Jacques Joseph Tissot – Boring or Bold?

There is no question of the value of his craft. From the time he was an exhibiting artist in the 1870’s to today, Tissot’s paintings, sketches and prints have been sold for sizeable amounts. Essentially it is a matter of taste and knowledge when it comes to admiring his style and subjects. Sacheverell Sitwell denoted his works as “skill-fully representative and utterly unimaginative,” yet others see him as a master of the “nuances of genre painting.” Tissot was ridiculed for the same reasons he is championed. The state of the art world today is certainly a different place to that of thirty years ago. The affair between artist and viewer over the last fifteen decades has been one of perception informed by the times and the shape of art history.

The Ball on a Shipboard, Jacques Joseph Tissot, c. 1874. Image source: www.tate.org.uk.

The importance of Modernity in art history has been major. Tissot’s role does not compare to the stylistic advancements in Modernism of Edward Degas or Claude Monet, but when isolated and explored, we find he is almost a social anthropologist. In The Ball on Shipboard he presents to us a middle class regatta attempt at Cowes. Women appear in a state of discontent despite their efforts to find pleasure in socialising. No apparent effort is made to find joy in the situation. Instead their eyes reveal they are drifting away like the boat, dreaming of an escape from this unsatisfactory reality. It is a highly relatable scene. The unpopular longing for a life they envision as glittering and joyous lived by the rich and famous, only to find out they are forever condemned by their class and gender.

John Ruskin described it as “an undue regard to appearances and manners… behaviour, language or dress unsuited to them by persons in inferior stations in life.” This was modern life, the middle class truth. They are unable to suppress their discontent the situation was not how they imagined it and present the same “social awkwardness and social isolation” Krystyna Matyjaszkiewicz observed in Too Early. Tissot creates a literal construction of a prison from the rigs, flags and banisters. The females long for an escape, perhaps one only Edward Burne Jones could offer them. The work illustrates Tissot’s remarkable ability to sense the unease, or Ruskin’s vulgarity, and represent it for everyone to observe.

Too Early, Jacques Joseph Tissot, c. 1836–1902. Image source: www.artuk.org.

Tissot displays a noteworthy commentary of the modes and manners of the figures he presents. We are invited to observe themes of isolation, loneliness and deprivation, the Modern world in its entirety. In Hush we meet a room full of people concerned with anything but the musical performance about to be put on display. The women appear as thought they have near given up on acting the part of the behaved, quaint beauty who belongs at such events. Christopher Wood notices their coveting, “They gaze out at the spectator with stares full of suppressed relentlessness and boredom, as if pleading to be rescued from an intolerable burden of their own beauty.” They lean on their chairs reclining as to give their admirers the message they are bored, a message far from communicated. The men direct their attention to the appearance of the females, relishing in their company, ignoring their need to be entertained too.

We feel empathetic toward the women in the show. They have spent copious amounts of time becoming chic and flirty — only to stay hushed. Their dress is reflected in the glimmer of the chandelier, the draping of the curtains, the beautiful floral arrangements and the luxurious fabrics that cover the furniture. In fact, the room itself is almost more elegant and attractive than the women who sit consciously within it. The painting places emphasis on the treatment of the female figures. Their objectification is clear. They are an object of desire in the spotlight of the male gaze. We find value here in Tissot’s ability to remove himself as part of this society and paint from a standpoint of sentiment and ability to relate.

Hush, Jacques Joseph Tissot, c.1875. Image source: www.wikiart.org

Perhaps Tissot’s ease in commenting on British social interactions is rooted in his French origins. Noticing differences in mien, particularly negative manners, is not difficult when it is distinct from your own. Even the higher classes acknowledged the foolishness presented, Wood’s observed this viewpoint, “The Victorians saw only the coarse and absurd spectacle of the aspiring middle classes trying to emulate their social superiors.” This was not well received by the middle-class British. They rejected a Frenchman’s judgement on their supposed prestigious way of life as what was read as a “rigidity and awkwardness of social etiquette.” A typical response, do not judge a book by its cover. This would seem ‘fair enough’ if it was not for Tissot’s love of the life across the channel. He changed his Christian name to the english version of Jacques, James. He deserted his own country in search of a more suited Anglo life. His conclusions on the adverse elements of Bourgeois life were simply observations. He was illustrating modern life subjects of which Baudelaire asserted as the direction of the art world.

Portrait of James Tissot, Edgar Degas, c. 1867. Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

Young Women Looking at Japanese Objects is charming, attractive work with highly decorative materials, objects and constructions permeating the surface. The woman and the girl observe an object while they are observed by us. It is hidden what exactly they are looking at, bringing our attention to the females themselves and how they interact with the object. They do not seem particularly enthused, but somewhat absorbed in the Japanese artefact placed before them.

