A new exhibition looks at James Tissot’s sumptuous depictions of High Victorian society and then some.
That “James Tissot: Fashion & Faith” is the first-ever Tissot exhibition on the West Coast might come as a surprise. The French artist’s Self Portrait (circa 1865, oil on panel) and all its mysterious emo glamour has been a fixture of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s collection since 1961. The painting, which captures the artist around age 30, has begged for decades to be accompanied by its brethren, so that it might provide a more accurate impression of its enigmatic maker. And yet this new sweeping show, a co-production between the San Francisco museums and the Musées d’Orsay et de l’Orangerie, Paris, is Self Portrait’s first Californian family reunion.
“Fashion & Faith,” which opens at the Legion of Honor on October 12, features some 60 of Tissot’s paintings, as well as drawings, prints, photographs, and cloisonné enamels. Organized chrono-thematically, it follows the winding path of the artist’s career, which led him from Paris to London and back again and from Jacques to “James.” Along the way, whether going by his French or anglicized appellation, 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. The show draws these poles closer with new scholarship and insights.
Melissa Buron, exhibition curator and Director of the Art Division at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, says, “For the past few years, my colleagues and I have been on the trail of Tissot, re-examining works and uncovering previously unpublished information that provides insight into his career, including his sales notebook (carnet de ventes) and hundreds of photographs. Drawing from our findings, ‘James Tissot: Fashion & Faith’ provides new perspectives on where and how Tissot should be considered in the 19th-century canon.”
Tissot’s sales notebooks, which are published for the first time in the show’s catalogue, have aided scholars in reaffirming dates and titles, while also revealing just how successful Tissot was. By the time of the previously mentioned self-portrait, he had prestige and wealth, having been elected hors concours following the Paris Salon in 1866. He built a lavish home on the avenue de l’Impératrice (now avenue Foch). In 1874, critic Edmond de Goncourt observed that Tissot had “a studio with a waiting room where, at all times, there is iced champagne at the disposal of visitors, and … a garden, where, all day long, one can see a footman in silk stockings brushing and shining the shrubbery leaves.” Henceforth, money would not be a problem for the artist.
Tissot’s place in the 19th-century canon Buron mentions, is generally as a painter of fabulously dressed women going about their lives in Paris or London’s posher places—genre paintings that seem a fit subject for a young, rich man about town. One might describe these works as the photographer Slim Aarons described his own: “attractive people doing attractive things in attractive places.” “Fashion & Faith,” as its title surely suggests, has no shortage of these sorts of pictures. In Evening (also known as The Ball, 1878, oil on canvas) yellow and orange ruffles flutter along a young woman’s dress, hat, and fan like marigold petals. In La Femme à Paris: The Bridesmaid (circa 1883–85) swaths of fine lilac fabric ensconce a woman’s behind like gift-wrapping. In La Femme à Paris: The Shop Girl (1883–85, oil on canvas), the woman who looks at the viewer wears a relatively dour black uniform, but a pile of unspoiled pink satin ribbons on the shop’s table tangle together softly and seductively like a flowing hairdo, suggesting what a finely appointed lady could look like in them. One reviewer said of The Captain’s Daughter (1873), in which a binoculars-holding woman wears a black floral print that “her dress received as much attention as her face.”
Tissot’s father was a milliner and marchand de nouveautés (“seller of the latest dress items”), which likely stoked his interest and precision in depicting clothing. But Vogue correspondent he was not. That is, his interest in depicting fine and fashionable clothes seemed more symbolic and technical—like the drapery of Classical sculpture—than trendy or reportorial. These shimmering dresses are like objects, not clothes, showcasing Tissot’s skill with a brush and understanding of his milieu. In fact, as the exhibition makes clear, Tissot painted the same dresses over and over again. A white muslin dress with yellow silk bows is featured in The Gallery of HMS “Calcutta” (Portsmouth), Summer, July (Specimen of a Portrait) and Spring (Speciment of a Portrait. Every dress in The Ball on Shipboard (circa 1874), a veritable pageant of High Victorian fashions, appears in another work by the artist; a memorable frock with a velvet bodice and thickly striped skirt, for instance, can be seen in London Visitors from the same year and Gravesend, from the year before.
The artist was also criticized for “dressing” his subjects inappropriately—faux pas that one sincerely devoted to fashion wouldn’t likely make. When The Ball on Shipboard was presented at the Royal Academy, critics were aghast: such a low neckline for a daytime event on that blue muslin number? There was “not a lady in a score of female figures,” according to a critic writing in The Athenaeum. Such criticisms abounded during Tissot’s time in London. His women seemed like mistresses rather than wives. Perhaps, even on the other side of the English Channel, Tissot was more Belle Époque than Victorian, more Jacques than James. Then again, critics said the women in La Femme à Paris, the first series he painted when he returned to Paris in the 1880s, looked too English.
Tissot left Paris for London in 1871, following the Franco-Prussian War (he served as a sharpshooter, all the while sketching what he saw). Criticisms aside, he did quite well in England, painting genre scenes much like those he had painted in Paris in the 1860s (British industrialists were just mad for him). In the mid-1880s, Kathleen Newton, an Irish divorcée who likely bore Tissot’s child, became his companion and muse. His work became more intimate—he painted Kathleen around the interiors and garden of their Saint John’s Wood mansion. After she died of consumption in 1882, Tissot returned to Paris in mourning. A few years later he would also return to his Catholic faith, after having had a religious vision in the Church of Saint-Sulpice, Paris (the inspiration for his painting Inner Voices or Christ the Comforter).
The “Faith” portion of the show refers to the hundreds of sketches and watercolors Tissot made of the Bible between 1885 and his death in 1902. As a reference, he visited the Holy Land three times between 1886 and 1896. The Life of Christ, 270 watercolors and sketches, became a hit in Paris in 1894. His 365 New Testament watercolors caused a public sensation when they were exhibited in London in 1896. The Life of Christ made its own pilgrimage of sorts, showing in cities throughout Europe, where people would reportedly leave the galleries weeping or tour them in genuflection. In 1898, these works reached America, showing in Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, and St. Louis. The Life of Christ was acquired by the Brooklyn Museum in 1900 for $60,000. The exhibition, sale, and reproduction of these works in Paris, London, and America in the 1890s brought Tissot more money and fame than any of his other work.
But “Faith” also refers to Spiritualism—a form of occult philosophy more trendy in the late 19th century than the fashions Tissot painted. In Spiritualism, the Judeo-Christian categories of the afterlife were more penetrable, meaning the living could commune with the dead. Tissot tried his hand at this sort of communion, attending a séance in London in 1885, where the British medium William Eglinton supposedly conjured the spirit of the artist’s beloved Kathleen Newton. Tissot reproduced these events in The Apparition (1885, oil on canvas and mezzotint), which is yet another forum for his ability to paint cloth—white sinewy fabric is draped over a male and female body.
In 1882, Tissot wrote presciently, “I strive to produce compositions that reveal the hidden meanings of our everyday life. I would select subjects that others shrink from handling; it is as if I planted a pioneer standard upon lands hitherto undiscovered.” Occult or religious systems abound with so-called “hidden meaning.” But this statement was written before the full breadth of Tissot’s spiritual awakening. As a rubric for his genre paintings, however, it is deeply meaningful. If one can look beyond the sumptuous dresses and decorative details that abound in Tissot’s paintings, one sees furtive looks and expectant glances, people enjoying themselves and others simply enduring the scene they find themselves in. Men are smug and women are bored. Clothing covers and reveals.
By Sarah E. Fensom