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Before the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), James Tissot painted scenes from France’s Directory period; after he emigrated to England in 1871, he began to paint scenes from England’s Georgian period.
The Georgian era encompasses the reigns of George I, George II, George III, George IV, and George IV’s brother, William IV, the period from 1714 to 1837. During that time, improvements in transportation and manufacturing led to the rise of towns and cities and a growing middle class that could afford increasingly mass-produced consumer goods – a similar situation to Tissot’s life in Paris during the heady, prosperous years before the Franco-Prussian War. Tissot enjoyed depicting fabrics and polished surfaces that showcased his consummate skill with paint, and despite some success painting modern subjects in Paris, he now reverted to painting uncontroversial, bygone times.
As a newcomer seeking to rebuild his career in London, he exchanged the racy sexuality of his Directory paintings for the poignancy and comedy of his Georgian pictures. His style was inspired by portraits by the British painter, Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723 – 1792), a co-founder of the Royal Academy. Reynolds was revered, and an exhibition of his work was held at the Royal Academy in 1872.
Tissot, who had reinvented himself from a painter of medieval scenes to achieve a remarkable success in Paris as a painter of chic aristocrats, reinvented himself again to appeal to Victorian critics and patrons. That he applied himself to this new direction is clear from extant studies such as two pencil sketches from this period (c.1872) in the collection of The Tate, in London: Study after Reynolds’ Portrait of Mrs. Williams Hope and Study of a Girl in a Mob Cap.
The emphasis on the mob cap is evident in Reading a Book, sold at Christie’s London in 1983 for $ 18,546 USD/£ 12,000 GBP to Umeda Gallery, Osaka, Japan and then to a private collector in Tokyo.
Tissot used the same mob cap and white dress (as well as the chair) in his other paintings of this period.
As in Tissot’s Directory paintings, his figures are actors onstage. In Bad News (1872), a young couple absorbs the reality of his new military orders while a woman prepares tea. Bad News first belonged to A.B. Stewart. In 1881, it was sold as The Parting to William Menelaus (1818 – 1882), a Scottish-born engineer, iron and steel manufacturer, and inventor. He earned a fortune at the Dowlais Ironworks in South Wales, and his only extravagance was his art collection, which was said to fill his home in Merthyr. He donated pieces to the Cardiff Free Library, then upon his death in 1882, bequeathed to it the remaining thirty-six paintings, valued at £10,000. His bequest included James Tissot’s Bad News (The Parting), now in the collection of the National Museum Cardiff.
In Tea (1872), Tissot expanded the left side of Bad News (The Parting), further demonstrating his skill at painting fashion, china, silver and polished wood. In a private collection in Rome, Italy in 1968, Tea was with Somerville & Simpson, Ltd., London, by 1979-81, when it was consigned to Mathiessen Fine Art Ltd., London. It was purchased from Mathiessen by Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, New York. Upon Mr. Wrightsman’s death in 1986, socialite, philanthropist and fine arts collector Mrs. Charles Wrightsman (b. 1919) owned it until 1998, when she gifted it to the Met. It is currently on view.
Tissot’s friend Edgar Degas owned a pencil study for Tea, inscribed “à mon ami Degas/J. Tissot/Londres.” This sketch later was owned by the Duke of Verdura (1898 – 1978), an influential Italian jeweler who was introduced to Coco Chanel by Cole and Linda Porter, two of his early backers. This drawing, now in a private collection, has a study for How We Read the News of our Marriage (see below) on the other side.
An Interesting Story was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1872. Tissot showcased his expertise painting ship’s rigging – using the Thames as the background to make his art relevant to British patrons – while offering his own brand of humor. Those poor women! While one yawns, the other looks almost as if she is praying for release from the man’s interminable tale. Their obvious boredom surely transcends cultures.
An Interesting Story entered the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia in 1938 with the Felton Bequest (a philanthropic trust established with the Will of Alfred Felton [1831 –1904], an Australian entrepreneur, art collector and philanthropist, who remained unmarried and childless all his life).
We feel even worse for the patiently suffering girl in the version below. She is definitely praying.
In 1878, Tissot reproduced The Tedious Story (also called An Uninteresting Story) as an etching and exhibited it at London’s Grosvenor Gallery as The Bow Window.
The unlocated 1872 painting, How We Read the News of our Marriage, must have been quite popular to have been commercially reproduced as a steel engraving in 1874. As he reads the marriage notice, is she bored or regretful already, gazing out the window? Or is her gentle smile one of modesty and contentment with her rather preening husband?
There is an oil study called The Tryst, a variation of this scene in which the woman looks down at the man while he kneels before her. It sold at Sotheby’s, New York in 1982 for $ 36,000 USD/£ 21,452 GBP.
Back in Paris, Tissot’s friends Edgar Degas and Edouard Manet still were struggling for critical acceptance and for patrons. But Tissot, who had arrived in London in the bloody aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War with only one hundred francs to his name, worked prodigiously to produce all these paintings in just one year. From this cautious start painting conservative Georgian pictures, he gained a foothold with art collectors among British politicians, bankers and industrialists and began painting for them the modern subjects and portraits that had brought him immense wealth among aristocrats in pre-war Paris.
To learn more about the challenges that James Tissot faced as he pursued his career in London for over a decade – reinventing himself yet again as a painter of domestic bliss with his beautiful young mistress – read The Hammock: A novel based on the true story of French painter James Tissot.
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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). See http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009P5RYVE.