Tag Archives: Legion of Honor

What happens at the Tissot Symposium…stays at the Tissot Symposium?

To cite this article: Paquette, Lucy. “What happens at the Tissot Symposium…stays at the Tissot Symposium?The Hammock. https://thehammocknovel.wordpress.com/2020/02/13/what-happens-at-the-tissot-symposium-stays-at-the-tissot-symposium/. <Date viewed.>

 

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Melissa Buron and Lucy Paquette

When I visited James Tissot: Fashion and Faith at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco with my husband in November, 2019, curator Melissa E. Buron spent the morning showing us through the galleries.

I’d be lying if I said I sedately strolled through these rooms, each spilling into another, all gleaming with Tissot paintings – of course I darted, mid-sentence, from picture to picture, many of which were on loan from private collections or from institutions I have not yet visited. I recall squealing rather indecorously. We talked nonstop, sharing our thoughts and experiences. Melissa and I have a kindred…well, obsession with Tissot. Over lunch, she asked me to present at the exhibition’s closing symposium, February 8-9, 2020.

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Cassandra Sciortino, Melissa Buron and Peter Trippi discussing Tissot during Scholar’s Hours in the Exhibition galleries

It was an honor to be invited to present at this symposium and to meet interesting colleagues working across a wide range of subjects related to Tissot studies.

I made new friends and enjoyed the collegial sharing of information within a larger community of “Tissotistes.”

It was 48 hours of non-stop Tissot immersion, which may sound fairly deranged, but akin to spending a whirlwind weekend at Disneyland: magical, hectic, and focused on an outsized character.

My presentation was one of eight, four on Saturday and four on Sunday, before an audience of museum members, interested professionals, and the public, in the Legion of Honor’s elegant Gunn Theater:

 

February 8, 2020, Part I: “Fashion”

2020_02, Newton sign, IMG_4818 (1)“Behind-the-Scenes: Revealing Tissot’s Paint Technique,” by Sarah Kleiner, Associate Paintings Conservator, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco

“Chicks with Guns: Tissot’s The Crack Shot and Women’s Relationship to Firearms,” by Nancy Rose Marshall, Professor of Art History, University of Wisconsin-Madison

“James Tissot and ‘the little class’ of the Belle Époque,” by Lucy Paquette, independent art historian

“‘The Impresario:’ Degas – or Tissot?” by Anthea Callen, a frequent expert on BBC’s Fake or Fortune?, Professor Emeritus of Art, Australian National University, Canberra, and Professor Emeritus of Visual Culture, University of Nottingham, U.K.

 

February 9, 2020, Part II: “Faith”

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The Legion of Honor’s lovely Gunn Theater

“Solving the mysteries of Kathleen Newton’s life: New findings and facts,” by Krystyna Matyjaszkiewicz, independent curator and art historian

“Scientists and Spiritualists Imaging Ghosts at the fin de siècle,” by Serena Keshavjee, Professor of Art and Cultural Studies, University of Winnipeg

“Tissot’s travelogue from the Holy Land,” by Paul Perrin, Curator of Paintings, Musée d’Orsay, Paris

“James Tissot: The Afterlife of an Exhibition,” by Melissa Buron, Director, Art Division, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco

 

The presentations were videotaped, and the Legion of Honor has posted links on YouTube: February 8, 2020, Part I: “Fashion” and February 9, 2020, Part II: “Faith”. You can view mine, “James Tissot and ‘the little class’ of the Belle Époque,” (on the link to February 8, from 1:16 to 1:46), as well as the others in these two videos, such as:

James Tissot, 1865 c, Self Portrait, IMG_6279               James Tissot, 1869 c, Melancholy, IMG_6264

  • Sarah Kleiner’s fascinating analysis, from results of a two-year international collaboration, of Tissot’s techniques and materials, and the discovery that his oils, Self-Portrait (c. 1865, above left, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco) and Melancholy (c. 1869, above right, private collection) were painted on two halves of a single panel of mahogany, whose horizontal grain is shown to align by X-radiographs. Such research is useful when dating paintings and considering attribution.
  • Anthea Callen’s meticulous exploration of a theory, originally asserted by Richard Thomson in 1988, that the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco’s oil study, The Impresario (c. 1877), is not by Edgar Degas, but James Tissot. I was sold early in her talk, when she noted that Degas did not do the type of preparatory study in oil that was so characteristic of Tissot’s work. But a side-by-side comparison of The Impresario and Tissot’s paintings, Evening (1878) and The Political Woman (c. 1883-85), was even more convincing.
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PowerPoint slide by Anthea Callen juxtaposing The Impresario (center, currently attributed to Edgar Degas) with James Tissot’s Evening (left) and The Political Woman (right). The poses of the three male figures are strikingly similar.

