Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 12, 2020
Melissa E. Buron James Tissot: Fashion & Faith Exh. cat. Munich and San Francisco: DelMonico Books-Prestel in association with Legion of Honor, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2019. 320 pp.; 250 color ills.; 25 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (9783791359199)
Legion of Honor, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, October 12, 2019–February 9, 2020; Musée d'Orsay, Paris (as Ambiguously Modern), June 23–September 13, 2020
James Tissot: Fashion & Faith, installation view, Legion of Honor, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2019–20 (photograph © Rebecca Grant, provided by Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

As curator Melissa E. Buron observes, the French artist James Tissot (1836–1902) does not fit the usual art historical labels (11). His work was in dialogue with a range of French and British art movements, including Pre-Raphaelitism, Impressionism, Aestheticism, and Symbolism (41, 44–45, 49). The Legion of Honor, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF)’s monograph on Tissot, who lived in London from 1871 to 1882, challenges the national borders of the discipline. It reveals, for instance, that supposedly national artistic characteristics can be a matter of perception—Tissot’s work was considered too French for the British and too British for the French (38, 43)—or cultivated intentionally (Tissot skillfully adapted his work to different audiences and markets; 41, 43). In this broad survey of Tissot’s diverse oeuvre, visitors encountered scenes of modern life and historical genre, opulent portraits and intimate sketches, biblical watercolors and cloisonné enamels. James Tissot: Fashion & Faith offers an opportunity to explore what the artist’s works have in common.

One answer is detail, exemplified in ships’ rigging as much as in the minutely rendered costumes to which the exhibition title directs attention. Despite a critic’s oft-cited comment (reproduced at this exhibition’s entrance) that “a painting by Mr. Tissot will be enough for the archaeologists of the future to reconstruct our era” (60), the catalog contributors argue that, far from operating as windows into the past, Tissot’s paintings are carefully—and artificially—composed. As Nancy Rose Marshall posits, Tissot “did not transcribe reality so much as depict surface appearances of the age in such a way as to provoke greater questions”; Marshall cites Tissot explaining, “I strive to produce compositions that reveal the hidden meanings of our everyday life” (44). What these greater questions and hidden meanings might be is open to speculation. The catalog authors’ interpretations vary; some find symbolism in Tissot’s details (51) while others emphasize his mysteriousness (18). As Marshall puts it, his “clues did not easily add up to a semantic revelation or sometimes even conflicted with one another” (46). Puzzling episodes (in the background of Provincial Women, ca. 1883–85, for example) or suggestive titles (The Reply, 1874; Too Early, 1873; Waiting, 1873) indicate stories to be uncovered, but Tissot seems primarily concerned with the meticulous rendering of settings and surfaces—crisp leaves, a shining floor, patterned shawls. Tissot may have intended to reveal that “everyday life” had “hidden meanings” but not what those meanings were. Charlotte Gere reads the dark interior of Hide and Seek (ca. 1877) as “hinting at a secret behind the façade of bourgeois comfort” (52). In this scene of reflections and overlapping surfaces, Tissot invites us to recognize the “façade” but stops short of showing us what “secret” it masks.

Tissot’s unusual compositions further suggest his preoccupation with the theme of concealment. In Holyday (1876) two couples are mostly hidden behind a tree and columns, while a pair of reclining feet enters unexpectedly at the lower left-hand corner. In Safe to Win (1869) a background figure is almost completely obscured, his head oddly sandwiched in the triangle formed by the foreground figure’s cinched waist. The artist’s eccentric compositions may be primarily demonstrative; both Marshall and Peter Trippi observe Tissot’s tendency to “show off” (43 and 45). Yet the exhibition encouraged visitors to consider Tissot’s works not simply as exercises in technical virtuosity but rather as part of a serious aesthetic program. His art was situated in the context of Aestheticism, which prioritized “art for art’s sake” over “explicit narratives” (per the gallery wall text). From this point of view, some Tissot paintings could be considered Whistlerian studies of color relationships—London Visitors (1873–74) is, perhaps, a symphony in gray, black, and white with yellow highlights.

The catalog also invites us to read Tissot’s formal choices as social critique. Marshall notes that when Tissot “upset conventions of compositional hierarchy” he “suggested the overturning of other normative hierarchies” in ways that recall “other French art of this period,” such as Édouard Manet’s famous 1882 painting A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (47, 321). Tissot represents a fashionable society in which class is not always legible. Many of Tissot’s glamorous female figures have been identified as mistresses (60–61). Women depicted slouching or lounging, perhaps participating in ménages à trois, or dressed inappropriately aroused suspicion that Tissot was portraying the “demimonde” (53, 58). It is proposed that Tissot’s paintings offer a “subtle commentary,” although it remains uncertain what the painter’s personal politics were (18). Krystyna Matyjaszkiewicz quotes a British critic who detected “caricature” in Tissot’s representations of London society, “something smacking of a Gallic sneer” (51). As Trippi notes, in 1869–70 Tissot produced sixteen caricatures for Vanity Fair under a pseudonym (43). Two of these (representing Alexander II and Napoleon III respectively) featured in a corner of the exhibition alongside three images of the Franco-Prussian War (two etchings and a watercolor).

