A Proper British Prop: Tissot’s Tartan Blanket

Among the recurring props that James Tissot used in his oil paintings, including the tiger skin, the leopard fur, certain striking gowns, and numerous wicker chairs, were fringed woolen blankets, most often one in a red tartan.

The first use he made of a blanket as a device to add color and visual interest to his composition was in The Marquis and the Marquise de Miramon and their children (1865):  in this case, a fringed red and white checked picnic cloth, or table cover, is draped over the stone wall behind the French aristocrat’s young son, Léon.

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The Marquis and Marquise de Miramon and their children (1865), by James Tissot.  Musee d’Orsay, Paris.  www.the-athenaeum.org

After Tissot emigrated to London in mid-1871, rebuilding his career following the Franco-Prussian War and the bloody Commune uprising in Paris, one of the first oils he painted and exhibited in this new market featured a subdued brown and white striped lap rug, appropriate to the palette, in Gentleman in a Railway Carriage (1872).

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Gentleman in a Railway Carriage (1872), by James Tissot.  The Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts.  (Photo: Wikiart.org)

Tissot, ever the shrewd man of business, understood that he now had to paint for an entirely new clientele.  While British aristocrats did not purchase the Frenchman’s paintings, plenty of newly-wealthy businessmen sought his work as they enhanced their social status by building art collections.  Tissot had to appeal to Victorian tastes, in an empire ruled by a Queen whose beloved retreat was Balmoral Castle in Aberdeenshire.

Soon, he began to feature Scottish tartan blankets in his paintings.  He used the same fringed tartan blanket in The Captain and the Mate (1873) and The Last Evening (1873).  In these pictures as well as A Visit to the Yacht (1873), the blanket is a prop that provides an enlivening splash of red in the composition and sets off the adjacent gown.

In The Captain’s Daughter (1873), a black and white checked blanket is draped over the wooden railing under the woman’s arm, providing visual interest between the water and her dark floral dress.

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The Captain and the Mate, (1873), by James Tissot. The Captain and the Mate (1873), by James Tissot. Oil on panel, 53.6 by 76.2 cm. Private Collection. Courtesy of The Bridgeman Art Library for use in “The Hammock: A novel based on the true story of French painter James Tissot,” © 2012 Courtesy of The Bridgeman Art Library for use in The Hammock: A novel based on the true story of French painter James Tissot, © 2012

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The Last Evening (1873), by James Tissot. Oil on canvas, 28.3 by 40.6 in. (72 by 103 cm). The Guildhall Art Gallery, London. (Photo: Wikimedia.org)

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A Visit to the Yacht (c. 1873), by James Tissot.  Private Collection.

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The Captain’s Daughter (1873), by James Tissot.  www.the-athenaeum.org

Tissot then begins to use this prop with some psychological sophistication.  In The Return from the Boating Trip (1873) and Waiting at the Station, Willesden Junction (1874), the tartan blanket not only provides the red necessary to the composition, but it adds a note of modern self-reliance to the women holding it.  With the blanket draped over their arms, Tissot depicts them providing for their own needs and ensuring their own comfortable mobility.

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The Return from the Boating Trip (1873), by James Tissot.  Private Collection.

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Waiting at the Station (Willesden Junction, 1874), by James Tissot.  Dunedin Public Art Gallery, New Zealand.  www.the-athenaeum.org

Later in the decade, Tissot uses a red tartan blanket as a fashion statement.  In The Thames (c. 1876), the woman on the left has covered her gown quite elegantly with it.

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The Thames (1876), by James Tissot. Oil on canvas, 28.5 by 46.5 in. (72.5 by 118 cm). Hepworth Wakefield Art Gallery, Wakefield, UK. Courtesy of The Bridgeman Art Library for use in “The Hammock: A novel based on the true story of French painter James Tissot” by Lucy Paquette, © 2012.

In Portsmouth Dockyard (1877), the woman on the right has wrapped Tissot’s tartan blanket over her shoulders and torso; it echoes the color and pattern of the Highlander’s uniform and hose.  The woman on the left carries a black and white blanket that matches her ensemble.

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Portsmouth Dockyard (How Happy I Could be with Either, c. 1877), by James Tissot.  Tate Britain, London.  www.the-athenaeum.org

By the end of the decade, Tissot uses two different tartan blankets, one wrapped around a woman and another swaddling her baby, in a painting with an overall red palette that evokes a palpable sense of danger and excitement, The Emigrants (c. 1879).

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The Emigrants (c. 1879), by James Tissot. Oil on panel, 15.5 by 7 in. (39.4 by 17.8 cm). Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo: Wikimedia.org)

After a decade of using a traveling blanket to add interest to various oil paintings, Tissot reverted to relying on it for a splash of color, as in By Water (Waiting at Dockside, c. 1881-82).

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By Water (Waiting at Dockside, c. 1881-82), by James Tissot.

Just as he painted women’s fashions so skillfully, James Tissot showcased his extraordinary technical skills when portraying patterns such as stripes, checks and plaids.  He made efficient use of the red tartan blanket prop for color, visual interest, psychological insight, and a clever appeal to his British clients.

Related posts:

Victorians on the Move, by James Tissot

Tissot in the U.S.: The Speed Museum, Kentucky

Tissot’s Study for the family of the Marquis de Miramon (1865)

CH377762©  2017 by Lucy Paquette.  All rights reserved.

If you do not have a Kindle e-reader, you may download free Kindle reading apps for PCs, Smartphones, tablets, and the Kindle Cloud Reader to read The Hammock:  A novel based on the true story of French painter James Tissot.  Read reviews.

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).

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