In 1885, when James Tissot could have retired a wealthy man, he reinvented himself. He had earned a total of 1,200,000 francs during his years painting in London (1871 to 1882), largely for the newly-wealthy industrialists of the capital and cities in the north. His stylish images of fashionable women and the leisured life in Victorian England sold for high prices as “modern” art for those who wished to establish themselves as men of taste.
But Tissot had returned to Paris immediately after the death of Kathleen Newton, his beautiful young mistress and muse, from tuberculosis in November, 1882. His brilliant early career in the French capital was in the past, and he had tried, and failed, to reclaim his place in the French art world as a painter of modern life with his La Femme à Paris (The Parisian Woman) series, exhibited at the Galerie Sedelmeyer, Paris, from April 19 to June 15, 1885, as “Quinze Tableaux sur la Femme à Paris.”
Tissot tried to contact Kathleen Newton through a series of séances, fashionable at the time.
On May 20, 1885, at a séance in London conducted by English medium William Eglington (1857–1933) [who had been exposed as a fraud as early as 1876 but nevertheless enjoyed a successful career], Tissot recognized the female of two spirits who appeared as Kathleen, and he asked her to kiss him.
The spirit is said to have done so, several times, with “lips of fire.” Then she shook hands with Tissot and disappeared.
He made this image of the vision, L’apparition médiunimique, to commemorate their reunion.
That year, James Tissot had another vision, “a strange and thrilling picture” of Christ. In 1885, while in the Saint-Sulpice church in Paris looking for inspiration for his final painting of the La Femme à Paris series, Musique sacrée (Sacred Music), which depicted a fashionable woman singing a duet with a nun in the organ loft of a church, Tissot experienced a religious revelation. He portrayed it in The Ruins (Inner Voices) and decided he would dedicate the rest of his life to illustrating of the Bible.
Tissot traveled to the Middle East to research his illustrated Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ between October 1886 and March 1887, visiting sites in Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria. To make his work as authentic and realistic as possible, he made drawings, notes and photographs of the architecture, topography, and historical costumes, and he sought local models for the main figures.
While Tissot (and his surrogates) created the myth that he devoted the remainder of his life solely to this ambitious religious project, he was able to publicize it, and his spiritual goals, while quietly leading a life among the upper echelon of Parisian Society. He executed about forty portraits of aristocratic French women and other beautiful, wealthy women in sumptuous Belle Époque settings from the mid-1880s to the early 1890s, most often using pastels, as in Portrait of Clotilde Briatte, Comtesse Pillet-Will (c. 1883 – 1885); the wife of an immensely wealthy banker, she would go on to write several books on the occult under the pseudonym Charles d’Orino.
And Tissot saw to it that his career was progressing in other areas. In 1886, he exhibited his Women of Paris series at Arthur Tooth and Sons, London as Pictures of Parisian Life by J.J. Tissot, and he exhibited with the Société d’aquarellistes français in Paris; 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.
His father died in 1888, leaving him the Château de Buillon, near Besançon in eastern France, that he had purchased in 1845. During Tissot’s remaining years, he lived partly in his eclectically-furnished villa in Paris and partly at the imposing Château, enlarging it and embellishing the extensive grounds.
In 1889, Tissot made a second trip to the Middle East to conduct further research for his Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
He continued to show his work widely; in 1889, he exhibited his Prodigal Son series, for which he won a gold medal, and an oil portrait at the Exhibition Universelle, Paris. In 1893, he exhibited his Prodigal Son series again, along with a pastel portrait, in the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Then, at the Paris Salon of 1894, Tissot 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, but Daudet had to vociferously defend them to realist painter Jean-François Raffaëlli, who thought them “revolting.”
French writer and art and literary critic Edmond de Goncourt recorded it all, simultaneously impressed by Tissot’s success and critical of what he saw as a “medicore” effort to depict the supernatural.
[Goncourt seemed always ambivalent about Tissot, disparaging his successful career in England in an 1874 journal entry terming Tissot an “ingenious exploiter of English idiocy,” but nevertheless had Tissot illustrate the novel he wrote with his brother, Renée Mauperin, published in 1884, with the main character modeled by Kathleen Newton.]
