To cite this article: Paquette, Lucy. “James Tissot: Fashion & Faith, a retrospective at the Legion of Honor.” The Hammock. https://thehammocknovel.wordpress.com/2019/12/16/james-tissot-fashion-faith-a-retrospective-at-the-legion-of-honor/. <Date viewed.>
James Tissot hasn’t always been in fashion, but he always had faith in his vision and in his legacy.
Opening this major retrospective exhibition of his work with a showstopper – October (1877), a monumental oil painting of the love of his life, the vibrant young Kathleen Newton teasingly skipping ahead of us, looking over her shoulder at us as if to invite us in – was an inspired decision by curator Melissa E. Buron, director of the art division at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor art museum, where James Tissot: Fashion and Faith is on view through February 9, 2020.
By 1870, at age 34, James Tissot (1836–1902) was a financially successful painter with an opulent new Parisian villa and studio near the Arc de Triomphe. Handsome and charming, his friends included the painters James McNeill Whistler, Edgar Degas, and Édouard Manet. When the Prussians attacked Paris that year, Tissot became a sharpshooter defending the besieged capital. After the Commune, a bloody civil uprising in the spring of 1871, he moved to London for a decade and rebuilt his career, found and lost love, and returned to Paris in 1882 to find himself out of step with his peers who had founded and fostered the movement that became known as Impressionism. He began again, this time achieving international fame.
In the same way that the Vanderbilts’ Gilded Age Biltmore estate in Asheville, North Carolina is the perfect setting for the current Downton Abbey exhibition, San Francisco’s elegant Legion of Honor Museum is the perfect setting for this James Tissot retrospective, the first major international exhibition on Tissot in twenty years, and the first ever on the West Coast of the United States. A smaller replica of the imposing neoclassical Palais de la Légion d’Honneur in Paris, the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, with its colonnaded courtyard, was completed in 1924, built on a bluff overlooking the Golden Gate. While Downton-esque escapism may not be everyone’s cup of tea, an open mind may discover a cerebral, enigmatic artist with a heart-rending personal story.
Co-organized by the Musées d’Orsay et de l’Orangerie, Paris, the exhibition includes approximately 70 paintings from public and private collections in addition to drawings, prints, photographs, and cloisonné enamels, in an effort to provide a new perspective on James Tissot for visitors who are familiar with him – and, certainly, to provide an introduction for those who are not. Arranged “chrono-thematically,” the show’s galleries move us back and forth in time a bit to organize the work of a career that began in Paris in the 1850s, relocated to London from 1871 to 1882, and moved back to Paris, each era featuring its own subjects and styles.
The first gallery introduces us to Tissot’s work with his remarkably modern Self-Portrait (c. 1865), from the Legion of Honor’s collection. From there, it’s a visual feast of some of Tissot’s most gorgeous images, painted when he was at the height of his success in Paris prior to 1870 and then in London during the 1870s. These are smallish oil paintings, suited for collectors’ walls, some of which reflect the contemporary craze for Asian art: Young Women Looking at the Chinese Temple (1869), The Japanese Scroll (1872-1873), and The Fan (1875). The Partie Carrée (1870), painted in Paris before Tissot emigrated to England, shows his sexy side, while in a later gallery, Too Early (1873), exhibited at the Royal Academy, indicates his subsequent need to conform to the more prim tastes of the London market while also showcasing his flair for modern subjects and his unique wit. Surprises abound in this exhibition, and one in this gallery is Two Figures at the Door (The Proposal), (1872), previously unknown to contemporary scholars and displayed in public for the first time.
The next gallery features canvases from Tissot’s early years, when he painted “medieval” subject matter. These often were scenes from Goethe’s 1808 version of the legend of Faust, who sells his soul to Mephistopheles, the devil, in return for youth, knowledge and magical powers; Faust meets and seduces the beautiful and innocent Marguerite, who comes to an unhappy end. On another wall are images Tissot created during the Franco-Prussian War, when he defended Paris as a sharpshooter. The Wounded Soldier (c. 1870), a watercolor purchased by the Tate in 2016, is a singularly beautiful image of a restless young man in uniform perched on the arm of a sofa and quite possibly Tissot’s most sensitive, profound, and arresting work. He kept it in his studio all his life, never exhibiting it.
A capacious semi-circular gallery provides a dramatic display area for some of the fifteen large-scale oil paintings comprising Tissot’s La Femme à Paris series (Women of Paris, c. 1883-1885): The Shop Girl, Provincial Woman, The Bridesmaid, The Artists’ Wives, and The Ladies of the Chariots, an extravaganza of glittering circus performers on horseback under the electric lights of the Hippodrome de l’Alma, built in 1877 to accommodate up to eight thousand spectators. To the side is a smaller canvas, a study for a painting in the series called “The Sphinx” (Woman in an Interior), depicting the well-connected and artistic Louise Riesener, to whom Tissot was briefly engaged before she decided that he was too old for her.
