One of the most dazzling exhibits at the 1867 Paris International Exposition was the Japanese Pavilion, and it received more visitors than any other exhibit. This was the first World’s Fair in which Japan participated. The Japanese Imperial Commission to the Exposition was led by fourteen-year-old Prince Tokugawa Akitake (1853-1910), a younger brother of the man who would be the last Shogun under Japan’s feudal regime.
The delegation arrived in Paris in March, 1867, and one year later, James Tissot was appointed gwa-gaku, or drawing master, to Prince Akitake. (This fact was revealed in December, 1979, at the International Symposium in Tokyo.)
How was it that 31-year-old James Tissot was appointed to this position with a Japanese prince? Alfred Stevens, who had been a successful painter for a decade and who was now 44 years old, was an avid collector of japonisme and diligently capitalized on the cultural craze for exotic arts and crafts. In fact, Stevens won a gold medal at the International Exhibition, where he displayed The Lady in Pink (1867, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, Belgium); it depicted an elegantly gowned woman near a Japanese carved and painted table, admiring a doll from “her” collection.
Though Stevens was much admired by the Imperial family, was he perhaps too busy to teach art to a foreign teenager? Did the ambitious, younger Tissot seek the appointment, or was he perhaps recommended (through Princess Mathilde) by Napoleon III, whose government was assisting Japan in reorganizing the Shogunate Army? Or was it a coincidence of location — perhaps the young prince’s delegation lodged in the rue de l’Impératrice, where many aristocrats and foreign dignitaries [including Elihu Washburne (1816-1887), the United States Minister to France, and his legation] resided? In late 1867 or early 1868, Tissot moved into his sumptuous new villa and chic “Oriental” studio in the rue de l’Impératrice, displaying his impressive collection of Japanese and Chinese art and artifacts to all who visited, including princes and princesses.
In any case, Prince Akitake made several visits to Tissot’s studio over the course of the seven- or eight-month appointment, and Tissot painted his portrait in water-color mounted on a hanging scroll on September 27, 1868. (Now at the Historical Museum of the Tokugawa Family, Mito, Japan, it wasn’t until about 1968 that the painter of this picture was identified, by a Japanese scholar, as James Tissot.)
Prince Akitake, who called his teacher “Chi-so,” returned to Japan in October, 1868 for the Meji Restoration, an era of modernization and industrialization which brought sweeping reforms in government, the military and the culture. Eight years later, in 1876, Tokugawa Akitake was sent as the special emissary in charge of the Japanese exhibition to the Philadelphia World’s Fair. He returned to France to continue his studies. By this time, James Tissot’s carefree existence had drastically changed, and he now lived in London.
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