At the end of the 1860’s Tissot was still producing charming portraits of elegant young ladies. One such paintings were exhibited by Tissot in the 1870 Salon. It was entitled Jeune Femme en bateau (Young Lady in a Boat). It depicts a young lady in a boat wearing a fashionable early nineteenth century costume. Behind her sits her pet pug dog. This type of dog symbolised a sign of affluence and prestige. Look at her face – what is she thinking, why is she in the boat? Maybe she is on her way to meet her lover. We need to also to take into account the alternative title to this painting which was Adrift. So, could this mean her tryst with her beau is not going to go too well.
The other work of Tissot which was exhibited at the 1870 Salon was his painting, Le Partie Carrée (The Foursome). There is a similarity between this work and Edouard Manet’s 1862 work, Dejeuner sur l’Herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) which had shocked critics and public alike seven years earlier.
For Tissot his depiction was a light-hearted look at eighteenth-century French manners and for that reason it proved a hit with the public. In this depiction, the female on the right lifts her glass high as she downs a glass of champagne, whilst her partner raises his glass to the man opposite in a celebratory toast. The man on the left raises his glass whilst his other hand is wrapped around the waist of his lady and cups her breast. She seems amused and looks boldly out at us with a questioning stare. Is she challenging us to censure her? It is interesting to note that she focuses us with a bold and defiant gaze which is mirrored by that of the woman in the boat in the previous painting. It is as if she is saying “if you don’t like what you see, hard luck!!!”.
By 1870 things were going well for Tissot. He was being celebrated as a great figurative painter and his paintings of elegant young ladies were selling well. What could go wrong for him? The answer for him and the rest of the people of France was war. Napoleon III, the Emperor of France since 1852, in a dispute over matters involving Spanish succession, declared war on Prussia in July 1870, having unwisely been counselled by his military advisers that the French army could defeat Prussia and that such a victory would, at the same time, restore his declining popularity in France. However, by January 1871, after a four month siege of Paris by the Prussian army, the fighting was over and the French were defeated. But worse was to come for those who had suffered the Prussian army’s siege of Paris. At the cessation of hostilities between the Prussian army and the French army, the latter was allowed to form a National Assembly. The Parisians, tense and irritable after the long strain of the siege, were horrified by the action of rural France in electing a monarchist assembly committed to what they regarded as a dishonourable peace. They vowed to end the rule of the National Assembly and the infamous and bloody Paris Commune was formed. The Paris Commune was a radical socialist and revolutionary government that ruled Paris from March 18th to May 21st 1871. The working class of Paris seized power of their own city and established the world’s first workers’ government. It all came to a bloody conclusion in May with the storming of the Parisian barricades by the army. It was estimated that twenty-five thousand died during the siege many summarily executed after the battle was over.
So how did all this affect Tissot? Tissot, during the siege of the capital by the Prussian forces, saw active service when he joined two companies of the Garde Nationale, first the Eclaireurs de la Seine and later the Tirailleurs de la Seine, which included many patriotic artists who committed themselves along with a few talented lawyers, and traders to defend the city. Tissot recorded the horrors of battle with a small number of sketches and watercolours, which were later turned into prints and illustrations.
During the Paris Commune Tissot was rumoured to have become one of the violent revolutionary Communards. So why was he thought to have sided with the revolutionaries. Some believe it was an act of self-preservation and that of safeguarding his property, whilst others believed it was a supreme act of patriotism. What is known is that when the bloody collapse of the Paris Commune came in May 1871, Tissot fled the city and it was this hasty retreat that aroused suspicions of him being a Communard. The Parisian art market was ruined and life as an artist in the French capital was in disarray and so, in June 1871, Tissot arrived in London, almost penniless.
Tissot found sanctuary at the Cleve Lodge, Hyde Park Gate home of his friend Thomas Gibson Bowles, whom he had known and had occasionally carried out commissions for caricatures of prominent men for the magazine Vanity Fair, which was founded by Bowles. Tissot stayed with Bowles for several months and also was given a job of producing cartoon portraits for the Vanity Fair magazine. One such was his caricature entitled A Dandy.
Another was published in the September 21st, 1871 edition of Vanity Fair – a caricature of George Whyte-Melville, the Scottish novelist and poet. Although this was not the type of art that Tissot wanted to concentrate on, it provided him with financial support during his early stay in England.