  • 2020_02, 465px-Palliser, credit Dreadnought Project

    Rear-Admiral H. Bury Palliser at age 56, in Navy & Army Illustrated May 15th 1896. http://www.dreadnoughtproject.org/tfs/index.php/Henry_St._Leger_Bury_Palliser

    Krystyna Matyjaszkiewicz’s exciting archival research on Kathleen Ashburnham Kelly Newton’s life, and her identification of the Naval officer who seduced her on her journey during August and September of 1870, when she was 16 years old, to marry older widower Dr. Isaac Newton in northwest India as Henry St. Leger Bury Palliser (1839–1907). Directly after the wedding, Kathleen admitted her improper relations with Palliser and found herself alone, penniless and pregnant, asking the doctor to pay for her journey back to England. 

[Palliser, often referred to as “Captain Palliser” in relation to Kathleen Newton, was appointed a Commander in the Royal Navy in 1869. He would have been 31 when he met Kathleen Kelly, who was motherless and fresh out of Gumley House Convent School in Isleworth.]

Dr. Newton divorced Kathleen, and she had her baby (her daughter, Violet Newton, December 20, 1871–December 28, 1933) at her father’s house in Conisbrough, Yorkshire, but she soon moved to London, living with her older sister around the corner from James Tissot’s St. John’s Wood villa.

 

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    Head of Saint James the Elder, 1886-1889, Jerusalem, Armenian Cathedral of Saint James. PowerPoint slide by Paul Perrin.

    Paul Perrin’s amazing discovery of an unknown, 60-page handwritten manuscript by James Tissot – a travelogue of his time in the Holy Land, conducting research for his Bible illustrations. A letter from a publisher in New York indicates that Tissot had plans, which never materialized, to publish his manuscript as a travel epic and guide. Paul announced his even more amazing discovery that Tissot’s travelogue led him to a formerly unattributed painting by Tissot, at The Cathedral of Saint James, a 12th-century Armenian church in Jerusalem.

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PowerPoint slide by Melissa Buron

  • Melissa’s emotional adieu to the exhibition, now on its way to Paris, where it will be on view, with some variation, from March 23 through July 19, 2020. She calls James Tissot “the most interesting artist in the 19th century that you’ve never heard of.”

 

But it’s clear that this is changing.

In 2009, when I began researching James Tissot for my book, The Hammock:  A novel based on the true story of French painter James Tissot, there was little popular interest in him, and only a handful of scholars were dedicated to researching his life and work. On Twitter, that barometer of cultural awareness, I was alone in posting images of James Tissot’s wonderful paintings after publishing my novel in 2012 and embarking on my blog, The Hammock, to share more about him.

Marquise de Miramon, Getty Open Content

Portrait of the Marquise de Miramon, née Thérèse Feuillant (1866), by James Tissot. Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

In 2013, Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity, curated by Gloria Groome, now Chair of European Painting and Sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago, was a revelation as an unheralded mini-exhibition of James Tissot’s most spectacular paintings. In New York, at the Met, people (including me) vied for a position close enough to examine the Musée d’Orsay’s relatively new acquisitions, Portrait of the Marquis and Marquise of Miramon and their children and The Circle of the Rue Royale, clearly reluctant to step away from these poignant, exquisite glimpses of a lost world. And yet, Tissot’s reputation was such that a reviewer for The New York Times disparaged the gorgeous Portrait of the Marquise de Miramon as “zealously detailed,” Advertising for this blockbuster exhibition barely mentioned James Tissot – why, when he had no name recognition?

Across the country, Melissa Buron reacted with the same frustration that James Tissot and his work were not receiving their full due when she witnessed the artist’s work overshadowed by his more famous countrymen. She began her efforts towards the Legion of Honor retrospective, and is on the vanguard of a new era of fascination with James Tissot, welcoming new voices and directions in research. Melissa, along with fellow curators Paul Perrin and Marine Kisiel at the Musées d’Orsay et de l’Orangerie, Paris, and Cyrille Sciama, Director of Musée des impressionnismes Giverny, is bringing Tissot’s work to a wider public and redefining his place in the history of 19th century art.

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Tissot scholars indulging in Paul Perrin’s Instagram sensation, #tissotpose

And now, with that new fascination combined with the energy of social media, rather than a few art historians viewing Tissot research as an exclusive domain, Tissot scholarship encompasses everything from a stylish new documentary film on his life and work,  James Tissot, The Ambiguous Figure of Modernity, as France reclaims its former superstar, to stunning recent discoveries of Tissot’s “lost” art, biographical information, and important documents, photographs, and letters that have been “hiding in plain sight,” to Instagram crazes like Paul Perrin’s #tissotpose – and yes, my blog on James Tissot’s life, art, associates and times.

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Importantly, what all this accomplishes is to make James Tissot accessible. And what that accomplishes is to make him popular, when one of the greatest frustrations of Tissot scholars is that he is so much less well-known than his peers such as Edgar Degas and Édouard Manet, or the biggest marketing draw, “The Impressionists.” As museum professionals know, a popular artist makes for a well-attended exhibition, in which efforts to engage, inform, and delight a broader audience can have a much greater opportunity for success and satisfaction.

All of this would be immensely rewarding to James Tissot, who believed in himself and his art enough to decline the invitation to exhibit with the Impressionists, who saw his reputation obscured by theirs but who continued to pursue his own idiosyncratic path, knowing that his work was special, significant – and unforgettable.

