Tissot’s La Femme à Paris series

Immediately after James Tissot’s mistress and muse Kathleen Newton died of tuberculosis in November, 1882, he abandoned his St. John’s Wood home and moved back to Paris, which he had left following the bloody aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871.  During his eleven years in London, he had declined Edgar Degas’ invitation to show his work with the artists who became known as the Impressionists.

Tissot exerted himself to re-establish his reputation in Paris with a series of fifteen large-scale pictures called La Femme à Paris (The Parisian Woman).  Painted between 1883 and 1885, they portrayed the fashionable parisienne in various incarnations using brighter, modern colors than he had in his previous work.

The pictures were exhibited at the Galerie Sedelmeyer, Paris, from April 19 to June 15, 1885, as “Quinze Tableaux sur la Femme à Paris,” and at Arthur Tooth and Sons, London, in 1886 as “Pictures of Parisian Life by J.J. Tissot.”  La Femme à Paris was poorly received.  A critic for La Vie Parisienne complained that the women in the series were “always the same Englishwoman” – some say the faces all resembled Kathleen Newton.  Another reviewer dismissed Tissot’s modern urban women as “gracious puppets.”  Some found both the poses and compositions awkward and disconcerting.

Tissot made etchings only of the first five of the paintings in the series, L’Ambitieuse, Ces dames des chars, Sans dot, La Mystérieuse and La Plus Jolie Femme de Paris, planning to sell sets to collectors, but they never were published.  According to an 1885 New York Times article, Tissot intended for all the vignettes of his La Femme à Paris series to be engraved and illustrated by stories, each to be written by a different author.  Tissot’s long-time friend, French novelist Alphonse Daudet (1840 –1897), issued the invitations to write on Tissot’s subjects, but in fact, few of the authors seem to have responded.

The project ended in 1886 with Tissot’s ambition to illustrate the Bible.

Six of the paintings from Tissot’s La Femme à Paris are now in public collections.

L’Ambitieuse (The Political Woman, 1883-1885), by James Tissot. Oil on canvas, 73 1/2 by 56 by 5 in. (186.69 by 142.24 by 12.7 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York. (Photo: Wikimedia.org)

Tissot’s L’Ambitieuse (1883-1885), or The Political Woman, was owned by the American painter William Merritt Chase (1849 –1916).  In 1909, Chase donated the painting to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York.  It is not on view.

Jules Claretie (1840 – 1913), a writer and playwright who was the director of the Théâtre Français, was to write on L’Ambitieuse, but no such text by him exists.

The Ladies of the Chariots (c. 1883-85), by James Tissot. Oil on canvas, 57 ½ by 39 5/8” (146 by 100.65 cm). Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Providence. (Photo: Wikipaintings.org)

The Ladies of the Chariots (Ces dames des chars), also called The Circus, was exhibited in Paris in 1885 and in London in 1886.  It is the second in the La Femme à Paris series, painted sometime before mid-1884.  The Ladies of the Chariots was assigned to French poet and writer Théodore de Banville (1823 – 1891), but no such text by him exists, either.

The women are performers at the Hippodrome de l’Alma, built in 1877 at the corner of avenues Josephine and Alma.  Up to eight thousand spectators could view races around the thirteen-meter track, circus animals whose cages were beneath the ring, and special effects such as mist and fireworks in the grand arena with a sliding roof that could be opened to the sky.  Electric lighting made evening performances possible, such as the chariot race pictured, with charioteers known as Amazons wearing glittering costumes.  Their diadems are similar to the crown on Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s new statue, Liberty Illuminating the World, which was presented to the United States in a ceremony in Paris on July 4, 1884; it soon would be installed in New York Harbor.

The Ladies of the Chariots was sold by Julius H. Weitzner (1896 – 1986), a leading dealer in Old Master paintings in New York and London, to Walter Lowry, who gifted it to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Museum in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1958.

Now hanging in the RISD museum director’s office, The Ladies of the Chariots will be the centerpiece of an exhibition on the circus scheduled to open in August 2014.