Left: Young Women Looking at Japanese Objects, Jacques Joseph Tissot, c.1869; Right: The Awakening Conscience, Holaman Hunt, c. 1853. Image source: www.tate.org.uk

Tissot’s work is not unlike Holaman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience in the prominent use of moral symbolism. Hunt’s figure seems revived by a world she finally sees outside the life she had previously been confined to, evoked by her eye-line that stares beyond the picture plane. In contrast, Tissot’s females gaze further into the world of entrapment, they themselves appearing as ravishing birds again perched within the cage of formal beauty as Wood observed, “ornamental, pampered, but trapped within a moral and social code.” They become objects.

Julian Treuherz remarked these types of paintings as “decoratively arranged pictures of female models as vehicles to convey beauty for its own sake.” Just as the females in Hush they reflect the environment they are placed within. It is a room for things to look at and it is no coincidence Tissot placed them here. The formal pictorial functions of colour, composition and perspective were employed to present these ideas on a flat surface. The vanishing point lies beyond the centre of the work, the females blocking our view calling for our attention. The colours in their dresses are also found in the furniture and objects around the room. Most convincingly, the placement of the backside of the curtain on the left side indicates we are not invited into the room. In risk of disturbing them, we are only to view the objects in all their beauty from outside. A refined voyeurism is certainly in play.

The 1980’s saw radical efforts in the art world. Post-Modernism totally rejected traditional works of the 19th century. The state of art was one that favoured contemporary work with a social purpose over any Tissot, Renoir or Whistler. Nancy Rose Marshall summarised his career:

Tissot is not the kind of artist who features largely in general histories of art… his work is admired, studied, and collected all over the world, sometimes with a cult-like devotion… What makes him easy to omit from survey books is that he defies the normal categories: he was neither a leader nor a follower, neither academic nor avant-garde, an outsider in both the French art world and the British.

Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum?, Guerrilla Girls, 1989. Image source: www.tate.org.uk

His evolution is a peculiar one, but Tissot is an artist of his time. Though they still remained valuable in economic terms. It is the voyeurism and objectivity Tissot presents that would have been disliked. Feminism became at the forefront of the art world toward the end of last century and was eventually supported within the art community. The efforts of feminist artists and groups such as The Guerrilla Girls, Barbara Kruger, Judy Chicago and Georgia O’Keefe changed attitudes forever of the female figure’s stance in the art world. Campaigns exploited the exhibition of females as objects in the Guerrilla Girls’ posters reading, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” and Kruger’s collages expressing, “Your body is a battleground.”

Black Iris, Georgia O’Keefe, c.1887–1986. Image source: www.christies.com.

Chicago endorsed the notion of Herstory; woman have achieved in the past as well as men and this should be equally celebrated. O’Keefe saw the beauty in feminine core imagery opposed to their appearances and demeanour. By evoking this imagery metaphorically through flowers she introduced the art world to a celebration of the female rejecting the way artists like Tissot portrayed them. The bigger the statement the more popular the art. Tissot was nothing to be strongly admired or contested, but his subtle social commentary would have seemed laughable under the auspices of 1980’s feminism.

Today we have a new feminism, one where attacking the subject of male dominance is revoked by the success of many women in the twenty-first century. Though there still is an imbalance, the likes of Emma Watson are on a mission to revolutionise gender equality starting with a change in attitude. The rejection of Tissot’s treatment of women by a traditional feminist would suggest they believed the artist endorsed the objectification of women. This is extremely narrow; if every artist who was rendering the life they lived within only in the way they believed to be fair would be to lie. Many artists relied on Ruskin’s ethos, “truth to nature.” He was rendering his depicting his nature. A feminist of today likely sympathises with both the woman as subject and the artist as creator. It is understood both were conditioned by their time and place, something that cannot be reversed. Ultimately it could be said Tissot’s feminine empathy called for a response of liberation, one that only came to the floor one hundred years later, and only realised after his works passed into the twenty-first century.

Emma Watson HeForShe speech at the United Nations, 2014. Video source: YouTube.

His artistic ability has been timelessly admired. He meticulously applies the paint to the surface capturing the essence of the living subjects with his brush. Krystyna Matyjaszkiewics describes Tissot as depicting relatable sensations evoking emotional sensations from commonly deduced body language opposed to the sensations of our eyes as a response to colour and light. The works vary from a crisp, precise appearance to a more impressionistic style as Matyjaszkiewics found, though not enough so to be classed among Dégas and Van Gogh.

In Shipboard the flags are carefully placed to create a coloré de mur, a colourful wall bringing the scene out of the monochrome and into the vibrant festive sphere that grants the work its attractive front. In Women Looking at Japanese Objects the entire composition is embellished with enchanting content, the light source unknown and yet everything glows. Even the skin of the females reveal an alluring luminescence in contrast to the dark wooden structures surrounding them. Until one really looks at a Tissot they will not find the tension in space he fabricates; the compliments of colour in the placement of objects within the composition.

