Georgina Kelman :: Works on Paper
James Tissot - Victorian Enigma
James Tissot - Victorian Enigma
Download PDF Worklist
In times of turmoil, it is often comforting to seek refuge in something beautiful, familiar and slightly fantastic. This is what can be found in the prints of James Tissot. Though perhaps not fashionable, their insightful glimpses into private moments, depictions of a bygone era and exquisite attention to detail still maintain a devoted and deserved place in the hearts of collectors everywhere. With the recent exhibition "James Tissot - Fashion & Faith" at the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco, and now shuttered in the Musée d'Orsay, Paris, this seemed like an appropriate time to revisit his magnificent œuvre of etchings and drypoints. I hope you enjoy this step back in time.
Above Image: James Tissot "Le Hamac (W. 46)" Detail
“The history of Tissot's prints is the history of the vicissitudes of taste. Popular during his lifetime, they were doubtless aimed at a market that admired his paintings but could not afford his fees, at print collectors who approved of his attention to quality and condition, and at admirers of his narrative subject matter”
“Tissot's prints are in many ways the most rewarding part of his work...Etching, which is unhampered by color, and has the freedom of undetectable correction and change, was ideally suited to his particular talents. Tissot's true gifts lay in an inventive treatment of pictorial composition, an iconography of subtle, if limited, nuance, and a remarkable psychological sophistication. Each is in evidence in his prints, and in combination with his insistence on generally high technical standards, his prints display his talent to its best advantage.”
- Michael J. Wentworth “James Tissot Catalogue Raisonné of his Prints”, 1978
"James Tissot at his Easel", circa 1870, From "James Tissot Fashion & Faith" Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2020
"Tissot's Château de Buillon studio today", 2019, From "James Tissot Fashion & Faith" Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2020
Jacques Joseph Tissot was born to wealthy merchant parents in the port city of Nantes in 1836. His artistic talents were recognized early and he was sent to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris at a young age. He immersed himself in the art world and began life-long friendships with Whistler and Degas. His paintings were successful almost immediately and were purchased by such museums as the Musée de Luxembourg and the Louvre.
This early success was his introduction into the Parisian Haute Monde. It was the peak of the Second Empire of Napoleon III and Paris was enjoying a time of brilliance and excess. Tissot was quickly embraced by society and used his keen eye and artistic gifts to chronicle the people and events in his paintings and prints. These early works often evidence his fascination with Japanese prints with hints of the popular "Japonisme". He moved in very fashionable circles and sustained a lavish lifestyle by painting portraits and through generous patronage.
Tissot's flirtation with British society commenced around 1864 when he exhibited a painting at the Royal Academy and his name started appearing in "Vanity Fair". During the War of 1870 between France and Prussia, Tissot became a regular contributor of caricatures to "Vanity Fair" which he smuggled to London across enemy lines. He found inspiration in the war and recorded the atrocities he witnessed in several very strong etchings. After Paris fell to the new Republican government in 1875, Tissot escaped to England and was quickly adopted by London society. Shortly after his arrival he established himself in Saint John's Wood where he created many of his most memorable prints.
In 1876 Tissot met Mrs. Kathleen Newton who was to be his model. She soon became his muse and is believed to have been his great love. The fact that she was a divorcee with a child prevented their marriage and they were careful to hide the relationship from visiting colleagues or benefactors. However, Tissot painted her lovely face many times and some of his greatest and best-known etchings are portraits of her.
Mrs. Newton died of tuberculosis in Tissot's home in 1882 and he left London for Paris within days of her passing. The change was more than just location. After the move Tissot's work became more spiritual and religious and his portraits of French society, while always beautiful, became cynical and dark. He traveled extensively throughout the Holy Land and spent his last years working and living in almost complete isolation in the French country.
Tissot left behind a collection of work that is treasured today for both its technical expertise and its ability to make us dream. The lushness of the printing and the charm of the subjects continue to impress both print connoisseurs and those captivated by the nostalgia of a long-ago time.