A prolific painter-printer at the end of the nineteenth century, James Tissot has nevertheless eluded many art history books. His recognition suffers from his own individualism. Though friends with some of the most renowned artists of the age, Tissot never formally belonged to any schools or avant-garde circles. Art historians struggle to find a place for him as the traditional labels both apply and fail to satisfy. A similar dichotomy defined the artist’s life and work. Born in France, Tissot was an anglophile, even changing his birth name Jacques-Joseph to the more English James; but throughout his stay in England, he never escaped the label “French.” The influx of Japanese prints and the innovation of photography influenced Tissot along with the most avant-garde artists of Paris; but unlike the Impressionists, Tissot insisted on an Academic finish to his paintings, which found a place in the Salons of Paris and London. The duality of his talents, character, and experiences all contributed to his unique and wide-ranging oeuvre.

Tissot’s life progressed in stages; like the states of a print, each added a sense of depth and maturity to his works. Born Jacques-Joseph Tissot in Nantes on October 15, 1836, he was the son of a successful merchant and shop assistant. Although he expressed an early interest in architecture, he decided instead to become a painter. His appreciation for architecture would later be evident in his painted and printed works. At twenty years old, he moved to Paris to pursue his artistic education. He enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts, but also studied informally under artists such as Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres, Hippolyte Flandrin, and Louis Lamotte. In Lamotte’s studio, he met artist Edgar Degas, who would remain a close friend, as well as Édouard Manet, Alfred Stevens, Ernest Meissonier, Alphonse Legros, Ferdinand Helibuth. Most significantly, he befriended James McNeill Whistler, who would greatly influence his early career.

With little exception, Tissot painted with an academic tightness of execution and great attention to detail. In this way, Tissot’s early career was defined by his own eccentric tastes and a refusal of modernism. His first artist-hero was the Belgian painter Hendrik Leys. Leys painted to an all-over, high degree o finish, without obvious brush marks. However, Tissot most admired Leys for his subject matter: accurate reproductions of life in sixteenth-century northern Europe. Under the influence of Leys and the Italian artists he had discovered during a trip to Milan, Florence, and Venice, Tissot’s early works were conservation in execution and medieval in subject.

Tissot was well received among official circles. In 1859, the Salon accepted five of his paintings, and the French State purchased a paining in 1861. Encouraged by his success, Tissot continued to paint historic scenes, despite criticism for a lack of originality and accusations of plagiarism. However, in 1864, Tissot abruptly shifted to a more modern subject matter, but he continued to approach the subject with historical sensibilities, merely changing the period to the present. The majority of his oeuvre would consist of faithful representations of late nineteenth-century life.

In addition to his painting, Tissot began to experiment with etching in 1860, a time of a great revival in the medium. Writers such as Charles Baudelaire and Théophile Gautier proclaimed a new era in the history of graphic arts, as etching became more a means of original rather than reproductive expression. Tissot first approached etching through portraiture, but he quickly lost interest in the medium in 1861. It would be more than a decade before he would return to etching.

At the end of the decade, the violent Franco-Prussian War, the siege of Paris, and civil war between the conservative government and the revolutionary Paris Commune interrupted James Tissot’s life and career. Tissot served in the National Guard, and he would later recollect his experiences for the etching series Souvenirs du siège de Paris (1876). He produced a total of six etchings, which depict the hardships of the war. Tissot may have been involved in or supported the Commune; his departure to England in 1871 was perhaps prompted by his wish to avoid any backlash.

Though the Commune and accusations against the artist were the most immediate factors for his move to England, Tissot had long been an anglophile. He had just recently changed his name to James. As an economic incentive, many British industrialists had the wealth to become great patrons of the arts. He quickly established himself, having had the foresight to exhibit at the Royal Academy in 1864. His eleven-year stay suggests that his move was more than just political exile.

Thomas Gibson Boules, a friend of Tissot’s living in London, had launched the magazine Vanity Fair; for which the main attraction in each issue was a caricature of some newsworthy man printed in color. Tissot had already contributed sixteen caricatures while living in Paris, and would make forty-six more during his London years. Tissot lived a life of some affluence, soon buying an impressive house in St. John’s Wood. Meanwhile, his paintings presented humorously sharp, Vanity Fair-like caricatures of society at large. Paintings such as Too Early (1873) or Hush! (1874-1875) depict the follies of high society: the horror of arriving at a party to early, the repetitive customs of dinner parties, and the necessary front of boredom or disinterest adopted by the most fashionable.

Despite many formal and thematic similarities between his works and those of his contemporaries, the subtle differences are what set Tissot apart in his time and today. As Malcolm Warner, senior curator at the Kimbell Art Museum, explains:

“The tradition of British modern-life painting, from Hogarth to the Pre-Rahaelites, was essentially a narrative tradition. Most British art aspired to the condition of story-telling. . . . Painters strove to tell the stories in which their characters were involved with maximum clarity, choosing just the right moment of action, spelling things out in gestures, facial expressions, and easily legible symbolism. With Tissot, by contrast, there is always an ambiguity, a tease.”[1]

The British public did not always appreciate his ambiguity. For example, the boldness of the outwardly staring woman in his London Visitors (1874) made viewers uncomfortable. Moreover, a discarded cigar in the foreground suggests the object of her gaze is male. In a later smaller version of the painting, Tissot removed the cigar and shifted the woman’s gaze, suggesting perhaps his attempt to reconcile with the public.

