James Tissot’s career spanned three successful periods: his early years in Paris (1859-1870), his business-like decade in London (1871-1882), and his later years in France and the Holy Land (1883-85), depicting fashionable women of Belle Époque Paris and making research trips for his series of Bible illustrations.
Born Jacques Joseph Tissot, his parents were self-made, prosperous merchants in the textile and fashion industry in the bustling seaport of Nantes. Jacques moved to Paris in 1856 to study painting and made his début at the Salon three years later, as James Tissot. Tissot and his painting, La Rencontre de Faust et de Marguerite (The Meeting of Faust and Marguerite) attracted the attention of the Comte de Nieuwerkerke, Director-General of Museums, who purchased the painting in 1860 on behalf of the government for the Luxembourg Museum for 5,000 francs. The provincial young painter achieved Establishment acceptance far sooner than his struggling friends, James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), Edgar Degas (1834-1917), and Édouard Manet (1832-1883).
Tissot’s paintings in the Salon in 1864 reflected the trend toward capturing “modernity,” and he began to hit his stride as an artist with The Two Sisters and Portrait of Mademoiselle L.L.
At the Paris Salon in 1866, Tissot was elected hors concours: from then on, he could exhibit any painting he wished at the annual Salon without first submitting his work to the jury’s scrutiny. The price for his pictures skyrocketed. At 30, he decided to purchase property on the most prestigious new thoroughfare in Paris, the avenue de l’Impèratrice (Empress Avenue, now avenue Foch). By late 1867 or early 1868, Tissot was living in grand style in his luxurious new villa.
In 1868, Tissot was commissioned to paint the most lucrative and elaborate painting of his career, a group portrait of “The Circle of the Rue Royale, an exclusive private club whose twelve members each paid 1,000 francs toward the painting.
In 1869, at the top of his game depicting the leisured and refined life of the Second Empire, Tissot began contributing wicked political caricatures to London’s newest Society journal, the subversive Vanity Fair, founded by Thomas Gibson Bowles (1842-1922). Tissot’s first subject was Napoléon III, whom he skewered.
When the Second Empire collapsed on September 2, 1870, Tissot’s charmed life in Paris ended. He became a sharpshooter, defending Paris in an elite unit, the Éclaireurs (Scouts) of the Seine. In the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War — the bloody Commune in mid-1871 — James Tissot fled Paris with 100 francs to his name, establishing himself in the competitive London art market by catering to the British taste. By 1873, he bought the lease on a spacious villa in St. John’s Wood, soon building an extension with a studio and huge conservatory.
Tissot had ceased to exhibit his work in the Salon in 1870 and declined Degas’s exhortation to show his work in Paris with the independent group of French artists who organized their first of eight exhibitions in Paris in 1874 and who soon became known as Impressionists. From 1872 to 1875, Tissot exhibited his work only at the Royal Academy, with works such as The Ball on Shipboard (1874). He generated a great deal of income selling prints of his paintings as well as watercolor replicas. By 1876, he had earned great wealth and lived in relative seclusion for six years with his mistress and muse, young divorcée Kathleen Irene Ashburnham Kelly Newton (1854-1882).
From 1877 to 1879, Tissot exhibited his work only at the new Grosvenor Gallery, an invitation-only alternative to the Royal Academy, where artists could showcase as many works as they wished in the palatial edifice in New Bond Street. Kathleen Newton posed for several works Tissot exhibited there, including Evening (1878) and The Hammock (1879).
When Mrs. Newton died of tuberculosis in late 1882, at age 28, Tissot abandoned his St. John’s Wood home and returned to Paris, selling his London house the next year to Dutch-born painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836 ñ 1912).
Tissot exerted himself to re-establish his reputation in Paris with a series of fifteen large-scale pictures called La Femme de Paris (The Parisian Woman). Painted between 1883 and 1885, they portrayed the fashionable parisienne in various incarnations using brighter, modern colors than he had in his previous work, but they were poorly received. Tissot then supposedly dedicated the remainder of his life solely to illustrating the Bible, even making repeated research trips to the Holy Land in 1886-87, 1888 and 1889. His series of 365 gouache illustrations for the Life of Christ were shown to enthusiastic crowds in Paris (1894 and 1895), London (1896) and New York (1898) after which they toured North America until 1900. They were published in 1896-97 and in several later editions. However, during this time, Tissot also executed about forty portraits of aristocratic women and other beautiful Society figures in sumptuous Belle Époque settings from the mid-1880s to the early 1890s, most often using pastels.
James Tissot died in 1902, at age 66, extremely wealthy and renowned for what was considered his great masterpiece, The Life of Christ illustrations. In his obituary in The Evening Post, Tissot was compared to William Blake, though “uniting as Blake never did, and as no other prominent artist has done, the mystical and ideal with an intense realism.”
The Victorian Web is a vast resource on literature, history and culture in the age of Victoria.
My thanks to The Victorian Web‘s Editor-in-Chief and Webmaster, George Landow, and to Associate Editor Jackie Banerjee
Johnson, E. D. H. “Victorian Artists and the Urban Milieu. The Victorian City: Images and Realities. H. J. Dyos and Michael Wolff. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973. Pp. 449-74.
“Joseph Tissot, Artist.” Evening Post, 64.37 (12 August 1902).
Matyjaszkiewicz, Krystyna, ed. James Tissot. New York: Abbeville Press, 1985; Barbican Art Gallery, c. 1984.
Misfeldt, Willard. “James Jacques Joseph Tissot: A Bio-Critical Study.” Ph.D. diss., Washington University. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University Microfilms International, 1971.
Misfeldt, Willard E. J.J. Tissot: Prints from the Gotlieb Collection. Alexandria, Virginia: Art Services International, 1991.
Misfeldt, Willard E. The Albums of James Tissot. Bowling Green: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1982.
Wentworth, Michael. James Tissot. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984.
Wentworth, Michael. James Tissot: Catalogue Raisonnée of his Prints. London: 1978.
Wood, Christopher. Tissot: The Life and Work of Jacques Joseph Tissot, 1836-1902. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson Ltd., 1986.
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