James Tissot: Fashion & Faith

by Sura Wood

The Fine Arts Museums and the Musée d’Orsay joined forces on this major reexamination of the unconventional life and career of James Tissot

The lush society paintings of the cosmopolitan French artist, James Tissot, are so brimming with life that one can almost hear the tinkling of expensive crystal, the rustle of taffeta and the murmuring of well-heeled party guests. But, as the eagerly anticipated new exhibition, “James Tissot: Fashion & Faith,” amply demonstrates, they’re only part of the story. The Fine Arts Museums and the Musée d’Orsay joined forces on this major reexamination of the unconventional life and career of Tissot, who captured the inner lives and outer beauty of Parisian women, while commenting on resplendent 19th century fashion, religion and politics of his day. 

“[If] our industrial and artistic creations may perish, our customs and costumes may fall into oblivion, a painting by Mr. Tissot will be enough to reconstruct our era,” opined critic Elie Roy in 1869. That laudatory assessment leads one to wonder why the artist — so commercially successful and well received in his time that he turned down an invitation to participate in the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874 — is not as well-known today as his contemporaries, Manet and longtime friend and mentee, Edgar Degas.

The reason Tissot has remained an elusive figure is "a bit of a mystery,” says co-curator Melissa Buron, who spent more than six years bringing the show to fruition. “He wasn’t part of a formal group or movement like the Impressionists, and he worked between worlds in Paris and London, which makes him difficult to categorize. And with no children to preserve it, his legacy faded after he died.”

The scholarly exhibition, opening at the Legion of Honor this month, assembles seventy of his captivating paintings as well as drawings, prints, cloisonné enamels, and never before seen photographs of Tissot with fellow artists and friends. (It starts with his beginnings) He started off in Paris in 1855, where he displayed an early aptitude for fashionable costume and lavish fabrics that would become his signature. (When his portrait of Marquise de Miramon was sold, the buyer insisted a fabric swatch from the coveted floor length dressing gown she wore accompany the purchase.) The show follows Tissot’s career trajectory, from his medievalist period and lucrative reign as a painter of high society to the widely disseminated Bible illustrations that fused Christian and Spiritual imagery; 700 watercolors still exist. Some of the religious works, produced during the last two decades of his life after he turned toward Spiritualism and retired to his father’s estate, Chateau de Buillon, have influenced filmmakers such as D.W. Griffith, Martin Scorsese, William Wyler and Steven Spielberg, who quoted Tissot’s Old Testament illustration of the Ark of the Covenant for “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

Remarkable for a man of his time, Tissot had an innate understanding and interest in the interior worlds of women. Deeper and more complicated than their cossetted, exquisitely adorned surfaces imply, they look directly at the viewer or seem remote, preoccupied with thoughts they don’t feel compelled to share. A proclivity for introspection didn’t preclude being as chic and sumptuously dressed as the supremely elegant Clotilde Briatte, Comtesse Pillet-Will. Sheathed in all-white and ensconced in a white fur throw, draped across a divan, she appraises the onlooker with an unswerving gaze in an 1890s portrait by the artist. But no one transfixed Tissot more than his lover and artistic inspiration, Kathleen Newton, who contracted tuberculosis and died tragically at the age of 28 in 1882.

Bereft and literally haunted by her ghost, he abruptly left London, where they lived together for 6 years, and returned to Paris. “The Apparition” (1885), both the mezzotint and the painting on which it’s based, depict
Newton with a spiritual guide by her side, illuminated by celestial light, as they had appeared to Tissot during a séance he attended. (The painting, once thought lost, was retrieved while researching this project.)

A palpable, unnamed presence, Newton also haunts the exhibition. Immortalized in ten of the show’s paintings, viewers will first lay eyes on her in “October” (1877), where, dressed in a billowing black ensemble and matching, wide-brimmed hat, she casts a quick glance over her shoulder as she dashes into a curtain of fall leaves. In “The Dreamer (Summer Evening)" (1881-1882), painted shortly before her death, she reclines outdoors on a softly pillowed chair, awash in shadow and lost in private reverie.

Newton also bears a passing resemblance to the main figure in “The Shop Girl” (1883-85). Tissot sets the scene in an upscale haberdashery, its glass door opening onto a busy Paris street. Outside, a man stands beneath a striped awning, peering through the window at the tall, willowy saleswoman in a dark fitted dress. Her hair loosely pulled into a bun, she’s leaning against a counter strewn with ribbons, and holding a box wrapped in peach colored paper. Part of the projected series, “Women of Paris,” five examples of which are on view, the work was one of only 15 he completed.

“Tissot made beautiful works of art with wit, intelligence and layers of meaning and he has a fascinating life story,” says Buron. “I think he will be a revelation to visitors.”

October 12 → February 9

Legion of Honor