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When Jacques Joseph Tissot realized that what he really wanted was a career in art instead of architecture, his businessman father was less than thrilled. Tissot’s father told him that if he was determined to pursue this unreliable profession, he was going to have to make it on his own – with no financial help. Jacques’ mother was sympathetic and recommended her son to the 28-year-old Parisian painter Jules-Élie Delaunay (1828 – 1891), who was from Nantes. Jacques left home at 19, in 1856 (i.e before he turned 20 that October).
Paris was over ten times the size of Nantes, and civic planner Baron Haussmann was just beginning the massive modernization of the dark, dirty and overgrown medieval city that would take place between 1853 and 1870.
Tissot started out renting a succession of student rooms in the Latin Quarter, earning an income drawing portraits of maids and hotel housekeepers for thirty or forty francs a head. Some of his portraits fetched 60 or 100 francs each.
On January 26, 1857, he registered for permission to copy paintings at the Louvre. He is thought to have met the American James McNeill Whistler (1834 – 1903), that year; the two art students reportedly met while copying Ingres’ 1819 Ruggiero Freeing Angelica side by side in the Luxembourg Museum.
Whistler was a hard-working, high-living dandy who had lived in Paris for two years and supplemented the decent living allowance from his mother by selling copies of paintings in the Louvre. Whistler did not even attempt to enter the prestigious Académie des Beaux-Arts, where originality and self-expression were faults. Instead, he took various drawing classes and enrolled as a student of the Swiss artist Charles Gleyre (1806 – 1874). [Gleyre would eventually instruct Frédéric Bazille (1841 – 1870), Alfred Sisley (1839 – 1899), Claude Monet (1840 – 1926) and Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919).]
On March 9, 1857, Tissot enrolled at the Académie des Beaux-Arts, though there is little documentation on the regularity of his attendance at classes, which included mathematics, anatomy and drawing, but not painting. Like Élie Delaunay, who was now in Rome, Tissot studied painting independently under Flandrin and Lamothe. Both men had been students of the great Neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780 – 1867), and taught his principles.
Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin (1809 – 1864) was a prolific portrait artist but was mainly celebrated for his monumental church murals in Paris, Lyon, and Nîmes. His picture, Young Male Nude Seated beside the Sea (1836) was shown at the 1855 Universal Exhibition in Paris. It was purchased in 1857 by Napoleon III’s civil list, and the emperor then donated it to the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris. Flandrin’s St. Clair Healing the Blind, painted for the cathedral of Nantes, earned him a first-class medal at the Paris Exhibition of 1855. As Flandrin was so busy, he increasingly directed his students to the studio of his former student, Louis Lamothe.
Louis Lamothe (1822 – 1869) was described as a timid and sickly man who had never met his potential, but he was a clear and precise draftsman with a passion for detail. Eventually, Tissot studied only under Lamothe and acknowledged that his own work was significantly influenced by Lamothe’s instruction.
In 1859, Tissot would meet a student of Lamothe’s with whom he became close friends – Edgar Degas (1834 – 1917). Degas, who had studied intermittently for four years under Lamothe, described him as “more idiotic than ever” and left the Académie des Beaux-Arts in 1856. Degas spent the next three years in central Italy, travelling while living with his prosperous family in Naples (Degas’ father – a banker – was from Naples, his mother from New Orleans).
Probably through Degas, Tissot would eventually meet the charismatic, blonde Édouard Manet (1832–1883), who in turn would introduce him to the 39-year-old bad-boy Gustave Courbet (1819 – 1877). Their revolutionary ideas would ultimately change Tissot’s work – and his life.
© Copyright Lucy Paquette 2012. All rights reserved.