“I was a lazybones”: James Tissot’s youth, 1836 – 1855

Jacques Joseph Tissot’s parents were self-made, prosperous merchants and traders in the textile and fashion industry in Nantes, a bustling seaport on the banks of the Loire River, 35 miles from the Atlantic Ocean.

The Tissot family, of Italian ancestry, were minor gentry from the area of Trevillers, a small French village in the Jura Mountains, close to the Swiss border.  Tissot’s father, Marcel Théodore Tissot, was born there in 1807.  He set off to seek his fortune on the other side of the country when he was in his twenties.  In Nantes, tall-masted ocean vessels from all over the world docked at the wharves, and Tissot’s father started out as a wholesale dealer.

Tissot’s mother, Marie Durand, was from a royalist family who had come to Nantes after the Revolution.  Marie’s father was a veterinary surgeon, and she and her sister Arsène were partners in a successful millinery company.  Marie, born in 1802, brought a substantial dowry when she married in 1832.  Jacques Joseph, born on October 15, 1836, was the second of the couple’s four sons.

Tissot’s father eventually established a booming business as a wholesale linen draper – a trader in fabrics and dress trimmings to retailers and exporters.  In 1845, at the age of 38, he purchased a second home in the country, in Besançon at the edge of the Jura Mountains – the imposing eighteenth-century Château de Buillon (which Tissot would inherit in 1888).

Tissot’s parents were deeply religious Catholics, and when he was 12, they sent him to the Jesuit college at Brugelette in Flanders, Belgium.  He continued his education in France, first in the town of Vannes in Brittany and then at Dole in the Jura.  Living in these historic towns, he spent a good deal of time sketching the local architecture – perhaps more time than he spent studying.  In later years he wrote:

I do not think there was ever such a lazybones as I.  I am one of those rare specimens of pupils who had to pass three times through the examination for the third class.  But on the other hand, my desk was a perfect museum.   Everything was to be seen there, drawings, sculpture, architecture, a gothic belfry in wood, with an octagonal dome, a spire, bell-turrets, etc.

Crafted during stolen hours, these wooden models were influenced by the winding streets, church spires, medieval turrets and half-timbered architecture he saw all around him.  When he returned to Nantes at 19, it was time to choose a profession.  Young Jacques Tissot wanted to become an architect.

© Copyright Lucy Paquette 2012.  All rights reserved.