To cite this article: Paquette, Lucy. “Tissot’s Study for ‘Young Lady in a Boat.'” The Hammock. https://thehammocknovel.wordpress.com/2019/08/15/tissots-study-for-young-lady-in-a-boat/. <Date viewed.>
James Tissot’s Study for Young Lady in a Boat (Jeune femme en bateau, 1870), called Pensive Girl Adrift in a Boat, illustrates how quickly and confidently he prepared for his oil paintings. By this time a successful painter with a villa and studio in the avenue de l’Impératrice (now avenue Foch) in Paris, this study appears dashed off in minutes by a professional assured of wealthy and aristocratic patrons. Young Lady in a Boat, now in a private collection, was displayed at the Salon in 1870, one of Tissot’s final two oils exhibited in Paris prior to the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War later that year.
In the collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. but not on view, this study is half the size of the final oil painting. Tissot used red chalk to loosely sketch the contour of the low boat. The central figure is delineated in such precise strokes that it is clear he knew exactly how he wanted to portray the young and beautiful woman: seated, wearing a long-sleeved white muslin prop gown with distinctive cuffs, which he had featured in Unaccepted (1869, private collection) as well as other versions of Young Lady in a Boat, including some entitled On the River. The black straw hat, with its profusion of black and white striped ribbon bows, also is repeated in this composition.
And there is a pug dog – not nestled on the woman’s lap or at her feet, but oddly positioned behind her, on guard at the boat’s stern. As Tissot deftly sketched out options for the shape of the boat and the silhouette of the woman, the study indicates he was certain where he wanted the pug.
Queen Victoria began breeding pugs in the 1860s, and Tissot, well aware of trends in England, included pugs in a number of paintings at this time: La Cheminée (By the Fireside, c. 1869), Unaccepted (1869), Jeune femme en bateau (Young Woman in a Boat, 1870), La partie carrée (The Foursome, 1870), and Vive la République! (Un souper sous le Directoire, c. 1870).
Tissot’s study also indicates his certainty about the background for a picture clearly painted in his studio rather than en plein air: to the woman’s right, the long vertical strokes were realized in the resulting oil as reeds, while the faint horizontal lines behind her indicated the shoreline that echoes the horizontal line of the port side of the boat.
He also knew he wanted the viewer’s eye to travel from the bouquet of flowers in front of the woman diagonally back into the picture space, to her face and on to the pug, and each iteration of his study indicates this composition. In the finished work, the woman, with her skirts and draped shawl, sits higher on the boat than in the studies, and her bouquet is smaller.
With few adjustments, and no apparent redrawn elements or erasures, Tissot rapidly laid out the scene.
Even the woman’s pose was worked out in his mind prior to this study. Her right arm is bent on her lap, with her hand on her chin; her left arm is folded beneath, dangling a fan over her right thigh. But while the inset at the lower right of the study indicates only the placement of the fan, the larger central study indicates the hand would lay over the handle of the fan. In the final composition, Tissot shows the woman, rather coquettishly, barely supporting the fan between her upturned palm; she might be swinging or tapping it. The effect suggests both languor and movement.
Another decision the study helped Tissot make was the shape of the boat. In the large central portion of the study, and in the inset at the lower right, he initially envisioned a skiff with relatively straight sides and a wide, square stern. But in the inset at the lower left, he experimented with curved sides and a narrow stern that draws the viewer’s eye to the pug dog, and this is the shape he used in the oil painting.
Perhaps the most fascinating decision James Tissot made with this study, and the choice that is so characteristic of the enduring charm of his work, is to pivot the woman’s gaze from the right to a frank contemplation of the viewer. She is, in fact, studying us.
As for her guardian pug, a critic at the time remarked that it was “a dog with the head of a monkey…who appears without doubt to be a very rare species.”
© 2019 Lucy Paquette. All rights reserved.
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