paris’ cycle; this exhibition transferred the following year to the Tooth Gallery. In 1889, a major collection of his engravings was featured in the Exposition Universelle in Paris. This was followed by exhibitions of his 350 New Testament illustrations in both Paris (1895) and London (1896). Following his death in 1902, Tissot’s work was largely ignored for many years. In 1985, however, the Musée du Petit Palais in Paris mounted a remarkable exhibition devoted to his work.

Tissot’s early work, during a first period extending from 1859 to 1870, displayed a punctilious academic technique in his rendering both of neo-historical, Biblical, and genre compositions, set often against the backdrop of an imaginary Middle Ages and of scènes galantes that were immensely popular at the time. Moreover, Tissot was probably the first to take an interest in the Japanese engravings that had appeared in Paris around 1860. He went on to paint commissioned portraits and genre compositions normally transposed to a contemporary setting: pensive young widows sitting on a bench in the park, elegant ladies making their way to church, some updated japonaises, and so on. Tissot’s work quickly became fashionable, not to say worldly. Rather than dismiss his early genre output as too facile, however, it is important to point to certain female studies from about this time exhibiting the remarkable charm and pictorial beauty that Degas applauded. A classic instance of this is Tissot’s 1864 rendering, called Japanese Lady Bathing, now in the Dijon Museum, which depicts a European woman tantalisingly shrugging off a kimono in a décor that is quintessentially Japanese.

Tissot emerged as a society painter in the decade he spent in London, where he was regarded to an extent as a mysterious and inscrutable figure of considerable private means, who elected to portray historical genre scenes transposed into a contemporary English setting in accordance with the prevailing taste. At the same time, however, he proved capable of producing portraits to order – like Empress Eugénie or Prince Imperial – of undeniable quality. These and other portraits helped make his reputation. While providing an impressive insight into Victorian life and manners in the 1870s, however, Tissot was beginning to explore themes distinctly more personal. He took as his models young women of undeniable beauty, dressed them elegantly and placed them in equally elegant and refined settings – in a winter garden, at a picnic by a river, on a croquet lawn, sipping afternoon tea, and so on. These were genre scenes par excellence, but Tissot took them a stage further, introducing a satirical element to these typically British institutions. In Oh, No!, for example, guests at an evening reception are undoubtedly bored at the prospect of the mandatory recital given by the young violinist who is clearly a member of the family, whereas in Too Early, the embarrassment and confusion of country cousins, who have arrived at a party ahead of schedule, are all too plain. It was this kind of subject matter that ensured Tissot a reputation. By 1875 or thereabouts, Tissot began to portray his female figures set against the light. Most are shown wrapped up warmly in winter clothes; moreover, most, if not all, look like Kathleen Newton. A classic example is Tissot’s engraving entitled Feeling the Cold.

Tissot was by this time engraving side-by-side with Seymour Haden and, although he cannot be said to have been Haden’s pupil, it is likely that his engravings benefited from the latter’s advice. From 1876, Tissot embarked on the publication of 90 etchings, a project that had taken him 15 years to complete. These were well received and extremely popular, notably Mawurnem, Feeling the Cold, and On the Thames. The 15 paintings in the ‘Women of Paris’ series, painted after his return in 1882, were a celebration of female elegance and a token of his pleasure at being back once more in his native France.

Reviews and criticism of Tissot’s work generally tend to focus on his portrayal of women and their intrinsic elegance, ignoring the far from insignificant portion of his work that testifies to his interest in ports and sailing. In addition to his anecdotal work, however, he illustrated, particularly between 1872 and 1877, a wealth of subject matter devoted to life on the river, notably the Thames, together with genre compositions featuring touching quayside farewells, cruises, and elegant life on board. Since he was born in the great seaport of Nantes, these were subjects close to his heart. He rendered them with an impressive technical dexterity, capturing the bustle of the quays and the charm of great sailing ships, their masts, spars, and rigging crisscrossed and tangled against the skyline. At the very height of his success in London, Tissot’s life took a brusque and radical turn. Profoundly distressed by the death of Kathleen Newton, he returned to France, where he embarked on two series of paintings, one devoted to ‘Women of Paris’, the other to ‘Women from Abroad’. Of these, only the first series was completed and, when finally exhibited, it met with a lukewarm response. Tissot abandoned the subject matter that had earned him fame and fortune and turned to another task: the illustration of the life of Christ. This resulted in the 350 watercolours based on the New Testament, which attracted praise and criticism in almost equal measure. A subsequent and companion project based on the writings in the Old Testament was planned; it was to have included 400 watercolour illustrations. By the time of his death, Tissot had completed only 95.

Tissot’s modest reputation rests mainly on his ambitious cycle of Biblical illustrations – admittedly more spiritual than his earlier striking and decidedly fashionable compositions. However, it is above all Tissot’s port paintings that must be singled out to give him his rightful place as an artist. Technical expertise and apparent facility apart, these compositions exhibit a talent that, in a sense, equals that of Manet, Tissot’s senior by four years. To a degree, Tissot’s themes parallel those of Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’Herbe. With rare exceptions, notably his portrait of Colonel Frederick Gustave Burnaby, where his technique is at its most meticulous and perhaps too accurate, Tissot achieves the direct and yet elliptic Impressionist touch of Manet. That said, fate ordained that the latter painted the fresh and vibrant colours of the banks of the Seine, while the former opted for the faded browns and smog of the Thames quaysides.
Solo Exhibitions

1985, Musée du Petit Palais, Paris, France
1999, James Tissot: Victorian Life/Modern Love, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT (travelling retrospective)
Museum and Gallery Holdings

