To cite this article: Paquette, Lucy. “James Tissot, the painter art critics still love to hate: a retrospective review round-up.” The Hammock. https://thehammocknovel.wordpress.com/2020/01/15/james-tissot-the-painter-art-critics-still-love-to-hate-a-retrospective-review-round-up/. <Date viewed.>
The current James Tissot retrospective, at the Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco until it travels to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris in March, attempts to reassess the artist’s work in the nineteenth-century canon. As of its opening in November, 2019, a number of reviews have been published, collectively providing some idea of the prevailing view of Tissot and his oeuvre and the critical response to the exhibition’s stated objective.
Of the dozen reviews I’ve read, some are more announcements of the exhibition, or merely reiterate information from the Legion of Honor’s press kit. In the latter case, it often was clear that some reviewers did not know what to make of Tissot or his work and were playing it safe.
An early reviewer, for Boomers Daily, noted, “Tissot consistently defied convention in both his professional and personal life,” and that certainly is true.
Art and Antiques Magazine’s review began with the critic referring to Tissot’s c. 1865 Self-Portrait, with “all its mysterious emo glamour,” and commenting, “Tissot made a name for himself as a painter of glossy society pictures. But he ended up – as if he got in the wrong cab after a party one night – as a reclusive painter of Spiritualist and Biblical subjects.” She summarized his oeuvre as “ ‘attractive people doing attractive things in attractive places’…Men are smug and women are bored.”
The reviewer for France-Amerique, the only bilingual French-English publication in the U.S., vacillated: “With a foot in two cultures, a style that refuses categorization, and a dramatic late-career shift in subject matter, he is hard to pin down…Tissot’s meticulous renderings of shipboard balls and elegant picnics have a superﬁcial air of frivolity yet convey enduring human truths to the astute viewer. One reviewer observed that he was ‘looked upon over here as a kind of artistic Zola.’ ”
Apollo Magazine’s critic damned Tissot with faint praise: “the artist comes across as focused, organised, ambitious and immensely hard-working.”
The Wall Street Journal’s critic was muted, leaving the impression she was not a fan but did not wish to be a spoilsport: “But was Tissot more than a fussy society painter? Many critics, then and now, think not.” Comparing him to his peers in England and France, she comments, “Tissot’s art stayed within the lines…[his] subjects seem slight.” She concludes that his paintings “were not necessarily vacuous, as critics have claimed,” adding, “ ‘Faith & Fashion’ surely deepens our understanding of Tissot, and it may convince some visitors that he is underestimated. Still I suspect that for many he may remain just a virtuoso with the brush. And what’s wrong with that?”
Some critics, still, just outright loathe Tissot’s work – and also, strangely, Tissot himself.
The San Francisco Chronicle‘s distinguished art critic, while allowing that the show is “impeccably displayed” and “the historical analysis is first-rate,” reports that “the art itself is often an intellectual letdown.”
He wrote, “One leaves the Legion show with a deep sense of disappointment in an artist who had every advantage – innate skill, early success, inherited wealth and social contacts, a friendship with the Impressionists that saw Edgar Degas inviting him to join one of the most important exhibitions in all art history – but who failed to take the chances and set himself the challenges that might have made him great…With some stunning exceptions, Tissot mostly put that technical skill to producing illustrational bromides.”
While people have their own preferences and affinities, this argument is unsound. In hindsight, the first exhibition of the artists who became known as Impressionists certainly was one of the most important in all art history, but who could have known that at the time, when they were just a loose association of young, frustrated rebels bickering among themselves? Manet thought Renoir, who with Degas was organizing their first independent show, took up painting by mistake and said he would never commit himself with Cezanne, and Degas was not a fan of Monet’s pictures. Tissot did not paint like they did, nor did he have the same perspective or goals; this argument is that he should have known better than to follow his own path. Tissot was proud of his work, and he was true to himself in the way he painted and in the subject matter he chose. Had he merely jumped on the bandwagon and started painting like Renoir and Monet to share in the limelight, he’d have been dismissed by later art historians as derivative. Manet also declined to exhibit with the Impressionists and told Degas, “the Salon is the real field of battle.”
This critic additionally condemns Tissot for the clichéd reason many modern critics have: that Tissot pursued a “lucrative career.” Degas and Manet were on the parental dole into their thirties; Tissot earned his living from the time he moved to Paris at nineteen, drawing portraits of maids and hotel housekeepers for thirty or forty francs a head. All three of them were from wealthy families and received inheritances. Who decreed that an artist is only a genius, or authentic, if they’re above pecuniary considerations? No one wants to be a starving artist. Tissot and Manet both tried to help Degas become more successful before his career began to take off in 1869. In 1868, Manet traveled to London to explore the art market there as “an outlet for our products.” In the early 1870s, Degas repeatedly wrote to Tissot about how to turn a profit from his work; from New Orleans, he wrote, “Here I have acquired the taste for money, and once back I shall know how to earn some I promise you.”
