James Jacques Joseph Tissot images and biography
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James Jacques Joseph Tissot


Few painters can give us so glossy and accurate a mirror image of high society as Tissot. Like his friend and contemporary Whistler, he was at home both in Paris, where he lived and exhibited in the 1860s, and in London, where he ,spent a professionally successful decade after the fall of the Paris Commune in 1871. And like the well heeled cosmopolitan society he frequented, Tissot's art belongs to an international milieu of high fashion on both sides of the Channel. His ladies pose in costumes and amid decor that reflect the latest modes, whether Spanish or Japanese, and indulge, with their gentlemen companions, in the pleasurable rituals of the country outing, the boating party, or the ballroom. One recalls that Tissot's parents were both in the fashion business in his native Nantes.

His art and social allegiances were clearly announced in the two paintings, both at Orsay, he showed at the 1864 Salon - works we recognize today as ancestors of the most chic fashion photography. Although the Salon catalogue referred to them as portraits, they were probably based on studio models, offering a kind of advertisement for the type of commission Tissot hoped to get.

In The Two Sisters, his highly personal stamp is already crystal clear. The color sensibility is willfully precious, permitting the yellow green tonalities of the landscape setting to permeate the white summer dresses, with a cooling effect like that of the most rarefied fruit sorbet. Such refinement earned the painting the nickname "The Green Ladies," although, in a more hostile vein, it also inspired analogies to stagnant water. Tissot's nuanced variations on a restricted theme of color and tone are closely related to Whistler's pictorial and Theophile Gautier's poetic efforts to create what could be called "Symphonies in White" - aesthetic exercises in aristocratic discrimination that would elude vulgar taste. Aristocratic, too, is the demeanor of these two young women, who strike poses of casual indifference to the observer, an aloofness borne out by their dour expressions of mild ennui. How often have we seen such models in Vogue!

From the beginning, Tissot explored inward psychological subtleties as fragile as his tonalities. They can be seen in 1860 in a painting inspired by Goethe's Faust, illustrating the hero's first glimpse of Marguerite as she leaves church and his unsuccessful effort to accompany her. Here Tissot grapples with a way to render through discreet facial expression and posture the kind of intricately mannered etiquette he would quickly transport to scenes of contemporary society. In The Two Sisters, these modern personalities have been defined and now belong to the gallery of detached, unsmiling faces we find in Degas's family portraits of the 1860s. A few years later, in fact, Tissot himself would sit for Degas, his friend from art school days, creating a perfect match of painter and sitter.

In the other portrait from the 1864 Salon, Tissot updates Ingres, whose uncannily sharp focus of costume and setting was a constant inspiration. Here Tissot's preference for low visual temperatures explored in the background's subtly modulated fusion of the palest pinks, greens, and blues in curtain, wallpaper, upholstery, and books is used as a foil to the startling heat of the red "Zouave" bolero. Such clothing was a fashionable nod to Spain timely in the 1860s (the Empress was of Spanish ancestry), when painters like Manet often chose Spanish dancers, musicians, and bullfighters as subjects. The model's expression, like her posture, is something of a tease, first attracting the viewer's gaze, then rebuffing it as her head seems to slip away into the more secluded area of the Ingresque mirror reflection behind her, where a door may be glimpsed. The studied casualness, part of the repertory of fashion illustration, pertains even to such witty details as the bird cage, just visible at the upper right, or the photograph tucked into the corner of the mirror frame.

The phrase "Social Realism" is usually applied to art that reveals truths about the oppressed working class, but it would seem no less applicable to Tissot's documentary revelations about high society in the 1860s and 1870s. Like masters of Victorian fiction who dealt with contemporary manners - an Anthony Trollope or a Henry James - Tissot has captured for posterity the facts of life he knew firsthand, creating from them perfect, if minor, works of art, the equivalent of elegantly wrought short stories.

- From "Paintings in the Musee D'orsay", by Robert Rosenblum

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James Tissot Images

1873 The Last Evening
c. 1877 Hide and Seek

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