Antwerp (Koninklijk Mus. voor Schone Kunsten): Disembarking at Calais (oil on canvas)
Auckland (AG Toi o Tamaki): Always Aloft (c. 1874)
Baltimore (Walters AM)
Baroda (Mus. and Picture Gal.): Supper under the Directoire
Besançon (MBA et d’Archéologie)
Birmingham, UK (Mus. and AG): Study of a Woman in a Cloak (c. 1869, drawing)
Boston (MFA): Women of Paris: The Circus Lover (1885, oil on canvas)
Brighton (Royal Pavilion)
Bristol (City Mus. & AG): The Farewells (1871, oil on canvas)
Brooklyn: Artist (345 watercolours, 11 pen-and-ink drawings)
Buffalo (Albright-Knox AG): Ambitious Woman (1883–1885, oil on canvas)
Cambridge, UK (Wimpole Hall)
Cardiff (National Mus. of Wales): Bad News, or The Parting (1872, oil on canvas)
Cincinnati (AM): Young Women Looking at Japanese Articles (1869, painting); Winter Walk (Promenade dans la neige) (engraving); Boring Story (Histoire ennuyeuse) (engraving)
Compiègne (Mus. national du Château): Empress Eugénie in the Park of Campden Palace at Chislehurst (oil on canvas)
Dijon (MBA): Japanese Woman Bathing
Dublin (NG of Ireland)
Dunedin (Public AG)
Fredericton (Beaverbrook AG): Passing Storm (c. 1876)
Gray (Mus. Baron-Martin)
Hamilton, Ontario (AG)
Leeds (City AG): The Bridesmaid (1883–1885, oil on canvas)
Liverpool (Walker AG): Portrait of Mrs Catherine Smith Gill and Two of her Children (oil on canvas)
London (British Mus.)
London (Guildhall AG): The Last Evening (1873, oil on canvas); Too Early (1873, oil on canvas); A Civic Procession descending Ludgate Hill (c. 1879, oil on canvas)
London (National Portrait Gal.): Frederick Gustavus Burnaby (1870, oil/panel); four watercolours published in Vanity Fair
London (Tate Collection): The Ball on Shipboard (c. 1874, oil on canvas); Portrait (Mlle Lloyd) (1876, oil on canvas); Holyday (c. 1876, oil on canvas); The Gallery of HMS Calcutta (Portsmouth) (c. 1876, oil on canvas); Portsmouth Dockyard (c. 1877, oil on canvas); several studies (drawing/paper)
Los Angeles (J. P. Getty Mus.): Portrait of the Marquise de Miramon (1866, oil on canvas)
Louisville (J. B. Speed AM)
Luxembourg: Portrait in the Park
Manchester (City AG): Hush (1875, oil on canvas); The Warrior’s Daughter (oil on panel)
Melbourne (National Gal. of Victoria)
Minneapolis (IA): On the Thames, A Heron (c. 1871–1972, oil on canvas); Journey of the Magi (c. 1894, oil on canvas); Comtesse d’Yanville and Her Four Children (c. 1895)
Mito (Tokugawa History Mus.)
Montreal (MBA): October (1877, oil on canvas)
Nantes (MBA): Ambush (oil on canvas); Portrait of Révérend Père Bichet (1885, oil on canvas); large collection of prints
New York (Jewish Mus.)
New York (Metropolitan MA): Tea (1872, oil on wood)
Norfolk (Chrysler MA)
Northampton (Smith College MA)
Ottawa (NG of Canada): Letter (c. 1876–1878)
Oxford (Ashmolean Mus.): Portrait of Chichester Samuel Fortescue Parkinson, Lord Carlingford
Paris (Mus. d’Orsay): Faust’s Meeting with Marguerite (c. 1860, oil on panel); The Two Sisters (1863, oil on canvas); Portrait of Mademoiselle L.L., or Young Woman with a Red Coat (1864, oil on canvas); Portrait of the Marquis and the Marquise de Miramon and their Children (1865, oil on canvas); The Dreamer (c. 1876, oil on panel); The Departure (1880, oil on canvas); The Return (1880, oil on canvas); Mother and Son Sitting on the Steps of a Country House (c. 1881, oil on canvas); The Ball (c. 1885, oil on canvas)
Paris (Mus. des Arts Décoratifs): Fortune (1878–1882, enamel, bronze, and walnut; model for the top of a fountain)
Paris (Mus. du Petit Palais): Portrait of a Young Girl; Woman Reading
Philadelphia (MA): Portrait of Eugène Coppens de Fontenay (1867, oil on canvas)
Philadelphia (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Gal.)
Philadelphia (Union League)
Ponce (MA)
Providence (Rhode Island School of Design): Female Chariot Riders (1883–1885)
San Francisco (California Palace of the Legion of Honor): Self-portrait (c. 1865, oil/panel); several etchings
Sheffield (City Mus. and Mappin AG): The Convalescent (c. 1786, oil on canvas)
Southampton (City AG): The Captain’s Daughter (1873); In Church (1865)
St Petersburg (Hermitage Mus.): Inner Voices (Christ Consoling the Wanderers) (1885, oil on canvas)
Stanford (Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Center For Visual Arts)
Sydney (AG of New South Wales): Two Studies of a Woman (c. 1872, watercolour)
Toledo (MA): Visiting London (c. 1874)
Toronto (AG of Ontario): Young Girl in an Armchair (Convalescing) (1870); Shop Assistant (1883–1885)
Wakefield (AG): River Thames (c. 1876)
Washington, DC (NGA): Hide and Seek (c. 1877, oil/wood); engravings
Worcester (AM): Gentleman in a Railway Carriage (c. 1870, oil/panel); Sunshine (1881, engraving)