James Tissot’s working methods reflected his academic training in Paris. Before executing the final version of a picture, he made meticulous studies of its composition as well as detailed studies of the figures in it. Often, he experimented with different poses and positions within the work.
On a recent trip to the Tate Britain, I was able to view one of Tissot’s studies for the kneeling figure in Jeunes femmes regardant des objets japonais (Young Women looking at Japanese Objects, 1869). The study is not on display, but one of the joys of conducting research in London is having access to works in storage by appointment. It felt like a great luxury to view this and other treasures in the privacy of the Tate Study Room.
Tissot enrolled at the Académie des Beaux-Arts on March 9, 1857, though there is little documentation on the regularity of his attendance at classes, which included mathematics, anatomy and drawing, but not painting. He studied painting independently under Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin (1809 – 1864) and Louis Lamothe (1822 – 1869), both of whom had been students of the great Neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780 – 1867) and taught his principles. Flandrin, who had earned a first-class medal at the Paris Exhibition of 1855, was a prolific artist, and he increasingly directed his students to his former student, Louis Lamothe. Lamothe was a clear and precise draftsman with a passion for detail, and Tissot acknowledged that his own work was significantly influenced by Lamothe’s instruction.
James Tissot quickly achieved success in the Second Empire art establishment, through a combination of artistic virtuosity, confidence, charm and financial aptitude. In 1866, thirty-year-old James Tissot bought land to build a villa on the most prestigious of Baron Haussmann’s grand new boulevards, the eleven-year-old avenue de l’Impératrice (now avenue Foch). By the Salon of 1868, Tissot had occupied his newly built mansion: the intriguing details in La Cheminée (The Fireplace, c. 1869, private collection) and L’escalier (The Staircase, 1869, private collection) almost certainly were painted from its opulent interior.
Tissot’s studio, a showcase for his renowned collection of Japanese art, became a landmark to see when touring Paris – and, for Tissot, it was a brilliant marketing tool to attract commissions. His collection of Japanese art and objets had grown to include a model of a Japanese ship, a Chinese shrine and hardwood table, and a Japanese black lacquered household altar, along with dozens of embroidered silk kimonos, Japanese dolls, folding screens and porcelains. In 1869, he assimilated these exotic items into elegant compositions in three similar paintings featuring young women looking at Japanese objects. [See James Tissot’s brilliant marketing tool, 1869.]
The drawing at the Tate reveals how Tissot experimented with the composition of one of the versions of this picture, in studies for the figure of the woman in black, kneeling to get a better look at the details painted on the folding screen.
He initially drew the woman kneeling, looking slightly to the right so that her face is not in full profile. Then, to the side, he sketched a second version of her head turned slightly left, so that while she still is not in full profile, we see more of her face as well as her chic hat.
Between the two head studies, Tissot sketches a more graceful position of the fingers the woman holds under her chin. In the painting, we can see that he chose to use the second option for her right hand.
But he knew from the beginning how he wanted to paint her left hand, though he decides to part her little finger and raise it slightly, in a more graceful gesture.
In his studies, Tissot uses only a few pencil strokes in delineating the woman’s lovely face. In the finished painting, Tissot chose to present her in full profile.
Tissot’s work is known (and often derided) for showing every ruffle and trim of fabric on the women’s costumes. Interestingly, even his study shows every detail of each pleat, flounce, and drape of fabric, though the woman’s gown in the painting differs. For example, the cuff in the study is wider than that in the painting. The tiers of pleated flounces at the bottom of the skirt are different in the painting, and so is the hat. This drawing indicates that while Tissot made careful preparatory studies, he was not bound by them in his finished paintings.
It is amusing to imagine him seated at his easel before a beautiful live model, completely lost in his work and constitutionally incapable of merely sketching the outline of the gown or indicating its trimmings with the few quick strokes he used in his studies of the woman’s face.
A special thank you to the wonderful staff at the Tate Britain Study Room.
© 2017 by Lucy Paquette. All rights reserved.
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