Then there’s the charge of classism, that in “ ‘The Ball on Shipboard’ (circa 1874) and other works of about the same time…Tissot’s high-fashion figures are of a social class far removed from, for example, the T-shirted revelers in Renoir’s famous ‘Luncheon of the Boating Party’ (1881).” This is comical, because critics at the time derided Tissot for portraying, not Society figures, but social climbers in The Ball on Shipboard, one writing, “The girls who are spread about in every attitude are evidently the ‘high life below stairs’ of the port, who have borrowed their mistresses’ dresses for the nonce,” and another declaring that it featured “no pretty women, but a set of showy rather than elegant costumes, some few graceful, but more ungraceful attitudes, and not a lady in a score of female figures.”
The highly credentialed critic for Visual Art Source also detests Tissot, comparing the artist’s “spooky illustrations” of the Bible unfavorably to Michelangelo and Piero della Francesca. Ouch. Who compares favorably to Michelangelo? He observes that the Legion of Honor exhibition is well organized and beautifully presented, but “curiously lacking in [Tissot’s] voice,” and that, “[w]hile a visual delight, it’s not an emotional one.” He adds:
“Tissot’s drawing is sometimes off the mark, with disconnected body parts emerging from the extravagant costumery without evoking the body underneath. The effects sometimes verge on caricature, as in ‘Painters and Their Wives.’ His restrained but knowing satires of the lower orders now look dated and elitist, as in ‘Provincial Woman,’ ‘Too Early,’ and ‘London Visitors.’ The scenarios that he depicts are sometimes lacking in realistic space or lighting, looking as though they were assembled from various parts, without the rhythmic unity and grouping of the Renaissance painters like Carpaccio, an early influence. Check out ‘Departure of the Prodigal Son,’ ‘Return of the Prodigal Son’ and ‘Rue Royale.’ ” This fault with the composition of Tissot’s 1868 portrait of twelve members of the elite private club, the Circle of the rue Royale, has been pointed out many times; the painting is one of the most widely reproduced of Tissot’s images.
While comparing the oranges of James Tissot’s Second Empire and Victorian works to the apples of Renaissance masters, this reviewer does offer some praise for Tissot’s paintings: “Several, such as ‘Safe to Win,’ ‘The Fan,’ ‘Young Women Looking at the Chinese Temple’ and ‘Portrait of the Marquise de Miramon,’ are stunning works of indisputable, irresistible charm and verve,” but he also notes, “Tissot’s more stagy, spiritualized and gauzy images tend toward kitsch.” In the end, he dismisses Tissot’s entire oeuvre as “sensationalist drama, and low-rent entertainment.”
There’s one last sticking point with this critic, however: “The problem for a contemporary #MeToo audience, naturally, lies not in the aesthetic realm but the sociopolitical one. Tissot’s women are delicate, decorative creatures, however gloriously painted…the nineteenth-century status of women has to be considered in the case of Tissot. He was merely one of many artists engaged in the Male Gaze market.” Space does not permit me to address the entire section of this review on this point, but it involves an academic discussion [by Bram Dijkstra in “Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture”] of “bourgeois women of that time, uneducated, confined and cosseted, [who] were projected by their men as the repositories of Christian virtue and innocence…[w]hen they fell short of that…they were misogynistically transformed into the harpies, vampires and succubi of Symbolist art.” Let’s just let Tissot weigh in:
It may be that you either love Tissot, or you hate him, or he’s just not on your map.
The reviewer from the San Francisco Examiner is a fan (or maybe just a hometown booster?), calling James Tissot: Fashion & Faith “a gift to the Bay Area and not to be missed.”
But the brave soul reviewing the retrospective for Hyperallergic put her reputation on the line, openly declaring her feelings: “James Tissot: Fashion & Faith…is a crowd pleaser with…something for everyone…it is wildly likable…What’s more…this is a rare chance to experience the work of an important, but under-known painter.” She wrote, “Tissot was an oddball masquerading as a successful society painter, an artist who’s been shunted aside for not participating in the forward march of capital ‘M’ Modernism.”
While she felt the rediscovered oil painting, The Apparition, is “anemic as a work of art. Too soft and a little vapid,” she termed London Visitors (c. 1874) “weirdly, wonderfully sexy.”
So, is the ambitious goal of the current retrospective being realized – is James Tissot’s reputation being reassessed? Despite now being considered “emo” and “weirdly sexy,” a critical reappraisal of Tissot from the art world at large may be too much to hope for. Recently, I saw a Tweet rejecting Tissot’s work as “middlebrow.” Face it, he’s no taped banana.
Perhaps the important outcome of the current retrospective is that James Tissot’s work is being exhibited before a wider public that enjoys his iconic images of nineteenth century life. When I attended the show, I had to navigate crowded galleries, and someone even pushed the curator aside to get closer to that emo portrait. Vive la bourgeoisie.
© 2020 Lucy Paquette. All rights reserved.
The articles published on this blog are copyrighted by Lucy Paquette. An article or any portion of it may not be reproduced in any medium or transmitted in any form, electronic or mechanical, without the author’s permission. You are welcome to cite or quote from an article provided you give full acknowledgement to the author.
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.