James Tissot – Visual Notes of a Victorian Dandy

513M3pKhh3LOn the 8th of August 1902, French Victorian portrait painter, engraver, and enameler, James Tissot, died in Buillon Abbey, near Besançon, France. “After receiving a religious education, Tissot went to Paris at age 19 to study art. In 1859 he exhibited at the Salon. Turning from his rather anguished early works to modern genre paintings and stylish portraits, he quickly became successful in the Paris art world. He fought in the Franco-German War (1870–71), later associating himself with the Paris Commune; in its aftermath he fled to London (May 1871). There he began to rebuild his career, establishing residence in St. John’s Wood, London. During that period he made many etchings, dry-points, and mezzotints, as well as paintings. In the late 1870s he also became interested in the craft of cloisonné enameling. Occasionally traveling abroad, he made London his home until November 1882, when his Irish mistress died. Tissot returned to Paris.” (Britannica) 

His observations of Victorian society were of a very worldly nature. Tissot kept an insightful record of contemporary manners and fashions, painting particular scenes from the life of “society,” which attracted his attention mainly for their latent potential of sexual drama. In James Tissot: Victorian Life/Modern Love (Yale University Press, 1999), Nancy Marsh and Malcolm Warner explored Tissot’s themes and interests and linked his work to Charles Baudelaire’s iconic essay on the aesthetics of modernity, Le Peintre de la vie moderne (1863), in which the poet urged artists to employ contemporary life as a serious subject for art. As it happened, Tissot seemed to be highly appreciative of images of popular culture, recognizing their significance in capturing contemporary customs. He was especially drawn to the manifestations of the ceremony and ritual of social life, in particular, modern, romantic love.

A1XnycJFcrLIn Paris, Tissot’s sketches of boulevard life taken from both the stylish and the seedy neighborhoods, were indebted to realism and japonisme, both artistic trends contemporary to his time. He explored the multifaceted role of the fan in a lady’s attire, as he depited it in the many portraits of fashionable, elaborately dressed young women. In The Young Ladies Journal of 1872, for instance, ‘fanning’ was deciphered as a very precise secret ‘courting’ code (e.g. Fan fast – I am independent; Fan slow – I am engaged; Fan open and shut – kiss me a.s.o.). Tissot produced fifteen images entitled La Femme à Paris which was intended to demonstrate the purported uniqueness of Parisian feminine charms. Tissot executed this series as an effort to reenter Paris society in the mid-1880s, albeit unsuccessfully. Here, women are shown in a variety of recognizable spots and public spaces: shops, the circus, balls, the street, the park, the garden, one of Tissot’s frequent backdrops for amorous outings, encounters, and amusements, along with intimate interiors and parlours. Tissot also had a keen interest in contemporary fashion, and costume as key to society. Adelia V. Williams pointed out that, although Tissot was “known mostly for his images of women, he also executed many portraits of men (…) Curiously, these men do not meet the viewer’s gaze, as do their female counterparts.” The woman as seductress thus took central stage in the way Tissot viewed Victorian society.

“James Tissot was well-educated, literary, and wealthy, very much the quintessential urban dandy (…) An anglophile, Tissot worked his way from a Bohemian life-style into England’s elite where he was highly sought after for commissions. He went back and forth between his native and adopted homelands, for example, living in London during the Impressionist period. Though he dabbled in the Impressionist style, Tissot refused to exhibit with the group.” (Adelia V. Williams, review of the book James Tissot: Victorian Life/Modern Love in The French Review, Vol. 74, No. 5, Apr., 2001). In fact, from a stylistic viewpoint, one can note that the precision and attention to detail in Tissot’s urban compositions and portraiture are reminiscent of “both northern Renaissance handling and its revival by the mid-nineteenth century Belgian painter Hendrik Leys, whose painstaking historical costume pieces Tissot admired on a trip to Antwerp. (…This collector of japonaiserie composed in flat, asymmetrical patterns and aggressively placed the viewer within 816ZIcwmXALspaces as obliquely viewed as those represented by Degas, Cassatt, and Caillebotte. As a Frenchman drawn to the commercial potential of scenes from modern London life, Tissot can be compared to Gustave Doré, whose illustrations to London, A Pilgrimage were published in 1872. Yet, in contrast to the suffocating over population of Doré’s London, Tissot often concentrates our attention on two or three figures amid a profusion of well-tailored fabric, which recalls that this son of a linen draper and a milliner came from the textile center, Nantes.” (Jonathan P. Ribner, review of the book James Tissot: Victorian Life/Modern Love, Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Vol. 29, No. 3/4, Spring/Summer, 2001).

Feature Image: James Tissot, The Bridesmaid, c.1883-85, oil on canvas, 147.3×101.6 cms, Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) U.K.