            Native to France, Tissot was especially susceptible to criticism while painting in London. He created a body of work unified by the theme of England’s major river, the Thames. In doing so, Tissot was following in the tradition of many artists who depicted this subject, literally and figuratively at the heart of the nation. Rather than further tying him to the British tradition of art, his images of such a predominately English location intensified controversy over the nationality of his art. Shown in 1876 at the Royal Academy, Tissot’s The Thames (c. 1876) received some of the worst reviews of his career. The Athenaeum called the painting “thoroughly and willfully vulgar,” while the Illustrated London News remarked, “the supercilious air of the sandy-haired officer seems to smack of French satire.” Even the less conservative Graphic suggested “more French, shall we say, than English.”[2] The debate over “Frenchness” versus “Englishness” would persist throughout his career.

            In 1875, Tissot suddenly and inexplicably returned to etching. English interest in etching had begun later in England than in France, encouraged by artists such as James Whistler and Seymour Haden arriving from Paris. In fact, Whistler’s prints had a profound impact on Tissot at this time. During his lifetime, Tissot’s etchings were more consistently esteemed by the public than his paintings. Many compilations and reference works on etching included the artist. Tissot was in the minority of painters who etched their work themselves, although he did send his plates to the renowned English printer Frederick Goulding. After Tissot’s eventual return to Paris, Goulding continued to visit and work with him there.

            His compositions were greatly influenced by his interest in prints from Japan. Although Tissot’s enthusiasm for Japonisme began as early as 1864, not until the 1870s did he abandon superficial exoticism for a more mature integration, particularly the Japanese use of asymmetrical composition. Towards the end of the 1870s, however, his use of Japonisme gave way to a growing reliance on photographic sources. However, as other artists including Degas has discovered, Japanese prints and photography had much in common. The two inspirations worked together to create a new visual language. Photography prompted Tissot to adopt a more explicative approach. In the introduction of his catalogue raisonné of Tissot’s prints, Michael Justin Wentworth explains: “The prints of the middle 1870s are open in effect, delicately linear, and abstractly designed. Drypoint is used sparingly to give range and emphasis.”[3] About this time, Tissot’s life and career radically changed.

            In 1871, James Tissot met and fell in love with Kathleen Newton, an Irishwoman eighteen years his junior, whose arranged marriage had ended almost immediately in divorce. In 1876, Newton moved into his home in St. John’s Wood, along with a daughter and a son, who is believed to have been the illegitimate child of the artist. Their relationship directly corresponded with a shift in Tissot’s English work. In his painting, images of domestic life replaced his previous themes of high society and fashionable women. His favorite models were Newton herself, her son Cecil, her daughter Violet, and her niece Lilian Hervey. The etching and drypoint In the Sunlight (1881) reflects the artist’s new taste. The print depicts a mother and children enjoying the sunlight in an English garden. The sincerity and sweetness of this work and many others of this period gave way when, in 1882, Newton died of consumption.

            Distraught and mourning, the artist returned to Paris in 1882 and for a few years continued along the same artistic lines as he had in England. He then took on the ambitious La Femme à Paris series, consisting of 15 large canvases showing scenes from the daily lives of Parisian women. Tissot intended for these works to proclaim his return to the Parisian art scene. The images also reasserted the artist as a Parisian insider even after his long absence. His adopting of mannerist elongation of the female body and looser brushwork confused critics. Ironically, French reviewers criticized the paintings as “un-French,” and the painted women were jokingly referred to as “L’Anglaise à Paris.

            Since the late 1870s, Tissot turned more and more to the reproduction of his paintings rather than creating original etchings. About half of Tissot’s prints are transcriptions of his other works, usually paintings. Many others are variations of already completed works. The creator of the catalogue raisonné of his prints, Michael Justin Wentworth, argues:

            “[Tissot’s] reproductive etchings are intended as nothing less than the most accurate and finished transcriptions of his works. Tissot’s talent had always been of a remarkably precocious nature, and this quality is nowhere more evident than in his prints.”

After mastering the techniques of etching and drypoint, Tissot never showed any interest in expanding his repertoire. Tissot created prints after his La Femme à Paris series, to be published in collaboration with short stories by French authors inspired by the paintings. This part of the project never came to fruition, likely because of the many negative reviews. Soon after 1885, Tissot abandoned printmaking in order to fully devote himself to a project that would consume the last seventeen years if his life.

            While sketching in a church to prepare for the last of his La Femme à Paris, Tissot has a vision of Christ. Though the devastating loss of Katherine Newton likely encouraged his devoutness more than any other factor, he had some precedent in religious subject matter. During his last year in England, he produced a series of paintings and reproductive prints, The Prodigal Son in Modern Life (1881). The subject of the Prodigal Son was popular at that time in England and common theme for British artists. As a Roman-Catholic living in sin with a divorcee, Tissot may have found comfort in the story of a man who falls from faith and returns.

In his newfound religious fervor, Tissot decided to produce a magnificently illustrated book on the life of Christ and illustrations of the Old Testament. In addition his still-recent loss of his love, his religious awakening corresponded with a general return to religion. He intended not to create a vision of heavenly splendor, but to produce scientific, accurate images, like the historical images from the beginning of his career. He traveled to Palestine, Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon in 1885, 1889, and 1896 to acquire “types,” who looked as if they still live in the days of Christ. Though Tissot had used watercolors to reproduce his oil paintings, he now used the medium exclusively for his illustrations. Tissot continued with this project up until his death at the age of 65 on August 8, 1902.

Although his Biblical images remained popular, Tissot fell into obscurity until the second half of the twentieth century. A thoroughly modern artist, his modernity stems more from the psychological rather than formal aspects of his works, defying common notions and definitions. Art historians have as much trouble categorizing him, as did the critics of his day. Tissot’s oeuvre resists labels, and Tissot remains an individual over one hundred years after his death.

[1] James Tissot: Victorian Life/Modern Love. Page 15-16.

[2] James Tissot: Victorian Life/Modern Love. Page 15.

[3] James Tissot: Catalogue Raisonné of his Prints. Page 15.

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