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Special thanks to the following staff at the Legion of Honor:

Lexi Paulson
Administrative Coordinator to the Director, Art Division

Isabella Holland
Curatorial Assistant, European Paintings

Danny Cesena
Audio Visual Technical Coordinator

© 2020 by 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. 

Related posts:

James Tissot: Fashion & Faith, a retrospective at the Legion of Honor

James Tissot, the painter art critics still love to hate: a retrospective review round-up

James Tissot, the painter art critics love to hate

A spotlight on Tissot at the Met’s “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity”

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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.

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).

See http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009P5RYVE.

James Tissot, the painter art critics still love to hate: a retrospective review round-up

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.

2-james_tissot_self_portrait_1865-the-legion-of-honor-fine-arts-museums-of-san-francisco-ca-public-domain-image

Self-Portrait (c. 1865), by James Tissot, with “all its mysterious emo glamour.”

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.’ ”

James_Tissot_-_Holyday

Holyday (c. 1876), by James Tissot. Tate Britain.  (Photo: Wikimedia.org)

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.”

James Tissot, 1874, Ball on Shipboard, the-ath

The Ball on Shipboard (c. 1874), by James Tissot. Tate, London. (Photo: the-athenaeum.org)

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.”

Brooklyn_Museum_-_Jesus_Ministered_to_by_Angels_(Jésus_assisté_par_les_anges)_-_James_Tissot_-_overall

Jesus Ministered to by Angels (Jésus assisté par les anges, 1886-1894), by James Tissot.

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.

James Tissot, 1873, Too_Early

Dated and elitist? Too Early (1873), by James Tissot. Guildhall Art Gallery, London. (Photo: Wiki)

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:

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Portrait of Mlle. L.L. (Young Lady in a Red Jacket) (February 1864), by James Tissot.  Museé d’Orsay, Paris.  (Photo: Wikipaintings)

James Tissot, 1869, At the Rifle Range, the-ath

Safe to Win (also known as At the Rifle Range and The Crack Shot, 1869), by James Tissot. Wimpole Hall, Cambridgeshire, U.K. (Photo: Wikipaintings.org)

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The Letter (c. 1878), by James Tissot. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario. (Photo: Wikimedia.org)

Deep breath.

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.”

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The Apparition (1885)(mezzotint), by James Tissot

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.”

James Tissot, 1874 c, London_Visitors, Toledo, with cigar

London Visitors (1874), by James Tissot. Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio, U.S. (Photo: the-athenaeum.org). “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. 

Related Posts:

James Tissot: Fashion & Faith, a retrospective at the Legion of Honor

James Tissot, the painter art critics love to hate

CH377762

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).

See http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009P5RYVE.

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.

James Tissot: Fashion & Faith, a retrospective at the Legion of Honor

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.

James Tissot, Fashion and Faith, wall with October, 1877

Installation view of James Tissot: Fashion & Faith at the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, October 2019 Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

shot in studio, polarized light

James Tissot, “Self Portrait,” ca. 1865. Oil on panel, 19 5/8 x 11 7/8 in. (49.8 x 30.2 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, Mildred Anna Williams Collection, 1961.16 Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

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.

James Tissot, Fashion and Faith, Departure of the Prodigal, 1863

James Tissot (1836-1902). “le départ de l’enfant prodigue”. Huile sur toile. 1863. Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris, Petit Palais. Image provided courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

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.

James Tissot, Fashion and Faith, wall with Femme a Paris

Installation view of James Tissot: Fashion & Faith at the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, October 2019 Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

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.

James Tissot, Fashion and Faith, wall with Circle of the rue Royale

Installation view of James Tissot: Fashion & Faith at the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, October 2019 Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

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.

James Tissot, Fashion and Faith, wall with Ball on Shipboard etc.

Installation view of James Tissot: Fashion & Faith at the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, October 2019 Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

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.

James Tissot, Fashion and Faith, Hide and Seek, 1877

James Tissot, “Hide and Seek,” ca. 1877. Oil on panel, 30 x 23.75 in. (73.4 x 53.9 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, Chester Dale Fund 1978.47.1 Image provided courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

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, Fashion and Faith, What Our Lord Saw from the Cross

James Tissot (French, 1836-1902). What Our Lord Saw from the Cross, 1886-1894. Opaque watercolor over graphite on gray-green wove paper, 9 3/4 x 9 1/16 in. (24.8 x 23 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Purchased by public subscription, Image provided courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

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.

Holyday

James Tissot, French, 1836–1902 “Holyday” (The Picnic) , ca. 1876. Oil on canvas Image: 30 x 39 in. (76.2 x 99.4 cm) Frame: x in. (92.5 x 118.5 cm) Tate Image provided courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

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…”

shot in studio

James Tissot, French, 1836–1902 “L’Apparition Médiunimique” (The Apparition), 1885 Mezzotint 25.375 x 19.375 in. (64.45 x 49.21 cm) Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco 2001.26 Image provided courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

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.

Related posts:

James Tissot’s Prints at the Zimmerli Art Museum

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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).    See http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009P5RYVE.