All auction prices listed are for general reader interest only, and are shown in this order: $ (USD)/£ (GBP). All prices listed are Hammer Price (the winning bid amount) unless noted as Premium, indicating that the figure quoted includes the Buyer’s Premium of an additional percentage charged by the auction house, as well as taxes.
James Tissot left Nantes, the seaport where he was born, to study art in Paris in 1856, shortly before he turned 20. The medieval architecture of Nantes, and of Brugelette, in Flanders, where he was educated at a Jesuit college, made such an impression on him that he had at first wished to become an architect.
In Paris, Tissot studied briefly at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1857. But he was impressed by the popular work of the Belgian painter Hendrik Leys (1815 – 1869). Leys’ painting, The Trental Mass of Berthal de Haze – replete with numerous characters enacting a historical drama against a detailed architectural background inspired by the early Flemish and German masters – won a gold medal at the 1855 Paris International Exhibition. In 1859, Tissot traveled to Antwerp and took lessons in Leys’ studio.
That year, at 23, Tissot also made his artistic debut at the Paris Salon, exhibiting five pieces including Promenade dans la neige (Walk in the Snow, 1858), which the artist had repeatedly scraped and reworked. Zacharie Astruc (1833 – 1907), a sculptor, painter and art critic, wondered if Tissot was amusing himself by placing student work in a frame and suggested he should have left Promenade dans la Neige in his studio. But this picture of a medieval couple taking a walk on a wooded hill overlooking a distant castle is alive in that it evokes the tense mood of the man and the woman, who have just quarreled.
In 1862, Tissot also displayed this painting at the London International Exhibition. Over six million visitors viewed works by 28,000 exhibitors from 36 countries – a range of wonders in the arts, industry and technology. Tissot gave his work the English title, A Walk in the Snow; by showing it in England, the young artist signaled his ambition and widened his reputation.
By 1874, Vincent van Gogh was aware of Promenade dans la neige and praised it, and Tissot, in a letter to his younger brother Theo, an art dealer. Much later, the painting found its way to Paul Touzet, a French dealer in Old Masters, and as of 1982, it was in a private collection in Paris.
As the Salon was held biennially after 1855, the next was in 1861.
The Dance of Death, or Voie des fleurs, voie des pleurs (Path of Flowers, Way of Tears, 1860), a medieval dance of death exhibited as one of six of Tissot’s paintings at the Salon in 1861, is currently on display high on the West Wall of the Grand Gallery at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Museum in Providence. It was the only one of Tissot’s early paintings to be admired by the critics, and Tissot offered it to a collector at what he claimed to consider a low price of 5,000 francs – a month’s income for a wealthy man at that time. The Dance of Death was in a private collection in Philadelphia until it was purchased from Julius Weitzner (1896 – 1986), an American dealer in Old Masters paintings, by the RISD in 1954. Tissot’s friend, Edgar Degas, made a sketch of this picture in one of his notebooks, and van Gogh also was familiar with this painting, as he mentioned it in an 1883 letter to his brother Theo.
An oil study for this picture, or an earlier version of it, Allegory of the transience of life (1859), was sold at Christie’s, London in 1972 for $ 2,850/£ 1,100.
At the Salon in 1861, Tissot also exhibited Pendant l’office (During the Service, also called Martin Luther’s Doubts, 1860). He originally priced it at 9,000 francs. It was sold at Christie’s, New York in 1986 for $ 80,000/£ 52,756, then again at the same auction house in 1994 for $ 60,000/£ 40,677.
At the Salon in 1863, Tissot exhibited three pictures including The Return of the Prodigal Son (1862) and Le départ du fiancé (The Departure of the Fiancé).
But the critics had had enough of Tissot’s medieval paintings and began to satirize him. One prominent French critic wrote of him and The Return of the Prodigal Son, “When he has done enough archaeology, we will do as the father of the prodigal child he showed this year: we will kill the fatted calf, and we will forgive him.”
Le départ du fiancé, unlocated, is known through a related preparatory study, c.1863, 6 by 11 in./15.24 by 27.94 cm). It was sold at Sotheby’s, New York in 2002 from the estates of David M. Daniels and Stevan Beck Baloga, for $ 6,000/£ 3,849.
At the Salon in 1864, Tissot exhibited two modern paintings to great acclaim; he began to hit his stride as an artist. But he was not ready to give up his medieval subjects. Promenade sur les remparts (Walk on the ramparts, 1864, oil on board, 52 by 44.4 cm) was sold in 1875 for £ 315. In 1968, petroleum geologist Robert Sumpf (1917 – 1994) gifted it to the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University in California, where he had earned his B.S. in geology in 1941.
