James Tissot’s meticulous technical skills extended beyond oil painting, watercolor, pastels, and engraving to cloisonné.
Cloisonné is an enameling technique in which delicate metal strips or wires are soldered to a metal surface to outline intricate designs, and the spaces (cloisons in French) are filled with pastes made of ground colored glass. The object is fired in a kiln, the paste becomes enamel, and the piece is ground smooth and polished until glossy.
Cloisonné rings exist from 13th century BC Mycenaean Greece, and cloisonné enameling was widespread in the Byzantine Empire from the 10th to the 12th century.
The earliest Chinese cloisonné pieces were made during the Xuande period (1426–1436), but the cloisonné enamel technique was likely introduced into China during the late Mongol Yuan dynasty (1279–1368). From that time through the early Ming dynasty (1368–1644), cloisonné enamel pieces were primarily intended for ritual use in Buddhist temples. During the second half of the eighteenth century, imperial workshops were established within the Forbidden City, and there were numerous commissions of cloisonné enamels for the imperial palaces and private residences.
Meanwhile, with the signing of the first commercial treaty between Japan and America in 1854, more than 200 years of Japanese seclusion came to an end. In Paris, a host of import shops cropped up. J.G. Houssaye’s À la porte chinoise (At the Chinese Gate) was established on rue Vivienne by 1855, and by 1856, M. Decelle had opened L’Empire Céleste (The Celestial Empire) there. Houssaye later opened Au Céleste Empire on rue Saint-Marc.
During the Second Opium War in 1860, the dazzling Summer Palace in Beijing – the Emperor’s favorite residence, built between 1750 and 1764 – was looted and burned to the ground by British and French troops. Treasures from the palace arrived in Britain and France along with all manner of exotic porcelains, engravings, lacquer ware, silks, scrolls, screens, fans and trinkets from the Far East.
In 1862, Madame Desoye, who with her husband had lived for many years in Japan, opened an import shop, La Jonque Chinoise (The Chinese Junk) at 220 rue de Rivoli, near the Louvre. Among her customers were Tissot, Manet, Degas, Whistler, and Sarah Bernhardt. So novel was the art of East Asia that the distinction between Japanese and Chinese traditions was blurred into the catch-all term, Oriental.
Cloisonné became popular throughout Europe, especially in France, sparking Chinese production during the reign of the Guangxu emperor (1875–1909). In Japan, cloisonné was popular during the Tokugawa (1603–1868) and Meiji (1868–1912) periods.
Lucien Falize (1839 – 1897) a French goldsmith, visited the International Exhibition in London in 1862 and saw the first display of Oriental works of art at the Japanese Pavilion – the collection of exotic treasures owned by the retired first British Minister to Japan, Sir Rutherford Alcock (1809-1897). In 1867, Falize saw the display of cloisonné enameled objects by the celebrated French jeweler and silversmith firm, Christofle, at the Expositon Universelle in Paris. Falize’s firm began to produce cloisonné jewelry.
Tissot exhibited Le rendez-vous at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1867. Notice the cloisonné vases and pots clustered at the bottom right.
By about 1869, James Tissot’s new studio, on the most prestigious new thoroughfare in Paris, the avenue de l’Impératrice (Empress Avenue, now avenue Foch), had become a showcase for his renowned collection of Japanese art, and a landmark to see when touring Paris. Tissot’s villa provided the lavish interiors filled with Oriental carpets, furniture, fabrics, carvings, vases and wall hangings that he used in his paintings.
But Tissot fled Paris in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War and the bloody Commune in 1871, and he established himself in the competitive London art market. By 1876, Tissot had earned great wealth and lived in relative seclusion with his mistress and muse, young divorcée Kathleen Newton.
In 1878, Lucien Falize won a Grand Prize and received the Legion of Honor for the work he exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. Other illustrious artists, such as the celebrated bronze founder Ferdinand Barbédienne (1810 – 1892) produced cloisonné enamels as well.
In the late 1870s, Tissot began to produce cloisonné enamels. La Fortune (Fortune, c. 1878-1882), on display at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, is his largest piece. A design for a fountain or a monument, it comprises patinated bronze, silver bronze, gilt bronze, cloisonné enamel, silver, and glass, on a walnut base.
Around 1880 or 1882, Tissot produced an oval jardinière (a planter), Lake and Sea, composed of copper panels decorated in cloisonné enamel with a bronze frame and gilt-bronze mounts. It was based on a rare Ming gilt and enamel jardinière that Tissot acquired for his collection around 1870. The Chinese piece, a basin with pastoral and mountain landscapes on its sides, was among the treasures looted from the Summer Palace in 1860. It inspired Tissot to create the jardinière with Art Nouveau-like nude women seated on dragon heads, in place of the pair of lion-shaped handles on the original.
Tissot exhibited this jardinière with over twenty pieces of cloisonné enamel including a large sculpture, vases, jardinières, trays, teapots, plaques and trial pieces at the Dudley Gallery, in London in 1882. They did not receive much acclaim, and none sold.
Note the similarity of the shape of Tissot’s vase, Children in a Garden, compared to the vase he showcased on the table in Jeunes femmes regardant des objects japonais (Young Women Looking at Japanese Objects, 1869), above. The images he used to decorate his modernized vase were based on his paintings of the period, such as Mrs. Newton with a Parasol (1879).
When Kathleen Newton died of tuberculosis on November 9, 1882, Tissot was distraught. Immediately after the funeral on November 14, at the Church of Our Lady in Lisson Grove, St. John’s Wood, he returned to Paris.
He took his paintings and the entire cloisonné collection he had exhibited at the Dudley Gallery, but he left all his paints and art supplies in trays in the studio, and the pots containing the materials for his cloisonné work were left in the basement.
Tissot exhibited his cloisonné collection twice in Paris: in March, 1883 at the Palais de l’Industrie, and again from April to June, 1885 at the Galerie Sedelmeyer. He continued to produce more pieces, but all of them remained in his possession. After his death, some of his cloisonné enamels were sold and some were kept by family members.
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