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.
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)
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)