At the Salon in 1866, James Tissot exhibited Leaving the Confessional, a picture of a pretty, pious woman after she has made her confession. He was 30, and though he was living in student lodgings in the Latin Quarter, he had gained considerable recognition and success during his decade in Paris.
He began his career by exhibiting medieval scenes, and then scenes of sin and guilt from Goethe’s Faust, until the critics had had enough of his archaic pictures. At the Salon in 1864, Tissot exhibited his first paintings of self-confident, modern woman, Portrait of Mlle. L.L. and The Two Sisters. Both were highly original, praised by the critics and popular with the public. He had begun to hit his stride as an artist.
Though neither Leaving the Confessional nor another painting he exhibited in 1866 earned particular acclaim, 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. Only artists who had won three major awards at previous Salons were eligible to receive this honor. How did a 30-year old artist, who had won no medals following his honorable mention in 1861, rise to this height in only his seventh year of exhibiting?
In winning official endorsement from the government-run Salon during the Second Empire, could it be that the suave, ambitious and well-connected young artist was being rewarded for being reliably traditional in a time of open rebellion among artists of his age? Or, perhaps, it was simply a matter of his connections: in 1865, he found an entrée to the French aristocracy when he was commissioned to paint The Marquis and the Marquise de Miramon and their children [René de Cassagne de Beaufort, Marquis de Miramon (1835-1882), his wife, née Thérèse Feuillant (1836-1912), and their first two children, Geneviève and Léon on the terrace of the château de Paulhac in Auvergne]. In 1866, Tissot fixed the beauty of the 30-year-old Marquise on canvas in another commission for her husband, Portrait of the Marquise de Miramon, née Thérèse Feuillant.
Fourteen years later, in 1880, Leaving the Confessional was offered at the Humphery Roberts sale, Christie’s, London, but it failed to find a buyer at £162.15s. It was with George C. Dobell by 1886 and was purchased as In Church from the Leicester Galleries in London in 1936 by the Southampton City Art Gallery through the Frederick William Smith Bequest Fund. It is not on display.
After he was made hors concors in 1866, the price for Tissot’s pictures skyrocketed. At 30, only ten years since his arrival in Paris, he decided to purchase property on the most prestigious new thoroughfare in the capital, the avenue de l’Impératrice (Empress Avenue, now avenue Foch). He would be living in grand style in his luxurious new villa there by late 1867 or early 1868.
Tissot painted a watercolor version of The Confessional, which is smaller but otherwise nearly identical to the original oil. It was commissioned in 1867 for 250 francs by American grain merchant and liquor wholesaler William Thompson Walters (1819 – 1894), through George A. Lucas (1824 – 1909) , the Baltimore, Maryland-born art dealer who had lived in Paris since 1857. Lucas was a friend of Tissot’s friend, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and he made it his business to know every artist in Paris as he became the agent for wealthy Americans including banker William Wilson Corcoran (1798 – 1888), railroad magnate William Henry Vanderbilt I (1821 – 1885), streetcar developer Frank F. Frick (1857 – 1935), and William T. Walters. Lucas helped build Walters’ art collection by arranging for the purchase of pieces by Honoré Daumier, Jean-Léon Gérôme, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Antoine-Louis Barye, Théodore Rousseau, and Paul Delaroche.
William T. Walters’ art collection formed the basis of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. Upon his death, his son and fellow art collector Henry Walters (1848 – 1931), inherited his father’s collection and bequeathed it to the Walters Art Museum at his death. Tissot’s watercolor, The Confessional, has been included in several exhibitions over the years, most recently in 2005-2006, but it is not currently on view.
Tissot painted a third version, in oil, of a stylish woman outside a confessional. Dans l’église (In Church, c.1865-69) was sold as Le Confessional at Sotheby’s, New York in 1996 for $ 4,500 USD/£ 2,950 GBP. On July 15, 2015, it was offered for sale at Sotheby’s, London. Estimated to sell for between £ 100,000-150,000 GBP, it did not find a buyer at that time.
Update: On July 14, 2016, Dans l’église (In Church, c.1865-69) was sold at Sotheby’s, London for £ 221,000 GBP (Hammer price with Buyer’s Premium).
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Illustrated with 17 stunning, high-resolution fine art images in full color
Courtesy of The Bridgeman Art Library
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