The Bridesmaid (c. 1883-85), by James Tissot. Oil on canvas, 58 by 40 in. (147.3 by 101.6 cm.). Leeds City Art Gallery, U.K. (Photo: Wikimedia.org)

La Demoiselle d’honneur, or The Bridesmaid (c. 1883-85) sold at Christie’s in 1889 for £69.5s.0d and was given to the Leeds City Art Gallery by R.R. King in 1897.  Paintings in the series were large, and this one, now on display in Room Five, measures 58 by 40 in. (147.3 by 101.6 cm.).  A letter in the Boston Public Library’s Department of Rare Books and Manuscripts from Tissot’s old friend, Alphonse Daudet, to French poet and novelist François Coppée (1842 – 1908) asks him to contribute a story based on The Bridesmaid. 

The Artists’ Ladies (1885), by James Tissot. Oil on canvas, 57 1/2 by 40 in. (146.1 by 101.6 cm.) The Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia. (Photo: Wikipaintings.org)

Les Femmes d’artiste (Painters and their Wives), was to be written about by art critic, novelist and playwright, Albert Wolff (1835 – 1891).

The Artists’ Wives (also called The Artist’s Ladies) (1885) depicts a gathering of artists and their wives on Varnishing Day, the evening before the official opening of the Salon, the annual art exhibition in Paris at the Palais de l’Industrie.  The artists could put a final coat of protective varnish on their work, and they and their wives and friends could view the exhibition privately, when “the great effort of the year is over, and when our pictures are safely hung, and are inviting the critics to do their worst and the buyers to do their best!”  Tissot depicts the celebratory luncheon on the terrace of the restaurant Le Doyen, with the entrance to the Palais de l’Industrie in the background.  Celebrities present include the sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840 – 1917), the man with the brown beard and spectacles standing in the center of the picture.

In 1889, The Artists’ Wives was sold at Christie’s, London.  It belonged to a Mr. Day, then to Philadelphia art dealer and critic Charles Field Haseltine.  By 1894, it was with the Art Association of the Union League of Philadelphia, and by 1981, it was with M. Knoedler and Co. in New York.  It was a gift of Walter P. Chrysler, Jr., and The Grandy Fund, Landmark Communications Fund, and “An Affair to Remember” to the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1981.

Women of Paris: The Circus Lover (also known as Amateur Circus, 1885), by James Tissot. Oil on canvas, 58 by 40 in./147.3 by 101.6 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A. (Photo: Wikimedia.org)

The setting for Women of Paris: The Circus Lover (also known as Les femmes de sport, 1885) is the Molier Circus in Paris, a “high-life circus” in which the amateur performers were members of the aristocracy.  The man on the trapeze wearing red is the Duc de la Rochefoucauld, one of the oldest titles of the French nobility; he was said to have “the biceps of Hercules.”  People of beauty and fashion attended the circus and mingled with the performers during the interval.  This painting was to be written about by Charles Yriarte (1832 – 1898).

The Circus Lover (1885) was sold by Gerald M. Fitzgerald at Christie’s, London in mid-1957 to the Marlborough Fine Art Gallery for $ 3,219 USD/£ 1,150 GBP.  In early 1958, The Circus Lover was purchased from the Marlborough Fine Art by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts for $ 5,000 as Amateur Circus.

Women of Paris:  The Circus Lover was included in the blockbuster exhibition, “Impressionism, Fashion, & Modernity,” in Paris, New York and Chicago.

Le Demoiselle de magasin (The Young Lady of the Shop, 1883 – 1885), by James Tissot. Oil on canvas, 146.1 by 101.6 cm (57.5 by 40 in.) Art Gallery of Ontario. (Photo credit: Wikipedia.org)

Le Demoiselle de magasin (The Young Lady of the Shop, 1883 – 1885), was to be written about by the wealthy and prominent novelist Émile Zola (1840 –1902).  The entry in the catalogue for the exhibition in London reads, “Our young lady with her engaging smile is holding open the door till her customer takes the pile of purchases from her hand and passes to her carriage.  She knows her business, and has learned the first lesson of all, that her duty is to be polite, winning, and pleasant.  Whether she means what she says, or much of what her looks express, is not the question:  enough if she has a smile and an appropriate answer for everybody.”  The painting was a gift to the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, from the Corporations’ Subscription Fund, in 1968.

