Painter who held a mirror in front of the French ruling class


He was inspired by an Irishwoman and was more successful than his impressionist peers

A dozen men sit or stand on the terrace of the Cercle on rue Royale, an exclusive club overlooking Place de la Concorde. They are men of property and substance, captains of industry, symbols of the post-revolutionary alliance between the upper bourgeoisie and the aristocracy. Among them, four marquis, three chiefs, a prince and a baron. From their point of view, they literally dominate Paris.

James Tissot (1836-1902) captured the elegance and confidence of the French ruling class, from the toes of their well-polished shoes to their silk hats. His mastery of perspective is impressive, the subtleties of the decor and the clothes dazzling. With photographic realism, he lists the smallest details of the foliage, the fringe on the armchairs, the reflection on the sherry glasses and the tiles on the houndstooth pants.

Tissot studies with the painters Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin and Louis Lamothe, both students of the great Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Tissot’s artistic lineage is reflected in its sumptuous rendering of clothing. The look and feel of the fabric was in his blood because his father was a textile merchant.

Autoportrait, 1865, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

The look in Tissot’s eyes can be interpreted as calm, mischievous, ambitious or amused

In a decade when Manet scandalized Paris with paintings of naked women, Tissot showed the Second Empire what he wanted to see: himself, in all its materialist grandeur.

Manet and his disciples concluded that photography made the realism of painting irrelevant. Tissot saw the new technology as a useful instrument and not as a source of existential anxiety. He declined the invitation of his friend Edgar Degas to appear in the first impressionist exhibition. In his day, Tissot was more successful than the Impressionists.

In 1866, Tissot received a medal from the Salon and built a mansion on the current avenue Foch. It was Tissot’s way of proving to his father that he, the prodigal son, had been right to become a painter. The biblical story of the wandering son was a theme to which he often returned.

In a superb self-portrait, painted in 1865, a handsome young man with an intelligent face, black hair and a shaggy mustache leans against his hand, three fingers spread against his forehead. The look in Tissot’s eyes can be interpreted as calm, mischievous, ambitious or amused. The brushstrokes are free and loose, almost impressionist.

In an early sign of Anglophilia, Tissot changed his name from Jacques Joseph to James at the age of 11. Six years before his move to London, his portrait of the Marquis and Marquise de Miramon and their children drew as much from Gainsborough and Reynolds as from Ingres.

French critics found Tissot too British, while the British found him too French. During his decade in Victorian London, his paintings were criticized on moral grounds. The man who is eyeing women wearing transparent dresses in HMS Calcutta (1876) wears a wedding ring. In On the Thames, also painted in 1876, two women float across the docks with a sailor. The navy was associated with loose manners and the champagne bucket in the foreground seems to confirm debauchery.

Japanese Woman in the Bath, 1864, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon

A French woman dressed up as a geisha, her kimono open to show small round breasts and a waxed pubis

Like his friends Degas and Whistler, Tissot was a supporter of Japonism. He collects kimonos and Japanese prints and learns to make cloisonne enamel pieces inspired by the Far East.

The Japanese woman in the bath of Tissot (1864) embodies the French fascination of the 19th century for Japan and arouses mixed feelings about the work of Tissot. A French woman disguised as a geisha, her kimono open to show small round breasts and a waxed pubis. But it is more kitsch than erotic and leaves the spectator indifferent.

On the other hand, Tissot’s engravings of the Prussian siege of Paris in 1870 and his watercolors of a wounded soldier and communards executed by the French government are powerful reports.

Rumors have circulated that under the Commune, Tissot was involved in the destruction of works of art associated with the fallen Second Empire. The defeat of the Commune may explain Tissot’s sudden departure for London in the summer of 1871. The theory that Tissot was a secret revolutionary is reinforced by correspondence with a friend in Paris who he asked to check his criminal record.

Tissot returned to high society in his paintings of Great Britain in the 1870s. The Ball on Shipboard (1874) was for Victorian high society what his Cercle de la rue Royale in Paris was in the 1860s.

Among the guests are the Prince and Princess of Wales, Albert and Alexandra, and Tsarevich Alexander with his wife Maria, Alexandra’s sister. About twenty people are arranged diagonally from right to left on the deck of the ship. A pair of dancers can be seen through the stairwell, under the bridge. A brightly colored flag canopy protects guests from the sun. The cliffs of Dover are outlined in the distance.

The Circle of rue Royale, 1868, Musée d'Orsay

The Circle of rue Royale, 1868, Musée d’Orsay

Under the influence of the woman he called his Mavourneen, domestic scenes replaced social life in Tissot’s paintings. He and Irishwoman Kathleen Newton, née Kelly, met in 1876, at the age of 41 and 23.

Daughter of an Irish army officer stationed in India, Newton fell in love with Captain Henry St Leger Bury Palliser, a British naval officer, during his passage to India for an arranged marriage with a surgeon named Isaac Newton. The couple divorced without consuming their marriage. Kathleen Muriel’s daughter was born in 1871, her son Cecil George in 1876. Palliser was Muriel’s father. It is not clear whether Palliser or Tissot was the father of Cecil George.

Tissot was fascinated by Newton’s beauty, his Catholic education and his status as a single mother. He described the five years during which she was his muse and model as domestic happiness.

In the painting entitled October, the young Irish girl looks over her shoulder, framed by a halo of dying chestnut leaves and beckoning the spectator to follow. Nothing is ever as beautiful as when he is dying, Tissot seems to say.

The Daily Telegraph saved Kathleen from “a mermaid in black silk stockings and high heels” and warned Tissot that the sooner he gave up on such matters, the better his reputation would be.

James Tissot in the Holy Land, anonymous photography, Frédéric Mantion Collection

James Tissot in the Holy Land, anonymous photography, Frédéric Mantion Collection

A vision of Christ led Tissot to dedicate the last 15 years of his life to illustrate the Bible

When Kathleen died of tuberculosis at the age of 28, Tissot sat next to her coffin for four days, then returned to France. He painted a series called Women in Paris, dedicated to the modernity of women on the boulevards, in stores, entertainment and society.

In Chariot Women (1883-85), Tissot shows modern amazons dressed in spiky crowns and dresses in gold scales, leading horses around an amphitheater built with glass and steel beams, an architecture typical of the late 19th century.

Women in Paris were a flop. Tissot was obsessed with communicating with Kathleen Newton’s mind. He hired a medium and was convinced that she had visited him during a session in May 1885. Later the same year, a vision of Christ led Tissot to devote the last 15 years of his life to illustrate the Bible . He has traveled three times to the Middle East to search for landscapes and costumes.

Tissot’s two-volume Life of Christ has become a global bestseller that has influenced filmmakers, including DW Griffith, Cecil B DeMille and Martin Scorsese.

The Tissot retrospective, the first in France for 35 years, was delayed for two months by the Covid-19 epidemic. Visitors must book in advance and must wear masks. Visiting museums has become much more pleasant because there are no more people in French exhibitions.

James Tissot, the ambiguous figure of modernity is at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris until September 13, 2020


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