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Wednesday, December 9, 2015

James Tissot

Quiet, ca. 1881, James Tissot

A Woman of Ambition,
1885, James Tissot
As we grow up, grow out, and grow older, we're seldom aware of how experiences in our formative years have the great effect they do on our lives, and later years. That is, until we enter our later years. It's only then we begin to see and read our lives as a biography rather than an ongoing soap opera or, perhaps, a situation comedy. I paint in a realistic manner because I was never exposed to anything else until entering college. I paint American genre scenes because my early art education came mostly from the covers of The Saturday Evening Post. I have a deep interest and appreciation for history because both my parents enjoyed pursuing the past, my dad as a Civil War buff, my mother as a genealogist who also chronicled local history and wrote poems about it. My mother's mother also fancied herself as something of a writer, though to my knowledge, she never had published a single word. My infatuation with video and motion pictures came as a result of getting my own 8mm. movie camera when I was about twelve. In the years I've studied the lives of past artists, this tendency for youthful experiences (good and bad) to be magnified into their adult lives seems to be a constant factor found in virtually all artists' mature works. The French painter, James Jacques Joseph Tissot, of the second half of the 19th-century. was no exception in this regard. In fact, his lifetime works could be considered a prime example of this trait.

How others saw him and how Tissot saw himself.
James Tissot was born in 1836. He spent his early childhood in the port town of Nantes, (western) France where his parents owned a drapery shop and his mother designed and made women's hats on the side. Her son, thus grew up to be very fashion conscious as seen in his hundreds of portraits of fashionably dressed women (top) and (above, right). Having grown up near the sea, surrounded by ships and those who manned them, would also account for Tissot's many paintings of these fashionable ladies as they socialized aboard ships and enjoyed the nearness of the water (below).

Ball on Shipboard (upper image), 1874, by Tissot and
The Gallery of H.M.S. 'Calcutta' (lower image), 1877.
Tissot also enjoyed quite a following as a painter of high-fashioned men and what they wore. He was especially popular as a painter of uniformed military officers as seen in his Captain Frederick Gustavus Burnaby (below), from 1870. Sometime around 1870, Tissot left Paris for London where he found his services as a portrait artist very much in demand. Paintings by Tissot appealed greatly to wealthy British industrialists during the second half of the 19th-century. For example, during 1872, Tissot earned 94,515 francs, an income normally only enjoyed by those in the high echelons of the upper classes.

Captain Frederick Gustavus Burnaby, 1870, James Tissot
It was only when Tissot tried mixing men and high-fashion women that he got in trouble. Around 1876 Tissot painted The Thames (upper image, below) in which he depicted a man and two well-dressed young ladies lolling in the stern of what appears to be some sort of harbor craft simply enjoying one another's company as they trolled among the British ships of Portsmouth. When it was shown at the Royal Academy in 1876 The painting shocked the straight-laced British audiences in that it suggested the questionable sexual morals of its characters. A year later, Tissot displayed Portsmouth Dock Yard (lower image, below), which was a prim, proper, more sedate reworking of his original "suggestive" painting.
The Thames, 1876, James Tissot (upper image) and his Portsmouth Dock Yard (lower image), from 1877. Apparently bare Scottish knees were not suggestive but lolling ladies accompanied by a gentleman of questionable character was.
Ironically, somewhat more shocking, to our eyes at least, is Tissot's Abandoned (below) from 1882. However, during Victorian times, women almost routinely fainted (corsets bound up too tightly refused to permit deep breathing when the women exerted themselves in some way). In any case, women were expected to faint, especially when shocked or overly excited. It was the feminine thing to do. In the years since women jettisoned corsets and girdles, very little fainting has occurred.

Abandoned, 1882, James Tissot
Late in life, starting around 1885, Tissot had something of a religious renewal. Having been raised a staunch Catholic, we see the artist's early upbringing once more manifesting itself as he turned to the nearly overwhelming task of illustrating in great detail the life of Christ. While in London, Tissot had picked up the arts and crafts of etching. These he put to work in creating and publishing some 350 watercolor paintings that depict in a chronological narrative detailed scenes from the New Testament, beginning before the birth of Jesus through the Resurrection. In preparation for the work, he made expeditions to the Middle East to record the landscape, architecture, costumes, and customs of the Holy Land and its people, which he recorded in photographs, notes, and sketches. Unlike earlier artists, who had often depicted biblical figures anachronistically, Tissot painted his many figures in costumes he believed to be historically authentic, carrying out his series with considerable archaeological exactitude. The collection was first presented in Paris in 1894. The show was received enthusiastically, later traveling to London, then the United States, exhibited in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago. In 1900, John Singer Sargent suggested the Brooklyn Museum acquire the series. Funds were raised primarily by public subscription through a rigorous advertising campaign. James Tissot died suddenly at his home in Doubs (eastern) France in 1902. He was sixty-six.

Tissot's watercolors, now slightly faded, were also published in book form.
Second Frontispiece (sitting on the globe), 1875,
James Tissot. The artist rarely painted nudes.
By all accounts, he wasn't very good at it.


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