Since today is April Fool’s Day – and my birthday * – let’s have some fun and look at James Tissot’s nude pictures.
Tissot seldom painted nudes, and when he did, they often were awkward and lacking in sensuality.
In 1863, at age 27, Tissot painted a circular picture, Nymphs and Satyr, showing three rubbery nude women frolicking in the woods.
A year later, he painted The Bather/Japonaise au bain (c. 1864). The model clearly is a local professional paid to stand for hours in a kimono that Tissot had just purchased from Madame Desoye’s import shop, La Jonque Chinoise (The Chinese Junk) in the rue de Rivoli. You sense Tissot laboring over exactly where to drape the edges of the garment; it’s less a nude than an exercise in japonisme.
In 1875, at age 39, Tissot created three Frontispieces, featuring symbolic (and rather graceless) nudes, to publish in a portfolio of his drypoint prints. He decided not to use them:
Second Frontispiece (Sitting on the Globe)/Deuxième frontispice (Assise sur le globe)
Third Frontispiece/Troisième frontispice, depicts a flat-footed woman from the back, holding up a placard reading, “Ten Etchings, J.J. Tissot.” Her left bicep is not where it should be, and the shoulders of the woman lying on the globe beneath them are even less biologically plausible.
As a student in Paris, James Tissot’s first painting instructor was Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin (1809 – 1864), who had studied under Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780 – 1867). Among Ingres’ many lush paintings of the female form was The Turkish Bath (1862).
But Flandrin, mainly celebrated for his monumental church murals in Paris, Lyon, and Nîmes, was so busy that he increasingly directed his students – including James Tissot and Henri Regnault (1843 –1871) – to the studio of his former student, Louis Lamothe (1822 –1869). Lamothe must have learned little about painting nude women from Ingres. Lamothe 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. One art historian has described Lamothe as a history painter “in a pious Christian tradition.”
Eventually, Tissot studied only under Lamothe and acknowledged that his own work was significantly influenced by Lamothe’s instruction. Henri Regnault was highly capable of painting the nude – most often male – so Lamothe can’t be blamed for Tissot’s lack of skill painting human anatomy. Regnaults’ work did not celebrate the female body, or depict nude women in a sensual way; his interest was in depicting other subjects (from mythology and history to horses and Oriental scenes). See Regnault’s Thetis Giving the Weapons of Vulcan to Achilles (1866).
Anatomically perfect, as well as graceful and sensual, was The Birth of Venus (1863, 51 by 88 1/2/130 by 225 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris), by Alexandre Cabanel (1823 –1889). Exhibited at the 1863 Salon, it was such a hit that Cabanel, who that year served on the Salon jury and also was appointed to teach at the École des Beaux-Arts, sold the reproduction rights. While the French government purchased the original for the collection of Empress Eugénie, Cabanel earned royalties on replicas and engravings. The original also was displayed at the 1867 Paris International Exhibition. [The Dahesh Museum of Art, New York owns a famous copy, c. 1864, which was sold as a Cabanel in 1870 for 20,000 francs. The Metropolitan Museum of Art owns a second replica, commissioned in 1875 by American banker John Wolfe.]
The first painting that Tissot’s friend Édouard Manet (1832 –1883) submitted to the Salon jury, The Absinthe Drinker (1859), showed a shaky understanding of anatomy, only part of the reason it was rejected.
By the time the rebellious Manet submitted The Luncheon on the Grass/ Le déjeuner sur l’herbe to the jury of the 1863 Salon, Alexandre Cabanel and William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825 –1905) refused to allow him, as well as artists who later would become known as the Impressionists, from exhibiting their work.
The French government authorized the Salon des Refusés, where Manet showed his picture to a shocked public.
Meanwhile, he painted the perfect figure of Olympia (1863) – which caused a scandal as “filth” at the Salon in 1865.
Edgar Degas (1834 –1917), like Tissot and Regnault, studied for a time with Lamothe. Degas made an unremarkable Salon début in 1865 with a historic picture, Scene of War in the Middle Ages (called Misfortunes of the City of Orléans after his death), featuring several nude figures. In the 1860s, Degas pursued his interest in painting race horses, and in the 1870s, he began painting ballet dancers, but he did not begin his series of nude women bathing until the 1880s.