La Mondaine (The Woman of Fashion), by James Tissot. Oil on canvas, 58 by 40 in. (147.32 by 101.60 cm). Private Collection. (Photo: Wikipaintings.org)

Three of the pictures in the series are in private collections:

La Mondaine (The Woman of Fashion), which was to be written about by poet and essayist, René François Sully-Prudhomme (1839 – 1907), was sold at Sotheby’s, New York for $ 1,800,000 USD/£ 1,246,105 GBP (Hammer price) in 1993, to a private collector.

Sans dot (Without Dowry, 1883-85), by James Tissot. Oil on canvas, 58 by 41 in. (147.32 by 104.14 cm). Private Collection. (Photo: Wikimedia.org)

Sans Dot (Without Dowry), which measures 58 x 41 in. (147.32 x 104.14 cm.), was assigned to novelist Georges Ohnet (1848 – 1918); the story with that title was published in Les lettres et les arts in 1888.  In Ohnet’s tale, illustrated by August Loustaunou, a young woman is left without a dowry upon the death of her father, a colonel.  The widow and her mother spend the autumn listening to music in the gardens at Versailles, where she finds love.  Sans Dot was sold at Sotheby’s, New York in 1993 to a private collector for $ 800,000 USD/£ 553,824 GBP (Hammer price).

La Plus Jolie Femme de Paris (The Fashionable Beauty), by James Tissot.

La Plus Jolie Femme de Paris (The Fashionable Beauty), was to be written about by Edgar Degas’ old schoolmate, the playwright and novelist Ludovic Halévy (1834 – 1908).  In a story with that title later published, translated into English, the wife of a Parisian lawyer is determined to be the most beautiful woman in Paris – until the next day, when a musical comedy actress became the focus of the fickle public’s attention.

The location of the following six paintings from the series is unknown:

La Mystérieuse (The Mystery Woman), portraying a woman walking her dogs along a fashionable promenade, was to be written about by dramatist and opera librettist Henri Meilhac (1831 –1897).

 L’Acrobate (The Tightrope Dancer), was assigned to author and journalist Aurélien Scholl (1833 – 1902).  In 1885, both Tissot and Scholl were pursuing the woman shown in this painting.


Study for ‘Le sphinx’ (Woman in an Interior), by James Tissot. Oil on panel, 44 by 27 in. (111.76 by 68.58 cm). Private Collection.

La Menteuse (The Gossip), which showed a woman dressed in black with an armful of flowers, was to be written about by Tissot’s friend, Alphonse Daudet.  Daudet actually did write a short story called “La Menteuse,” later making it into a play which was performed in Paris in 1892.

Les Demoiselles de Province (Provincial Women) *, was assigned to the master of short stories, Guy de Maupassant (1850 – 1893).

Le Sphinx (The Sphinx) was to be written about by novelist and critic Paul Bourget (1852 – 1935).   The model for this painting was Louise Riesener (1860 – 1944), the granddaughter of portrait painter Henri Riesener (1767 – 1828), and a daughter of the painter Léon Riesener (1808-1878).

In 1885, Alphonse Daudet’s wife arranged a match between Tissot and Louise Riesener.  Unfortunately, the 25-year-old Louise suddenly broke the engagement to Tissot, who was 49.

Musique sacrée, which depicted a fashionable woman singing a duet with a nun in the organ loft of a church, was to be written about by composer Charles Gounod (1818 –1893).  It was while painting this picture that Tissot experienced a mystic vision that completely changed his art.

He never painted from modern life again.

* Update on June 16, 2015:  Tissot’s Les Demoiselles de Province recently appeared on the art market!  It was sold by the artist for £300 to the London art gallery, Arthur Tooth & Sons, where it remained until May 22, 1886.  It then was purchased for £320 by Baker, who returned it to Tooth’s on December 28, 1886.  In 1889, it was sold by E. Simon at Christie’s, London as Provincial Ladies – to Tooth’s, this time for 135 guineas.  In 1905, it was offered for sale by Lefevre & Sons at Christie’s, London, as Early Arrivals, but it did not find a buyer.  The location of the painting was unknown to art historians – but since at least 1955, it was in a private collection in Rotterdam, and it was left to the current owner, who passed away.  It was sold at Christie’s, London on June 16, 2015 for £1,202,500 ($1,867,483).

© 2013 by Lucy Paquette.  All rights reserved.

Related posts:

James Tissot’s garden idyll & Kathleen Newton’s death

Tissot’s Romances

A Closer Look at Tissot’s “The Ladies of the Chariots”

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