A gallery devoted to Tissot’s portraits overwhelms with stunning images of individuals who leap off the canvas like characters from a budget-busting Masterpiece Theatre drama chronicling the Second Empire and Victorian high life – the very modern and direct Mlle L.L. (1864), the cozy group of the Marquis and Marquise de Miramon and their children (1865), the Marquise de Miramon (1866) in her boudoir, wearing a luscious pink velvet peignoir, the pensive man of business Aimé Seillière (1866) with his coat over his arm as he heads out the door, and a highlight, Miramon lounging with eleven impeccably-tailored members of the exclusive Circle of the rue Royale (1868). There are outsized personalities, including the debonair and long-legged Captain Frederick Burnaby, the debt-ridden cad who was briefly Tissot’s art dealer, Algernon Moses Marsden, and, of course, the glowing, beloved and doomed Kathleen Newton.
In another gallery, some of Tissot’s most iconic London pictures are displayed: The Captain’s Daughter (1873), The Ball on Shipboard (c. 1874), London Visitors (1873-1874), The Letter (1874), The Thames (1875), Holyday (1876), Chrysanthemums (c. 1876), The Gallery of HMS “Calcutta” (Portsmouth) (c. 1876), Croquet (1877-1878), and Evening (also known as The Ball, 1878). Afternoon Tea (also known as In the Conservatory, 1874), is on display for the first time since 1955.
The exhibition segues into joyful images of the domestic idyll at Tissot’s villa in St. John’s Wood, London, where the divorced Mrs. Newton’s children and nieces are shown scampering inside and out in paintings such as Hide and Seek (c. 1877), Kathleen Newton at the Piano (c. 1880-1881), and The Little Nimrod, c. 1882-1883. These merry, well-dressed children at play, with a loving mother, present a vision of a harmonious family life as appealing to us as it was to the Victorians. These scenes are followed on a more subdued note by sad images of Kathleen Newton in declining health.
James Tissot, who moved from coastal Nantes to the capital city of Paris to study art and soon became immensely affluent and prominent, strove, failed, succeeded, fought, and suffered – along the way provoking envy and spite – and then repeated the cycle in London. He made friends easily but lost some, notably Degas, as well. Tissot was not venerated, even though he, at the end, aimed to be, because he expected to be remembered as the visionary illustrator of the Bible, which brought him unprecedented wealth and acclaim in the decades before his death. Never-before-published photographs of Tissot provide us a glimpse of his private life, in his later years, at his secluded château in eastern France with family and friends.
In spite of the paintings of Mrs. Newton’s drawn-out death from tuberculosis, a scourge of the time that even Tissot could not disregard, and even including his praiseworthy images of soldiers during Franco-Prussian War, there is something optimistic about his oeuvre, with none of Degas’ misogyny or Manet’s demoralized barmaids or drunks. Tissot proved he could skewer those in power, as in his caricature of Napoléon III for Vanity Fair in 1869 – a year before the emperor sent France into an unwinnable war with Prussia. In Tissot’s portraits and his paintings of domestic bliss with Kathleen Newton, he portrayed people in their best light, while many of his pictures are notable for their psychological ambiguity or tension – moodiness, quarrels, shady situations, vulgarity, frustration, even anger – with a soupçon of urbane naughtiness and wit all his own. Ms. Buron observes that Tissot was generous to viewers of his oil paintings, providing exquisite details for them to enjoy.
James Tissot’s particular brand of truth, beauty, and humor was recognized by Vincent van Gogh, in an 1880 letter to his brother, Theo: “There is something of the human soul in his work and that is why he is great, immense, infinite…”
The exhibition reaches its denouement in a small, final gallery highlighting the recently rediscovered oil painting, The Apparition (1885), showing the spirit of Kathleen Newton as Tissot experienced it during a séance. A wall of the gallery is lined with a selection of Tissot’s watercolor illustrations for The Life of Christ, their blend of mysticism and spiritualism the subject Ms. Buron has chosen for her Ph.D. thesis. In a corner vitrine is a more material contribution she has made to this retrospective: her own copy of the illustrated “Tissot Bible,” a gift from her husband.
The show is, beyond an important retrospective of a lesser-known artist’s work, a gift to us from a curator captivated and challenged by an intriguing individual so confident in his own talent that he declined Degas’ exhortation to exhibit with the Impressionists. This decision, along with his move to London, put James Tissot in the position of being neither fully a French painter nor a British one, and his reputation has suffered.
Yet as this exhibition so sumptuously demonstrates, Tissot’s legacy in our age is that faith and beauty will always be in fashion.
James Tissot: Fashion and Faith is co-organized by Paul Perrin and Marine Kisiel, Curators of Paintings at the Musées d’Orsay et de l’Orangerie, Paris, where the exhibition will be on view from March 23 through July 19, 2020, and Cyrille Sciama, Director of Musée des impressionnismes Giverny.
© 2019 by Lucy Paquette. All rights reserved.
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