And my new research finds that on May 30, 1894 Tissot was among the guests at the extravagant garden party given by poet, bibliophile and Society taste-maker Robert, Comte de Montesquiou. The highbrow “fête littéraire” was in celebration of his 458 million franc restoration of an eighteenth-century pavilion in Versailles, half a mile from the palace. The event featured an entire orchestra playing from a garden grove, and Sarah Bernhardt was one of the three stars of the Parisian stage who performed for the aristocrats and luminaries under the canvas roof of a rococo theater built in the center of the garden, surrounded by blue hydrangeas. During a brief intermission, guests could amble into Montesquiou’s Japanese greenhouse, filled with chrysanthemums, potted bonsai, and rare plants and birds.
Princes and princesses, counts and countesses – almost all of the gratin, or upper crust, turned out, including a few of the club members who commissioned Tissot to portray them in his 1868 group portrait, The Circle of the Rue Royale, Comte Étienne de Ganay (1833-1903) and Marquis Alfred du Lau d’Allemans (1833-1919). Tissot was socializing among the most exclusive Belle Époque Society.
Other illustrious guests included the glamorous 33-year-old, Worth-gowned Élisabeth, the Comtesse Greffulhe, who helped establish the art of American-born painter James Whistler and actively promoted artists including French Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau, sculptor Auguste Rodin, and Parisian Society portraitist Antonio de la Gándara.
The Comtesse Greffulhe and the host, her uncle, were among the eccentrics who served as inspiration for characters in Marcel Proust’s seven-volume novel, In Search of Lost Time (1913–1927). Proust, then an unknown university student invited only to write about the party, described it all in detail in Le Gaulois the next day, using the pseudonym “Tout-Paris.” He likened it to a dream, “where, for a few hours, we believed we were living in the days of Louis XIV!”
Tissot knew and was on friendly terms with many of the famous guests, including Gándara, Paris-based Italian painter Giovanni Boldini, and painter Paul Helleu, who was introduced to Tissot in London by Jacques-Emile Blanche in 1885.
Tissot’s good friend, writer Julia Daudet, was there. At some time during 1885, she had arranged a match between Tissot and Louise Riesener, (1860 – 1944), the granddaughter of portrait painter Henri Riesener (1767 – 1828), and a daughter of the painter Léon Riesener (1808-1878). The 25-year-old Louise, whom Tissot depicted as The Sphinx (Woman in an Interior) in his La Femme à Paris series, broke the engagement to the 49-year-old Tissot after seeing him at an unflattering angle in a foyer.
Also present at the party was author and journalist Aurélien Scholl (1833 – 1902), who in the months either before or after this engagement was pursuing, along with Tissot, a curvaceous circus performer depicted in a form-fitting costume and pink tights in another painting from La Femme à Paris, L’Acrobate (The Tightrope Dancer, 1883-85).
But these romances were long over. In 1895, Tissot exhibited the complete series of 365 Life of Christ illustrations in Paris, making arrangements for their publication. At about the same time, he was busy working as a Society portraitist. Tissot’s pastel portrait, Portrait of a Young Woman in a Conservatory, was completed in 1895, and two other pastels, Comtesse d’Yanville and Her Four Children and The Princesse de Broglie, date from about that year.
The Princess de Broglie, née Louise Marie Madeleine Leboeuf de Montgermont (1869-1929), was the daughter of a diplomat and the granddaughter of the owner of the Creil-Montereau faience factory and regent of the Banque de France. In 1886, she bought the Hôtel de Castries, a Paris mansion built in the late seventeenth century, and in 1890, she married Prince Louis Antoine de Broglie-Revel (1862-1958) at the neo-Gothic Basilica of Saint Clotilde in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. In Tissot’s portrait, she was still in her twenties, mother to two of the five children she would bear. The Princesse de Broglie, and perhaps Tissot’s other sitters, attended the Comte de Montesquiou’s garden party in 1894, certainly an excellent business opportunity for Tissot.
Montesquiou was a snob with a venomous tongue, but he and Tissot were friends and fellow collectors, sharing an interest in japonisme and the fashion for spiritualism and séances.
On December 15, 1895, a glowing, even fawning, nine-page review on Tissot’s Life of Christ illustrations appeared in the glossy magazine Revue Illustré – written by the Comte de Montesquiou, a contributor to numerous periodicals from June 1894 to February 1900.
Montesquiou noted, “We owe it to the kindness of MM. Mame, the publishers of the marvelous work, La Vie de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ, the good fortune of reproducing here some of the most beautiful of Tissot’s compositions.” In fact, the good fortune was Tissot’s – after ten years of labor, albeit amid the splendid distractions of the Belle Époque, he had arranged with the firm Mame et fils, of Tours, to publish the pictures in 1896-97, and the reproduction rights of their two editions would make him far wealthier than he had ever been.
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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).
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