Who is James Tissot?

By Hall Groat II

The son of a successful merchant and a shop assistant, Jacques Joseph Tissot was born in 1836 in Nantes, France. After an early interest in architecture, he decided to become a painter and moved to Paris in 1856 or 1857, quickly achieving official recognition for his work.

Although he enrolled at the academy schools, Tissot received much of his education informally, amongst a circle of avant-garde artists and writers in Paris.

Young Woman in a Boat     
 Oil on Canvas

Influential acquaintances included the painters Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, and perhaps most important, James McNeill Whistler (shortly after meeting Whistler Tissot anglicized his first name to "James"). Stimulated by the work of poet and critic Charles Baudelaire, these new artists began to spurn scenes of history, religion, or mythology in favor of mundane vignettes from everyday life, emphasizing ephemeral elements such as fashion and contemporary social practices.

"Tissot painted with an academic tightness of execution and great attention to detail."

As a young-successful man about town, Tissot was able to observe the boulevard life of contemporary Paris, including both the fashionable and the illicit modern entertainments that comprised favorite subjects for the modern painters. Despite his interest in avant-garde subject matter, Tissot painted with an academic tightness of execution and great attention to detail. In this way, he created his own uniquely modern way of seeing, melding traditional techniques with new subject matter. French collectors admired this skillful mixture, and by 1868 he was earning a substantial income.

In the turmoil following the 1871 Franco-Prussian War, Tissot was forced to abandon his luxurious life in Paris for uncertainty in London; he was suspected of involvement in an ill-fated government formed by socialist revolutionaries. In England, the artist wasted little time finding patrons and building a thriving career.

He remained in Britain until 1882 where his first works adapted his interest in modern-life subjects to identifiably English settings such as the Thames, the streets of London, shipping and seaside resort towns. Frequently these pictures portray flirtation of some sort, either between depicted couples or between a woman painted on the canvas and the viewer. However, these interactions are often ambiguous or troubled, for a variety of reasons: threatened separation, rivalries, indifference, or hints of immorality. Tissot did not paint happy sentimental scenes suitable for Victorian valentines; rather he captures the complicated, often painful travails of "modern love."

Although Tissot painted portraits of men and included them in modern-life images, his fascination with femininity and all its accoutrements is a distinctive feature of his work.

Remarkably, he repeatedly painted the same female costumes, often within one picture. This interest in fashion led the critics to label him "the painter of the parvenu," implying that the ostentatious outfits depicted were signs of the social climbing, newly moneyed classes. His pictures were often described as "vulgar," even as – or perhaps because --they were avidly purchased.

Likewise, Tissot’s own social position put him at risk of being seen as vulgar. Like the nouveau riche, he was attempting to carve a niche for himself in both London society and English art institutions. Depicting balls and people enjoying fashionable seaside towns indicated that he himself had "arrived," literally and metaphorically, in England. His fascination with etiquette, interior décor, and elegant accessories were in part due to his personal interest in the subject. Getting the details right were important for artist and socialite alike.

In England Tissot experimented with printmaking, teaching himself to etch in order to reproduce his own paintings rather than sell the rights to other engravers. His etching style evolved into a fluid and original use of this difficult medium. Interestingly, critics frequently compared Tissot’s works to engraved magazine illustrations, photographs, and fashion plates, implying that there was a mass-produced quality to these unique canvases. Although they usually intended such comparisons as snide criticism, these writers were in fact picking up on one of Tissot’s primary strategies for creating distinctively modern art: looking at popular culture.

Between 1877 and 1882, Tissot painted and engraved a number of works using model, Kathleen Irene Kelly Newton, a divorced Irish woman who moved into the artist’s home around 1876. Her death from tuberculosis in 1882 at the age of 28 appears to have precipitated the grieving artist’s sudden return to Paris. In Paris, he attempted to resume his previous place in the French art world, concentrating on images of women, both in pastel portraits and in a series of 15 pictures titled La Femme à Paris. L’Ambitieuse (Political Woman), also known as The Reception, (183-85), from the Albright Knox Art Gallery’s permanent collection is part of this series. In these paintings, Tissot set out to explore and celebrate the supposedly unique character of women in Paris.

After Newton’s death in the middle 1880s, Tissot became interested in spiritualism and then in a more traditional form of religious faith. Near the end of his life he devoted most of his artistic energies to enormous biblical illustration projects based on

both the New Testament and the Old Testament. His biblical illustrations were his most significant legacy in the years following his death in 1902.

"His fascination with etiquette, interior décor, and elegant accessories were in part due to his personal interest in the subject."

The exhibition James Tissot: Victorian Life/Modern Love features many of Tissot’s finest works including 34 large-scale oil paintings, 39 prints, and 15 biblical illustrations. On view at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery form March 25 through July 2, 2000, the exhibition represents Tissot’s entire career with particular emphasis on the paintings he did in London that reflect his penetrating insight into Victorian life.

Guest curator Malcolm Warner, Curator of Paintings and Sculpture, Yale Center for British Art, organized the exhibition. A fully illustrated catalogue, written by Warner and Tissot scholar Nancy Rose Marshall, is available. This exhibition is organized by The American Federation of the Arts and the Yale Center for British Art. It is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. Additional support is provided by the Benefactors Circle of the AFA.

Admission to the Tissot exhibition is by timed and dated tickets only. Advance ticket reservations for a specific time and date are strongly suggested. Tickets can be purchased in person at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Tickets are also available at all Tickets.com outlets, including all Tops Friendly Markets and at participating Sam the Record Man locations in Southern Ontario, and on the Web at www.tickets.com. Tickets purchased through tickets.com are subject to a convenience fee. To charge by telephone call 1.888.223.6000.

Individual ticket prices are: adults, $8; seniors, $6; college students, $6; youth, $4; children 5 and under, free. Admission includes a free Tissot Tour-Mate audio tour and admission to the Gallery’s permanent collection. Gallery members receive complimentary tickets to the exhibition.

Gallery hours during the Tissot exhibition are: Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Wednesday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Gallery is closed on Monday. Additional information about the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and James Tissot: Victorian Life/Modern Love is available on the Internet at www.albrightknox.org.