James Tissot painted A Civic Procession Descending Ludgate Hill, London (oil on canvas, 84.5 by 43 in./214.6 by 109.2 cm), around 1879, while he was living at 17 (now 44) Grove End Road, St. John’s Wood.
Tissot moved back to Paris in mid-November, 1882, after the death of his young mistress and muse, Kathleen Newton.
He gave the picture to Léonce Bénédite (1859 – 1925). From 1886 until Tissot’s death in 1902 and beyond, Bénédite was the deputy director and then curator of the Musée du Luxembourg, Paris.
The Musée du Luxembourg was the first French museum to be opened to the public, in 1750, with about 125 paintings by Rubens, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Veronese, Titian, Poussin, Van Dyck and Rembrandt. These works later were sent to the Louvre, and in 1818, the Musée du Luxembourg was designated a “museum for living artists” – a museum of contemporary art. The work of David, Ingres, Delacroix and others was exhibited there. The Musée du Luxembourg was closed after a national museum of modern art was built in the Palais de Tokyo in 1937, but it reopened to the public in 1979, with exhibitions highlighting France’s regional heritage and collections from provincial museums.
In the meantime, Tissot’s painting was purchased by the Corporation of London through S.C. L’Expertise, Paris, from the curator’s granddaughter, Mme. Léonce Bénédite, in 1972. It now is in the collection of the Guildhall Art Gallery, which houses the art collection of the City of London.
According to curator Jeremy Johnson, the painting formerly was called The Lord Mayor’s Show, but the subject matter is uncertain. To date, there is no documentation, no letters, no information at all on this picture.
Until 2011, the painting was on display as part of an ongoing exhibition at the Guildhall Art Gallery on civic life in London.
The picture raises numerous questions:
The Household Guard are shown in the background, but the significance of the red and white badges is unknown; what ceremony does it depict?
Was this a study, or a finished work? It is quite large – was it a commission?
Why did Tissot give a painting about London to a curator of a museum of contemporary art in Paris?
Léonce Bénédite, the curator of the Musée du Luxembourg, began his career there as deputy director in 1886. An art historian of considerable energy and ambition, he was appointed curator in 1892. Matilda Arnoux, director of research at the German Centre for Art History, Paris, noted that Bénédite saw the Luxembourg as the “antechamber” of the Louvre – a way station designed to highlight contemporary works that later would chronicle the history of nineteenth-century art – and that he believed the museum must represent international trends in modern art. With limited funds and space, Bénédite pursued personal relationships with artists through numerous trips abroad from 1893 to 1921.
His taste was conservative, and while his objective was to acquire a major work by every contemporary artist, including the Belgian Alfred Stevens, the American John Singer Sargent, and the Englishman Edward Burne-Jones, he did not seek to acquire daring works by Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh or Edvard Munch.
He also welcomed gifts and bequests, and he accepted Manet’s Olympia (1863), when it was offered in 1890 after Claude Monet organized a public subscription.
Of course, one of James Tissot’s oil paintings had entered the Luxembourg when he was only twenty-five: in 1860, The Meeting of Faust and Marguerite attracted the attention of the Comte de Nieuwerkerke, France’s Director-General of Museums, who purchased the painting on behalf of the government for the Luxembourg Museum for 5,000 francs. This was a tremendous honor for Tissot; he exhibited the painting in the Salon of 1861, where he won an honorable mention.
With his place in the pantheon of contemporary artists long since ensured, James Tissot gave Léonce Bénédite this large painting as a personal gift at some time prior to the artist’s death in 1902.
The two men were friends, as indicated by another gift. Around 1885, Tissot gave Study for ‘Le Sphinx’ (Woman in an Interior, oil on panel, 43 3/4 by 27 in. /111.1 by 68.6 cm) to Léonce Bénédite. This image from Tissot’s La Femme à Paris series, which remained with the Bénédite family until it was sold around 1972, actually was a portrait of Louise Riesener (1860 – 1944). The same year, Tissot planned to marry Mlle. Riesener, the granddaughter of portrait painter Henri Riesener (1767 – 1828), a daughter of the painter Léon Riesener (1808-1878), and a cousin of painter Eugène Delacroix (1798 – 1863). Along with her sister Rosalie, she belonged to the same artistic social set as Berthe Morisot, for whom they modeled. Unfortunately, one day when the forty-nine-year-old Tissot removed his overcoat in the front hall, his appearance struck his twenty-five-year-old fiancée as old-fashioned. Louise suddenly decided that she had lost her desire to marry. In 2005, Study for ‘Le Sphinx’ sold at Sotheby’s, New York for $ 650,000 USD/£ 364,023 GBP (Hammer price).
It was fascinating to see A Civic Procession in person and study it closely.
It is far less detailed than Tissot’s most well-known pictures, and the brushstrokes are extremely loose and Impressionistic.
Was this an attempt by Tissot to emulate the progressive style of the colleagues he had declined to join when his friend Edgar Degas exhorted him to exhibit with a group of struggling, unknown artists in Paris in 1874, a few years after Tissot had established a new and lucrative career in London?
Special thanks to Jeremy Johnson and Andrew Lane for arranging for me to view this painting.
© 2014 by Lucy Paquette. All rights reserved.
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