Though James Tissot has a reputation for painting languorous ladies, his paintings from the 1870s often depict scenes of psychological tension, and he frequently used weather as a device to heighten the mood.
While Tissot relied on studio models and photographs, and did not experiment with painting en plein air until after the middle of this decade, his skillfully rendered atmospheric conditions accentuate, or add ambiguity, to his subject matter in a manner wholly his own.
He first communicated mood using weather in Promenade dans la neige (A Walk in the Snow, 1858), exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1859, when he made his debut in his early twenties.
This picture of a medieval couple taking a walk on a snow-covered hill overlooking a distant castle evokes the tense mood of the man and the woman, who have just quarreled.
Still on Top (c. 1874) depicts two women and an elderly male servant wearing a red liberty cap, a revolutionary symbol in France. Tissot painted this scene only three years after he had fled Paris – under some suspicion – during the French government’s suppression of the radical Paris Commune. It’s really rather daring for an apparent French political refugee of the time, remaking his career in England: as the three figures raise the flags, which flag is on top? Tissot uses the brisk wind to create a thrilling sense of anticipation.
In On the Thames, smoke and fog envelop a vessel in a picture construed by Victorian critics to show a British Naval ensign’s shocking excursion with two ladies of ill repute. Whether or not Tissot intended to portray a shady situation, he cleared the air for his critics when he painted a corrective the following year: in Portsmouth Dockyard (c.1877), the respectable Highland sergeant (sans champagne bottles) is out on a bright day with noticeably improved air quality.
A Passing Storm (c. 1876) is a great example of Tissot’s manner of permeating scenes with psychological tension. The man and woman have just quarreled, and they each are taking time to cool off; their anger will pass like the storm clouds overhead.
But Tissot’s work certainly offers more than unrelenting snow, wind, smog and stormy skies. In October (1877), he shows Kathleen Newton, his twenty-three year old mistress and muse, glowing in the autumnal sun, apparently the picture of health though she would pass away from tuberculosis in five years.
Tissot’s women of this period can be more psychologically complex than females painted by other artists of the era. While many French and Victorian artists of the time produced sentimental scenes of pretty women reading love letters, Tissot’s The Letter (c. 1878) shows a woman angrily shredding a missive and casting it to the winds. By her choice, the relationship is at an end, blowing away with the autumnal leaves.
It is a chilly day in The Warrior’s Daughter (A Convalescent, c. 1878). A pretty woman is bundled up and walks, impassive, ahead of her elderly, invalid father as he is pushed in his elaborate wheeled chair. Many Victorian painters would have depicted her as a loving presence, solicitous of his comfort. But Tissot has made the coldness palpable: the two seem distant from each other, and she has caught the eye of an implied passer-by – a man whom her father does not notice.
This small picture relies, as so many of Tissot’s paintings of this period do, on the beauty of model Kathleen Newton. Ironically, it was in the last years of her life, and after her death, that Tissot painted some of his sunniest scenes.
In the Sunshine (c. 1881) celebrates the domestic bliss Tissot enjoyed in his years living in London with Mrs. Newton and her children.
Immediately after Kathleen Newton’s death in 1882, Tissot returned to Paris, where he exerted himself to re-establish his reputation 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, more modern colors than he had used in his previous work.
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 this scene, the bright, sunny day underscores professional success and camaraderie – as well as a considerable amount of resilience on Tissot’s part.
But the sun had set on James Tissot’s career as a painter of modern life and its emotional climes: La Femme à Paris was not a success, and he turned to pastel portraits of Society women, and the Bible illustrations for which he would become famous in his later years.
© 2015 by Lucy Paquette. All rights reserved.
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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.