To cite this article: Paquette, Lucy. “James Tissot’s Prints at the Zimmerli Art Museum.” The Hammock. https://thehammocknovel.wordpress.com/2019/11/14/james-tissots-prints-at-the-zimmerli-art-museum/. <Date viewed.>
Although they are seldom on display, James Tissot’s prints are included in numerous public and university art collections worldwide.
Through March 29, 2020, and concurrent with the Tissot retrospective on the West Coast of the U.S., admirers of the artist’s work on the East Coast have the perfect opportunity to appreciate a group of Tissot’s etchings, drypoints and mezzotints at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
The collection of Tissot’s prints at the Zimmerli, a teaching museum founded in 1966, was established with five works in 1972 and has doubled with the recent acquisition of the Prodigal Son series and Ces dames des chars, from the series La Femme à Paris (The Parisian Woman), all on view for the first time.
Intimate Details: Prints by James Tissot, organized by Dr. Christine Giviskos, Curator of Prints, Drawings, and European Art, showcases Tissot’s mastery of the medium in a focused and admirably straightforward display that informs, then lets his work speak for itself.
The exhibition brochure, a substantial resource document for visitors available in the gallery, provides the history of Tissot’s etchings and explains the techniques he used for his prints, almost all of which reproduced his painted compositions. Concise wall labels offer just enough specific context to each print; the real experience for visitors is the visual feast of the Zimmerli’s holdings of prints by this extraordinarily talented, versatile and productive artist, and the secluded, brightly-lit Volpe Gallery is ideal for close study and contemplation.
The oldest print in the collection, and one of the first to be acquired is Matinée de printemps (Spring Morning), 1875, after the oil painting of the same name now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Though the print is a less detailed version of the painting (and in reverse), Tissot’s artistry with the drypoint needle is evident in his rendering of the pattern of stripes undulating throughout the folds of the woman’s gown, and the highlights and shadows with its drapery. The wall label notes that when this print was exhibited in Paris in 1876, a colleague of Tissot’s assured him of its “great success” there.
Another print acquired by the Zimmerli in 1972, Entre les deux mon coeur balance (How Happy I Could be with Either), 1877, is lushly detailed, almost photographic in its complexity. The exquisitely living, breathing figures in the foreground are juxtaposed against the dark drama of the hulking ship in the background. Tissot had so mastered the medium by this time that not only pattern, but surface textures are visible. To this, Tissot brought sensory experience such as the feeling of the warmth of the women’s lap blankets and the movement of the water. This is no mere reproduction of Portsmouth Dockyard (c. 1877, Tate) the oil painting exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877, but a mesmerizing image that demonstrates how Tissot’s etchings were each works of art in themselves.
The Frontispiece, a deft trompe l’oeil book whose open pages display the Scripture verses of the Parable of the Prodigal Son that Tissot illustrates in four scenes, reads, “Invented, Painted & Etched by J.J. Tissot, 1881. 17, Grove End Rd. St. John’s Wood, LONDON,” in the lower right corner. These etchings are based on The Prodigal Son series of four oil paintings (Museé d’Arts de Nantes, France).
In L’enfant prodigue: Le départ (The Departure), Tissot skillfully conveys the effect of lighting diffused through the fabric window shades to set the mood and enliven the room’s architectural details and furnishings.
In the next etching in the series, L’enfant prodigue: en pays étranger (In Foreign Climes), Tissot demonstrates a virtuoso’s understanding of light, shade, pattern and perspective in the fastidious definition of the straw floor mat and the up-lighting on the faces and below the lanterns.
The series is completed with Le retour (The Return) and Le veau gras (The Fatted Calf).
In the Zimmerli’s most recently-acquired etching, a proof or trial impression of Ces dames des chars (The Chariot Women, a subject from his fifteen-painting series, La Femme à Paris, or Women of Paris), Tissot also uses drypoint to produced sharply focused elements including the sense of strong illumination from the electric sconces at the Paris Hippodrome, the play of light over the glittering armor of the women’s costumes, and even the architecture and the audience members. In the area below the print plate, his experimentation with the spacing and density of etched lines show his meticulous attention to the effects of light and color gradation he could create as he translated a colorful painted composition into a monochromatic image. Tissot’s precision is so delightful that a magnifying glass like the one mounted on a wall in the nearby photography gallery would be a welcome addition to the display.
The year after the death of his young mistress and muse, Tissot reproduced his oil painting, Le banc de jardin (The Garden Bench, 1883, private collection), as a mezzotint – created with a velvety texture suiting the nostalgic scene of Kathleen Newton, her two children from previous relationships, and a niece. This creates an image in which details throughout are not as sharp, but the fur, hair, faces, costumes, and even the bow atop Mrs. Newton’s bonnet are soft and warm against a generalized background of the garden at his home in St. John’s Wood, London.
It is so rare that James Tissot’s prints are the sole basis of an exhibition that, other than the 2017 exhibition, Tissot Prints, at the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama, the last was possibly held in 1978 at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, when its publication of Michael Wentworth’s James Tissot: Catalogue Raisonné of His Prints was accompanied by an exhibition of the same name.
In his lifetime, Tissot’s prints were extremely popular in London and Paris, and they remain desirable to today’s collectors. Amid what Dr. Giviskos terms “the vagaries of Tissot’s reputation,” the technical brilliance of his etchings has been overlooked – and she suggests it may not be long before James Tissot is recognized as one of the master print makers of the nineteenth century.
The Zimmerli has particularly strong print holdings in nineteenth-century French art and American art.
For those who miss this exhibition, the Study Room is open by appointment, offering the opportunity to examine prints as well as drawings, photographs, rare books and archives.
Special thanks to
Theresa C. Watson, Communications Coordinator
Christine Giviskos, Curator of Prints, Drawings, and European Art
Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University
© 2019 by Lucy Paquette. All rights reserved.
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