Today is April Fool’s Day – and my birthday – so let’s have some fun.
On November 3, 1874, novelist Edmond de Goncourt (1822 – 1896) wrote in his journal, “Tissot, that plagiarist painter, has had the greatest success in England.” In the spring of 1880 (two years after James Tissot refused to testify on his behalf during the infamous libel suit against art critic John Ruskin), James Abbott McNeill Whistler wrote from Venice to his sister-in-law in London, describing how busy he was after having produced dozens of beautiful pastels. He believed they would create envy among other artists: “Tissot I daresay will try his hands at once – and others too.”
Did Tissot borrow ideas and subject matter from other painters? Absolutely. Was he unusual in this? Consider some evidence.
In 1862, under the influence of the Pre-Raphaelite painters in London, Whistler painted The White Girl. Rejected at the Royal Academy of 1862 and the Paris Salon of 1863, The White Girl was a portrait of Whistler’s mistress, Joanna Hiffernan. Combining the ambiguous mood of John Everett Millais’ paintings at the time with the “stunners” painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Whistler described the painting as “a woman in a beautiful white cambric dress, standing against a window which filters the light through a transparent white muslin curtain – but the figure receives a strong light from the right and therefore the picture, barring the red hair, is one gorgeous mass of brilliant white.” The White Girl was accepted for the Salon des Refusés in 1863, and though it impressed a few art critics and many artists, it provoked hilarity from the 7,000 visitors who streamed through. One critic reported, “The hangers must have thought her particularly ugly, for they have given her a sort of place of honor, before an opening through which all pass, so that nobody misses her…they always looked at each other and laughed.”
James Tissot admired The White Girl, and influenced by it and fashion plates popular in women’s magazines of the time, he painted Two Sisters in 1863. It was exhibited at the Salon in 1864, and a prominent critic admired the woman on the right as “a model of elegance, nobility, and simplicity,” her pose in “irreproachable taste.”
Albert Moore (1841 – 1893) met and befriended Whistler in 1865, and his work became purely aesthetic under Whistler’s influence.
John Everett Millais (1829 – 1896), whose Pre-Raphaelite paintings had been notably original, also imitated artists he admired. The azaleas in Millais’ 1868 portrait of his daughters, Sisters, were copied from Albert Moore’s 1868 Azaleas.
Millais had pronounced Whistler’s The White Girl (1862) “splendid,” and it and Whistler’s Symphony in White, No. 2 (also known as The Little White Girl, 1864-65 – see below), and Symphony in White, No. 3 (1865-67) inspired the white muslin dresses in which Millais had his three daughters pose.
Millais’ Hearts are Trumps (1872) was a triple-portrait challenge he undertook out of admiration for Sir Joshua Reynolds’ The Ladies Waldegrave (1780).
Tissot’s rebel friend, Edouard Manet, painted Le déjeuner sur l’herbe in 1863, suffering its rejection from the Salon in 1863 and the scandal it created at the Salon des Refusés that year. Famously, Manet borrowed the subject from the Concert champêtre (by Titian, but attributed at the time to Giorgione).
In the spring of 1865, Claude Monet, inspired by Manet, began his own Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, a massive canvas that he abandoned in 1866 due to financial pressures.
Tissot, too, painted a Déjeuner sur l’herbe, c. 1865-68, a depiction of a family which may have been his own, enjoying a picnic on the grounds of their château near Besançon, France. This painting was not exhibited at the time, but Tissot later painted La Partie Carrée (The Foursome), using subject matter similar to Manet’s – though less controversial – which he exhibited at the Salon in 1870. La Partie Carrée was praised both by art critics and the public.
In the meantime, at the Salon in 1865, James Tissot exhibited Spring, which received some praise because of its similarities to John Everett Millais’ Spring (Apple Blossoms), exhibited at London’s Royal Academy in 1859.
Tissot has been accused of copying the formula for commercial success of his wealthy, older friend Alfred Stevens (1823 – 1906): paint beautiful women in gorgeous interiors, wearing stunning fashions, often with a distinctive touch of japonisme.
But if Tissot copied Stevens, Stevens copied Tissot as well, by depicting two young ladies rather than the single figure he usually painted.
Stevens also imitated Whistler.
In 1864, Whistler had exhibited Wapping, featuring Jo Hiffernan as a dockside whore, at the Royal Academy; the Establishment had not been impressed. Yet Wapping was purchased c. 1864/67 by Thomas DeKay Winans (1820-1878), a locomotive engineer and collector from Baltimore who was one of Whistler’s first patrons. Tissot exhibited The Last Evening (1873), with its similar jungle of ship’s masts, at the Royal Academy in 1873; it was snapped up even before the exhibition by wealthy London wine merchant Charles Gassiot (1826 – 1902) for £1,000.
Whistler’s most famous painting, Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 (1871), known as Whistler’s Mother, was inspired by Dutch Old Masters portraits he had seen.
In 2009, a small, undated Tissot oil painting called Portrait d’une dame cousant près de la cheminée (Portrait of a lady sewing near the fireplace) was sold at auction for $ 5,295 USD/ £ 3,240 GBP (Premium). Who copied whom?
Is it “inspiration” if a painter imitates a masterpiece of a long-dead artist, and “plagiarism” if he or she copies a living artist?
One of my college English literature professors, lecturing us on the academic Honor Code and plagiarism, defined originality as “not something no one has ever thought of before, but bearing the stamp of your own mind.”
I thought of this when I saw Phil Grabsky’s film, “Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure, from the National Gallery, London” on October 10, 2013. In this film, Xavier Bray, Chief Curator at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, discussed Vermeer’s Lady Seated at a Virginal (1670-72), and said that he believed Vermeer definitely saw A Woman Playing a Clavichord by Gerrit Dou (1613 –1675).
Bray said that it would have been easy for Vermeer to have taken a boat down to Leiden where Dou’s 1665 picture was exhibited – prior to beginning work on his image five years later. Bray commented that what Vermeer brought to the concept that Dou pioneered – an intimate scene of a woman interrupted while making music – was to distill the scene down to its elemental serenity. Vermeer is not considered a plagiarist; his work bore the stamp of his own original mind.
So did Tissot’s. His success, and his obvious enjoyment of the material rewards it brought him during his lifetime, was just really annoying to many of his contemporaries, especially Edmond de Goncourt and Whistler.
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