Gustave Courbet (1819 –77) routinely painted nude women who are alive and exuberant in their sexuality. While his first attempt to exhibit a nude was rejected for indecency by the Salon jury in 1864, Courbet’s Woman with the Parrot (1866) was accepted for display at the Salon in 1866. It was a tremendous success.
Courbet painted several female nudes in 1868: The Source, or Bather at the Source (Musée d’Orsay, Paris); Woman in the Waves (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), two versions of a Sleeping Woman; The Three Bathers (Musée du Petit Palais, Paris, France), and Nude Reclining by the Sea (Philadelphia Museum of Art).
And, of course, in 1866, Courbet painted The Origin of the World, but it was a small picture (18 by 22 in./46 by 55 cm), painted just for Khalil Bey (1831 –1879), a Turkish diplomat. (Bey, who collected erotic paintings, bought Ingres’ The Turkish Bath in 1865 and commissioned a version of Courbet’s The Sleepers in 1866.) Courbet’s little picture was untitled at that time. Bey kept it in a locked cabinet, showing it only to his friends – until he was bankrupted by his gambling debts, shortly after he purchased it from Courbet. The picture was sold privately in January 1868 and was not exhibited publicly until shown at the Brooklyn Museum in New York in 1988. It now is on display at the Musée d’Orsay, where it has been only since 1995.
As a student in Paris, Tissot’s American friend James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834 – 1903), made an etching of a nude woman asleep in bed, Venus (1859, Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.) Later, living in London, Whistler made numerous studies of female nudes in chalk, crayon, pastel and watercolor, especially between 1868 and 1895, but despite his flamboyance and his mistresses, he had a Puritan streak and never publicly exhibited a painting of a nude woman. He did, however, produce a design in 1868 including one female nude, as part of a plan for a frieze commissioned the previous year by Liverpool shipping magnate Frederick Richards Leyland (1832 –1892) – the same patron who asked Whistler for help decorating his London dining room, which became The Peacock Room.
After Tissot first achieved success in Paris in 1864, he was a bit of a dandy and a man about town. But the few times he painted nude women, he didn’t get their anatomy quite right. Either he didn’t study enough from live models (female models had to be hired independently), or he just didn’t have the knack for – or interest in – drawing nudes.
James Tissot grew up in Nantes, thirty-five miles from the Atlantic Ocean on the banks of the Loire River. His mother and aunt were partners in a successful millinery company, and his father was a trader in fabrics and dress trimmings to retailers and exporters. Tissot clearly enjoyed painting the sights of his youth as the son of prosperous merchants in a bustling seaport: architecture, nautical pictures, men’s uniforms, and women’s gowns, coiffures and hats. That was his talent, and what he was drawn to (pun intended).
Raised by a devout Catholic mother and a father whom he later described as “a Christian of the old-fashioned sort,” Tissot preferred to paint women fully dressed – in elegance. Scholar Willard E. Misfeldt writes that years later when Tissot was confronted with a forgery of a nude woman, he indignantly said he never would have painted such a vulgar subject.
But he did like to paint his well-dressed women flashing some ankle, and in Partie Carée – exhibited at the Salon in 1870, he depicts the gentleman on the left grasping his date’s right breast, while the woman across from them downs a glass of champagne at the side of another delighted young man.
And one of Tissot’s most vulgar images is also one of his most beautiful: two elegant young women crouching on the floor, bustles aweigh.
© 2013 Lucy Paquette. All rights reserved.
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[*] Because it’s my birthday, my book is free to you today, April 1, 2013.
If you do not have a Kindle e-reader, you may download free Kindle reading apps for PCs, Smartphones, tablets, and the Kindle Cloud Reader to read The Hammock: A novel based on the true story of French painter James Tissot. Read reviews.
The Hammock: A novel based on the true story of French painter James Tissot, brings Tissot’s world from 1870 to 1879 alive in a story of war, art, Society glamour, love, scandal, and tragedy.
Illustrated with 17 stunning, high-resolution fine art images in full color
Courtesy of The Bridgeman Art Library
(295 pages; ISBN (ePub): 978-0-615-68267-9).