April 1 is my birthday, and I write an annual April Fool’s Day post, so here’s something fun: an illustrated timeline of James Tissot’s life in Paris during La Belle Époque. It puts him in the context of his time, and it provides us a little escapism.
In 1885, Tissot’s La Femme à Paris series was exhibited at Galerie Sedelmeyer, Paris, along with his collection of the cloisonné enamels he created. Upon his return to Paris after living in England for eleven years following the Franco-Prussian War, he intended this series to reestablish his place in the French art world, but it was not well received.
June 1, 1885 was a day of national mourning for the death of poet and novelist Victor Hugo (1802 – 1885), revered as a national hero for his passionate defense of democracy as well as his contributions to French culture. He had requested a pauper’s funeral but was given a state funeral, and more than two million people followed his coffin as the cortège carried it from the Arc de Triomphe to the Panthéon, where he was buried.
Two days before Hugo’s death, Tissot participated in a séance in London, where he exchanged kisses with an apparition he believed to be his late mistress and muse, Kathleen Newton (1854–1882).
During this year, he became engaged to Louise Riesener (1860 – 1944), daughter of painter Léon Riesener, but she was 25 and he was 49, and she changed her mind.
Tissot also had a brief romance with a tightrope walker in a Paris circus.
Tissot joined the new Société de pastellistes français and exhibited his work. From the mid-1880s to the early 1890s, he executed about forty portraits of aristocratic and Society women, most often in pastel.
In 1886, Tissot exhibited his La Femme à Paris series at Arthur Tooth and Sons, London as “Pictures of Parisian Life by J.J. Tissot”; they were not well received. In Paris, he exhibited with the Société d’aquarellistes français.
But in 1885, James Tissot had a religious revelation, in the Saint-Sulpice church in Paris, and he decided he would dedicate the rest of his life to illustrating of the Bible. Between October 1886 and March 1887, he traveled to the Middle East to research his illustrated Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ visiting sites in Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria to make his work as authentic and realistic as possible.
While Tissot was abroad, work began on an iron tower on the Champs de Mars, to be a centerpiece for the 1889 Exposition Universelle: the foundations of the Eiffel Tower were laid in late January, 1887. A “Committee of Three Hundred” – the most important figures in the cultural life of France – protested that this “gigantic black smokestack” would dominate Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, and other monuments in Paris “in this ghastly dream.”
There is no indication of Tissot’s opinion on Eiffel’s tower; the United Kingdom, rather than Paris, seemed to be his focus. In 1887, he exhibited at least one painting, Waiting for the Ferry at the Falcon Tavern (1874), at Nottingham Castle and at Newcastle-on-Tyne, and in 1888, he exhibited three works at the International Exhibition, Glasgow.
Construction on the Eiffel Tower was proceeding steadily, and by the end of the year, Tissot would have been able to see it from the villa he had built in 1867 near the entrance to the Bois de Boulogne, at the far west end of what is now avenue Foch.
In 1888, Tissot’s father died, leaving him the Château de Buillon, near Besançon, in eastern France. During his remaining years, Tissot lived partly at his villa in Paris and partly at the Château.
But Tissot exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889, winning a gold medal for his Prodigal Son series.
It seems unlikely that Tissot avoided the sophisticated delights of Paris, including its café culture, but in 1889, he left for his second journey to the Middle East to research his illustrated Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
In 1893, focusing on the art market beyond France, he exhibited in the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, displaying his Prodigal Son series and one of his pastel portraits.
But after his long absence as a prominent artist in Paris, James Tissot stole the show at the Salon of 1894.
He exhibited 270 of the ultimate total of 365 drawings for La Vie de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (The Life of Christ).
The pictures were given a gallery and a special catalogue. The public reaction was astonishing: one headline read, “THE CHAMP DE MARS SALON; JAMES TISSOT’S LIFE OF CHRIST A MARVELOUS SERIES. Women Weep as They Pass from Picture to Picture.”
Tissot’s achievement was the talk of Paris; at a dinner party on May 6, 1894 given by Tissot’s longtime friends Alphonse and Julia Daudet, celebrated writer Émile Zola said he was “captivated” by Tissot’s Bible illustrations.
James Tissot’s presence at Robert, Comte de Montesquiou’s extravagant “fête littéraire” at Versailles in 1894, along with princes and princesses, counts and countesses, indicates that Tissot socialized among the upper echelon of Parisian Society, where he found many of the subjects for his pastel portraits.
On January 1, 1895, Parisians awoke to find a startling, life-sized advertisement for Victorien Sardou’s play Gismonda starring Sarah Bernhardt at the Théâtre de la Renaissance in Paris posted on the streets.
Designed by an unknown Czech, Alphonse Mucha, the poster almost immediately was pulled down by collectors.
The new style, or Art Nouveau, was emerging throughout Europe, inspired by the natural, curving lines of plants and flowers. It influenced the decorative arts, architecture, interior design, jewelry, furniture, and fashion. James Tissot’s “modern art” of the 1870s and 1880s was completely outdated, and his realization of this must have contributed to his dedication to his Bible illustrations, which he considered historical accurate and therefore timeless.
In 1895, Tissot exhibited his entire series of 365 Life of Christ illustrations in Paris, and he exhibited the next year in London. La Vie de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ was published in France, and he received a million francs for the reproduction rights. In 1896, he made a third trip to the Middle East, this time to begin an illustrated Old Testament (which would be published in 1904, two years after his death).
About this time, Tissot began work in Paris on a colossal Christ Pantocrator for the high altar of the convent church of the Dominicans in the rue Faubourg Saint-Honoré.
In 1897, he exhibited his Life of Christ illustrations at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and The Life of Our Saviour Jesus Christ was published in London and New York. In December, there was a dedication ceremony for his completed Christ Pantocrator.
Paris, in preparation for the 1900 Exposition Universelle, was growing: the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais were under construction as exhibition halls, and the Alexandre III bridge and the Gare d’Orsay were being built to facilitate the movement of the influx of visitors.
But James Tissot was busy arranging the North American tour of his Life of Christ illustrations. In February, 1898, he visited New York, and in October, he traveled to Chicago, then returned to New York for the opening of his exhibition. His New Testament watercolors toured New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Toronto, Boston, St. Louis, Omaha, and other cities through 1899, to adoring crowds.
The Exposition Universelle was held in Paris from April 14 to November 12, 1900, and nearly fifty million people visited it.
James Tissot, now 64 years old, did not display any of his work.
In 1900, at the end of the North American tour, Tissot’s Life of Christ water-colors and pen-and-ink drawings were purchased by the rapidly expanding Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, now the Brooklyn Museum; the museum’s trustees wanted to attract the crowds that flocked to Tissot’s exhibitions. Tissot set the price at $60,000, an enormous sum that was raised by public donations.
Beginning in 1898, the Paris Métro was under construction. Hector Guimard (1867 – 1942) designed roofed Art Nouveau entrances to the various métro stations. One, the Porte Dauphine station, was built adjacent to Tissot’s villa in the avenue du Bois de Boulogne. Opened in 1900, it is the only original (not reconstructed) Guimard Métro station entrance still on its original site. It was restored in 1999.
James Tissot died in 1902. It is believed that his Paris villa, once visited by “all the princes and princesses,” was demolished in 1906.
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Previous April Fool’s Day posts:
View my video, “The Strange Career of James Tissot” (Length: 2:33 minutes).
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).
NOTE: 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.