These five exhibits raise the question of what the focus on fashion and faith leaves out. The catalog offers a rather different impression of the artist. Turning the first page of the introduction, the reader confronts a double-page spread devoted to reproductions of Tissot’s “Drawings of the Siege of Paris” (1870), among them depictions of dead and wounded soldiers and destroyed buildings (12–13). Whereas this formatting decision places Tissot’s war work at the heart of his oeuvre, the exhibition allocates it a more marginal place. In a chapter devoted to this episode in Tissot’s career, Bertrand Tillier discusses the “macabre” etching The First Killed I Saw (1870) (37), based on one of the drawings reproduced on page 13, as well as the Paris Commune of 1871, which Tissot recorded in The Execution of Communards by French Government Forces at Fortifications in the Bois de Boulogne (1871), reproduced in the chronology (255). Tillier notes that many believed Tissot to have been a Communard and argues that fear of such suspicions influenced Tissot’s decision to stay away from Paris (35–36).

Rather than assigning a small selection of Tissot’s overtly political works to a discreet corner, it could have been interesting to consider what light these aspects of his practice shed on the rest of his oeuvre. The historical and political contexts in which Tissot worked were largely minimized in the exhibition, though less so in the catalog. Both avoided addressing the political implications of Tissot’s Orientalism, examples of which visitors encountered throughout the exhibition. For instance, in the gallery titled “Themes and Variations: Japonisme, Aestheticism, and Fashionability” Tissot depicts white women gazing at Chinese and Japanese objects; in the Prodigal Son in Modern Life series (1880), the protagonist’s exploits in In Foreign Climes are symbolized by the sexual availability of Japanese women; and the final room displayed images resulting from the artist’s travels in the Holy Land. It would have been fruitful to situate Tissot’s Orientalism in the context of the global politics of the period, particularly French and British colonialism. The exhibition and catalog explore Tissot’s position as a foreigner offering a French perspective on British society, but the European perspective of his Holy Land images (discernible, for instance, in the artist’s racialized renderings of biblical narratives) deserves deeper examination.

By contrast, biographical context is foregrounded. The exhibition and catalog present a wealth of new research on Tissot’s life, with particular emphasis on his relationship with Kathleen Newton, a divorcée with whom Tissot cohabited in London from 1876 until her death in 1882. Recently discovered primary sources are reproduced for the first time, including a selection of images from a personal photograph album and a transcription of Tissot’s sales notebook. A report on technical research features in the appendixes alongside a pigment analysis revealing, for instance, Tissot’s use of expensive materials such as cobalt green. New research on The Impresario (ca. 1877), attributed to Edgar Degas, contributes to the ongoing debate about the possible reattribution to Tissot of this work in the FAMSF collection. The catalog is thus an indispensable resource for Tissot scholars.

A particular focus of the new research conducted for the exhibition was Tissot’s Spiritualist and religious work. Contra previous scholars’ dismissal of Tissot’s late works, Buron argues that they deserve serious consideration, partly due to the artist’s unusual combination of Catholic and Spiritualist inspiration (69–71). The white-robed figures in the biblical watercolors (ca. 1886–94) are strongly reminiscent of Tissot’s recently rediscovered Spiritualist painting The Apparition (1885) (67), while Christ is glimpsed through transparent angels in The Agony in the Garden. Tissot’s compositional choices are another reason to revisit these works, the authors urge. For instance, Valentine Robert notes, Tissot represented the same scene from multiple viewpoints, anticipating the use of “shots” in film. In this respect, as well as in his use of the series to relate episodes in a narrative, Tissot’s watercolors are considered “protocinematic” (73).

Tissot’s biblical illustrations were hugely popular (69). Indeed, throughout his career he enjoyed great success in selling his work, and catalog readers will discover detailed information on the art market in Europe and the United States. Tissot was arguably an academic artist (11)—while he exhibited at the Salon of 1863, the Salon des Refusés displayed works rejected by the Salon, some of them by artists who would become known as the Impressionists (253)—but his work often struck contemporary critics as unusual and unsettling. One observed, “He seems to have a rather perverse pleasure in disconcerting the spectator” (45). Gathering loans from numerous private collections and presenting extensive original research, James Tissot: Fashion & Faith provides an opportunity to reassess the contradictory and complex oeuvre of a prolific, successful modern artist.

Imogen Hart
Assistant Adjunct Professor, Department of History of Art, University of California, Berkeley