Paris has celebrated the re-opening of its galleries and museums with an exhibition of the work of the 19th century French painter James Tissot (1836-1902) at the Musée D’Orsay that was due to run from March to July but which, because of the pandemic interruption, has been extended to the end of September. The painter spent a significant part of his career in England and was always an avid anglophile. He is probably best known for his hyper-realistic scenes of modern life among the leisure classes, and for his soigné society portraits, an outstanding example of which (on loan to the exhibition) is the National Portrait Gallery’s study of a moustachioed army officer, Frederick Gustavus Barnaby, pictured cigarette in hand and reclining languidly on a sofa, very much a dandy of dandies. The magnificent scarlet stripe of his cavalry trousers draws in the viewer’s eye unforgettably.
Tissot was evidently something of a dandy himself, as can be seen in the studio portrait painted by his friend Edgar Degas that opens the exhibition with éclat. Slim cane in hand, and balancing back on his chair dangerously, he looks out at the viewer with the cold and superior gaze of the bohemian artist who is also a wealthy man about town. Paintings and easels are loosely stacked against the wall nearby, while behind him, imitating his own haughty pose, a small Holbein-esque portrait of a merchant or burgher is displayed beneath an elongated Japanese scroll. We are in 1867, Japan has just been opened up again and its art discovered by the West. Along with Degas, Manet and Van Gogh, Tissot was one of the first painters to respond to the new wave of interest in the arts and crafts of the Far East.
Tissot can be compared to Degas in other ways too, above all perhaps in the daring off-centredness of some of his compositions, and in the fluidity of his models’ poses – their general languor and ‘floppiness’. The upper classes have always loved to lounge, and Tissot shares with Degas a delight in picking up the elegant distortions that the human body can compose itself into whether lying on a hammock, or reading a newspaper, or propping oneself up against a wall in a dull moment at a society soirée. Children too, of course, are great swarmers and floppers (often on top of each other) and one or two of Tissot’s most striking canvases – for example, an open air park scene called Le petit Nemrod showing a six-year-old ‘warrior’ slaying his similarly aged female cousins – capture these relaxed extensions of the body with a convincing freedom and intimacy.
Perhaps the comparison with Degas can only be taken so far, however. Both artists belonged to the moneyed leisure class, but Degas had absolutely no interest in flattering its vanities. He painted in the manner of the Old Masters, from a strictly neutral ideological starting point. Though conservative – even reactionary – in politics, he had no illusions about the superiority of the rich. Tissot, on the other hand, can’t help communicating a sort of complaisant collusion in the social privilege enjoyed by his sitters: he is reluctant to judge them, or to attempt to penetrate their souls psychologically. It’s interesting to ask how we sense this. It must have something to do, surely, with the expression on his models faces – particularly those of his womenfolk. It would be harsh to call the characteristic gaze of his female sitters simpering, but they don’t, on the other hand, communicate intelligence. It might even be claimed that their dresses (delineated down to the last pleat and flounce) are more interesting than they are. Tissot’s artistic craving for a sort of literal photographic realism seems to be at the root of the problem here. The looser and sketchier brush-strokes of his Impressionist contemporaries gave greater opportunities for subtlety, ambiguity, playfulness. In Degas, Manet etc., the costumes are important, of course. But one doesn’t feel, as one does with Tissot, that the women who are wearing these fabulous creations are simply defined by their tailoring.
A further aspect of his art that differentiates Tissot from the Impressionists, pushing him into the ambit of the Victorians, is his avidity for anecdote. All his paintings take pleasure in telling stories. In his ‘mondain’ phase, before he discovered religion, there is often an element of the risqué about Tissot’s canvases, though contained within acceptable limits. A good-looking young man, for example, in army or naval uniform, will be pictured in the company of a pair of elegantly dressed women. He cannot be married to both – the chances are he’s married to neither of them. Bottles of champagne lie around in reachable buckets: fun is about to be had. Are these women quite ‘ladies’? Of course not. But probably not prostitutes either. Tissot is a slick chronicler of the opportunities that opened up on either side of the Channel in this epoch for pretty and ambitious women to get on in the world. Neither the countryside nor the peasantry tempted him; the City and the Port are his chosen locales. Yet within these chosen parameters, the sociological interest is undoubted. Tissot is particularly good at bringing out the complex, teeming life of harbours and dockyards. Regattas, bunting and all things naval thrilled him.
The love of Tissot’s life was an Englishwoman, Katherine Newton, whose features – pretty, certainly, but somewhat passive and characterless – turn up as a regular template in the canvases on display. When she died of tuberculosis in 1882 he was inconsolable. He took up religion in a big way, enlisting the support of a ‘healer’ named John Eglinton to help tempt Katherine’s spirit back from the dead. He must have believed he was successful: a handful of canvases painted in penumbral black, white and blue show us Katherine’s ghost emerging timidly out of the darkness accompanied by the bearded figure of Eglinton, the pair of them swathed in what looks like Middle Eastern costume. Though Tissot continued to chronicle the modern world (the exhibition includes a selection of paintings from an ambitious – but commercially unsuccessful – late series called The Woman of Paris, produced in 1885) his attention was henceforward more and more captured by the Bible. From the beginning of the 1890s he systematically embarked on painting the New Testament in water-colour. These 365 small-scale but highly-detailed studies, along with etchings and prints drawn from them, enjoyed enormous success in America. The fee which Brooklyn Museum paid in purchasing the group was large enough to furnish a new chateau for the painter back in France, and to guarantee an old age in comfort.
In these late hyper-realistic scenes of biblical reconstruction we can glimpse, so to speak, the future scenography of the Hollywood epic such as it would emerge in the hands of directors like Griffith and De Mille. In their dreamlike way, these studies (at least some of them) are genuinely imaginative. One of them, for example, shows Christ’s downward view from the Cross, with the multitude looking up at him in adoration and awe. (Curious, perhaps, that this particular iconography never featured, as far as I know, on the repertoire of any of the Old Masters: the panoramic viewpoint it envisages is purely modern and psychological.) Taken as a whole, however, the series brings home the vexed question of how much Tissot was ‘merely’ an illustrator. There is nothing wrong with illustration of course: doing the task well demands a high level of draughtsmanship and observation, qualities which Tissot possessed in abundance. But there is something a bit literal about his gaze. The highest flights of poetry escaped him. In the marvellous cavalcade of 19th century costume and gesture which the Musée D’Orsay exhibition presents us with, there is missing the breath of the Ideal.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5Subscribe