Tissot also exhibited work in London in 1864, choosing to show medieval pictures. He had two pictures on display at the Society of British Artists – The Elopement* (1861) and The Return of the Prodigal Son) – and at the Royal Academy Exhibition, an oil painting of another snowy scene called At the Break of Day*. The Return of the Prodigal Son did not impress the critics in London. It was sold at Arnaune in 1980 for 195,000 FRF ($ 46,507/£ 20,386) and later at Christie’s, London in 1992 for $ 203,720/£ 110,000. It is now in the Manney Collection; Richard and Gloria Manney, who live in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, made their fortune in the media time-buying business and are well known for their generous patronage to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Tissot exhibited two paintings, including Tentative d’enlèvement (The Attempted Abduction), at the Salon in 1865. This picture was with Goupil in Paris until acquired by Knoedler in 1866, and then belonged to a private collector in New York, from whom it was acquired by Elliott L. Bloom (1930 – 2011). Bloom was the founder and owner of Elliott Galleries in New York, where he had worked as an art and antiques dealer for over fifty-five years. Tentative d’enlèvement was sold for $134,500/£ 83,281 (Premium) at Sotheby’s, New York in 2012.
By 1866, Tissot was regularly painting oil portraits of wealthy men and women, and earning commissions such as his Portrait of the Marquise de Miramon, née Thérèse Feuillant. At the Salon in 1866, Tissot exhibited two pictures of fashionable, modern women. Neither painting earned particular acclaim, but Tissot was elected hors concours – beyond the competition, or, in a class by himself: from now on, he could exhibit any painting he wished at the annual Salon, without submitting his work to the jury’s scrutiny. The price for his pictures skyrocketed. At 30, only ten years since his arrival in the capital, he decided to purchase property on the most prestigious new thoroughfare in Paris, the avenue de l’Impératrice (Empress Avenue, now avenue Foch). He would be living in grand style in his luxurious new villa by late 1867 or early 1868. Until then, he lived in the crowded, ancient rue Bonaparte and continued to paint medieval pictures.L’embuscade (Tentative d’enlèvement)/The Ambush (The Attempted Abduction) [also referred to as L’enlèvement] (c. 1865-67) was sold in 1880 for £199 10 shillings. In 1974, it was acquired by the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes with the assistance of a grant from the Direction des Musées de France. It has been included in numerous exhibitions, most recently James Tissot et ses Maîtres, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, November 4, 2005 to January 5, 2006 and The 19th century Japan Project – The Flow from 19th century French Art to 20th century Modern Art, Hamamatsu Municipal Museum of Art, Japan, August 25 to October 8, 2012; Akita Senshu Museum of Art, Japan, November 3 to December 16, 2012; Saga Prefectural Art Museum, Japan, January 25 to March 10, 2013; Yamaguchi Prefectural Museum of Art, Japan, June 8 to July 7, 2013; Kagoshima City Museum of Art, Japan, July 19 to September 1, 2013.
Tissot exhibited Le rendez-vous at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1867. It was sold at Sotheby’s, New York in 2005 for $ 80,000/£ 41,677.
Le rendez-vous secret (c. 1865-67) was sold at Arcole, Paris in 1991 for 245,000 FRF ($ 42,483/£ 24,713. An oil on canvas, it measures 24 by 18 in. (60.96 by 45.72 cm) and remains in a private collection.
Tissot painted another medieval series, based on one of the greatest works of German literature, Goethe’s 1808 version of the legend of Faust. German Romanticism was popular at this time, and Tissot exhibited scenes from Faust concurrently with his other medieval pictures. [See James Tissot’s Faust series, 1860-65.]
By 1867, or about the time he moved into his splendid new Parisian villa, he had moved on to scenes of modern life – bringing the same attention to detail, use of weather to create mood, and skill in rendering fashion and psychological tension. Even as he grew and prospered as an artist, he retained his defining interests and characteristic subject matter. He would go on to paint other versions of the prodigal son, couples after a quarrel, and contemporary updates of his early paintings, such as Le rendez-vous secret (c. 1890).
3/29/15 Update*: Tissot’s The Elopement and At the Break of Day recently were offered for sale at Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctions, and were displayed from March 21 -24, 2015 in the sales room at Donnington Priory, a seventeenth-century mansion an hour west of London, near Newbury. The two paintings (both oil on panel, 7 by 11 3/4 in./17.5 by 30 cm) sold together for £4,000 [Hammer price] on March 25, 2015. My thanks to Tim Thomas in Newbury for alerting me to this sale.
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