Tissot’s reputation as a very talented portrait painter was further enhanced with the showing of two male portraits in the 1872 London International Exhibition. One of the paintings was a small (20ins x 24 ins,) portrait which had been commissioned by his friend Thomas Bowles. It was of Bowles’ close friend, Colonel Frederick Gustavus Burnaby, the debonair soldier, who was a captain in the privileged Royal Horse Guards, the cavalry regiment that protected the monarch. It was Burnaby who suggested naming Bowles’ magazine Vanity Fair and it was he who lent half of the necessary £200 in start-up funding. Burnaby then volunteered to go to Spain to chronicle his adventures for the satirical magazine. We see Burnaby depicted in his “undress” uniform as a captain in the 3rd Household Cavalry. He is the epitome of an elegant gentleman in a relaxed male conversation. The painting was eventually purchased by London’s National Portrait Gallery from Bowles’ son (and Burnaby’s godson), George, in 1933.
The other Tissot work in the exhibition was also a portrait entitled Gentleman in a Railway Carriage (Portrait of Captain ***) which he completed in 1872 and is now housed at the Worcester Art Museum in Worcester Massachusetts. The figure in the painting has never been identified but once again it is a portrait of a well-dressed elegant man. He is wearing a fur coat and over his knees is a travelling rug, on top of which is a book. He holds onto a strap and this very fact gives us the feel of the train rattling along at speed. He studies his pocket watch and we wonder is he late or is the train on time. This portrait is beginning to look like a narrative piece in which a story behind the depiction is beginning to emerge.
Tissot’s reputation as a talented painter was soon recognised in England thanks to his illustrations in Vanity Fair and his meetings with Thomas Bowles’ wealthy connections. In 1873, Tissot finally exhibited works at the Royal Academy which he had completed whilst living in England, .
The most well received of his exhibited works was An Interesting Story which he completed in 1872. The depiction, which is housed in the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, is set in the eighteenth century and it is a comedy of manners. Three figures dominate the depiction. A man, shown as a red-coated officer, is seen studying a map which lies on a table. He is recounting a story to two elegantly dressed young ladies. They seem completely disinterested in what they are hearing and find it difficult to hide their boredom. One looks away whilst the other tries to stifle a yawn. It was the type of painting loved by the English public, who were fond of eighteenth century historical and literary scenes with a touch of humour. The art critic of the Athenaeum described the painting as:
“…a capital piece of humorous characterisation…”
Buoyed by the success of the painting Tissot produced several variations on the same theme, such as his 1872 work, The Tedious Story, with its similar River Thames backdrop.
Such River Thames backdrops were used by other artists. The most famous one is probably the American artist James Whistler who in 1864 had his painting, Wapping on Thames, exhibited at the 1864 Royal Academy Exhibition and the Exposition Universelle in 1867. The background to his painting was a Wapping dockyard on the River Thames, close to where Whistler was living. Whistler set up his easel at an inn known as The Angel and he created the scene en plein air. The inn overhung the south bank of the Thames where it widens after the Pool of London and then winds out to sea. I love the juxtaposition of the contrasting colours used – bright turquoise for the water and sky against the oranges and browns used to depict the ships’ masts, rigging and dockyard buildings. The female in the painting was Joanna Hifferman, who was an artist’s model Whistler often used and who would become the artist’s lover. Next to her is Alphonse Legros, the French painter, and they are both in conversation with a sailor.
Tissot was fascinated by the Thames and depicted it in many of his paintings. Maybe it reminded him of his childhood and the port of Nantes which he visited regularly. For Tissot the Port of London docks and the dockside buildings offered him so many artistic possibilities. At the 1873 Royal Academy Exhibition Tissot exhibited two paintings, both of which featured dockside backgrounds. The setting for the painting The Captain’s Daughter is the porch of the Falcon Tavern at Gravesend on the Thames. Tissot completed the work that year, and in it we see the Captain sitting discussing his daughter with her young sailor suiter, whilst they drink some wine. The daughter, tired of the conversation, stands up and gazes absentmindedly out over the river.
The other Tissot painting exhibited at the 1873 Royal Academy Exhibition is probably Tissot’s best known London pictures. It is entitled The Last Evening and is one of his many shipboard paintings. It is a narrative piece and it is up to us to guess what is going on. There is enough of an ambiguity about the depiction to tease us into believing we alone know what is happening. The setting is a ship the night before it is about to set sail. Look at the way Tissot has skilfully painted the background of the ships and their rigging. In the foreground we see a young lady wearing a chequered jacket sitting in a Bentwood rocking chair. Next to her sitting in a wicker chair is a young sailor who only has eyes for the pretty lady. He stares passionately at the girl. In the mid-ground, sitting on a bench are two elderly men deep in discussion. One of the elder men is probably the father of the lady in the chair, the other, a member of the ship’s crew. Leaning over the back of the bench is a young girl who could be the lady’s younger sister, or could she be her daughter? The painting is housed at London’s Guildhall Art Gallery.
James Tissot was prospering in London. His art was loved and sold well. In my next blog I will look at what made him suddenly return to France if life was so good to him in England.
..…………..to be continued