Waiting for the Train, Jacques Joseph Tissot, c. 1871–1873.

The other measure that presents the tension in spacial convention is the cropping of a scene. Waiting for the Train also suggests the influence of photography in capturing a limited space from a solid standpoint where the artist chooses which objects he wishes to include or crop out as if capturing a momentary instance. We have a play on pictorial depth where everything within the work suggests an illusion of space; the receding orthogonals, the overlapping of objects, and the recession in size of subjects as they disappear into the background. Yet Tissot stays true to the limitations of the canvas by slicing the female figure on the left in half suggesting this is not an illusion of reality but a representation of certain aspects.

The suitcases become unusually prominent and the pattern of the tiling and railway tracks take over. Tissot was a collector of oriental artworks and Japonaisaries is evident in many of his works. It was common in Ukiyo-e prints to continue a scene beyond the picture plane producing a cropping effect like in Waiting for the Train. The platforms runs beyond the point where the canvas stops suggesting a larger space. We are projected before the figure and yet held by her stare, shut out by the fullness of the composition. We are encouraged to ask what is she doing? Where is she going? What is she thinking? Spacial convention plays a major role in leading our eye to the main focus of the works, the woman beyond the surface.

James Whistler was the more celebrated artist for the use of Japonaisarie. Though, Tissot’s paintings as a Western analog to Japanese works depicting similar subjects shows a greater understanding of what Kitagawa Utamaro, Suzuki Haranobu and Katsuchika Hokusai set out to describe. Descriptions of fashions and fabrics along with careful depiction of figure interactions were also notable characteristics of the Japanese prints. If Utamaro and Tissot were to meet, they would challenge Wood’s observation, “the Japanese element merely depicts a fashion in western taste.” The artists probably would have agreed in conversation about how to present a scene, and bonded over the way they represent the opposite sex, a deeper purpose than simply aesthetic taste.

Left: Promenade dans la Neige, Jacques Joseph Tissot, c. unknown. Image source: www.jamestissot.org; Right: Lovers Walking in the Snow (Crow and Heron), Suzuki Harunobu, c. 1764–72. Image source: www.metmuseum.org.

In Utamaro’s prints of the Shin Yoshiwara, he represents the vulnerability of the courtesans Cecilia described as “the attitudes of a class ridden, repressive society did not permit any satisfaction, leaving people with the deep yearning for the romance and affection their lives did not afford.” Though Tissot himself found this romance with Mrs Newton, a major part of his career was too assigned to presenting this same struggle of women in 19th century Europe. He also used motifs of season to present the moods of the figures as Krystyna Matyjaszkiewicz investigated. Mrs Newton in Prommenade dans le neige parallels Harunobu’s female figure in Winter Scene of Black Crow and White Heron, women overcoming the complexities of a love affair with a man outside of marriage, the burden will remain just as the snow will fall from the sky.

Looking at his art from an Eastern perspective suggests a response to Matyjaszkiewicz view of thirty years ago, “Perhaps we shall never grasp exactly what it was Tissot was trying to convey in his art” and Wood’s unchallenging conclusion, “Tissot’s pictures will always remain ultimately ambiguous or incomprehensible.” A Japanese audience would be aware of the interplay between mood and season, just as we may associate a summers day with happiness in modern cinema. It is this intellectual depth Tissot also explores that is celebrated in the 21st century. Like the Japanese artists, he challenges the viewer to whether they can put the pieces of the puzzle together to reveal a masterpiece.

The Life of Christ, Jacques Joseph Tissot, c.1886–94. Image source: www.brooklynmuseum.org.

His spiritual woks may be dismissed as kitsch, but in 1880 spiritualism was at the height of scholarship. William E. Misfeldt gave a very shallow account of Tissot’s works in 1971 though he briefly mentioned the séance experience where Mrs Newton appeared to Tissot while the artist was on his quest to render les femmes de Paris. A change in subject and style materialised as a result, a pre-curser to Tissot’s journey with Christ soon to follow. The Life of Christ was a very popular series at the time of completion and in 1900 The Brooklyn Museum purchased the series for $60,000. They were particularly successful in America, Paris and London during the last decade of his century and the narrative style made a comeback in the 1960’s.

As Misfeldt reported, “Tissot had struck exactly the right chord at the end of the century.” As time has evolved, human kind has become increasingly secular and religious paintings have taken on a different utility. The religious works are somewhat of a reminder of the past success of Tissot and are really only admired today by the passionate Tissot enthusiast or those who seek a visual religious experience. They present to us an “intersection of materialism and spirituality, history and faith” as Ariella Budick reported of the exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 2009. She deduced, “Where once Tissot had packed energy into the tiniest flicker of movement, now he drained great gesticulations of any kinetic force at all. As a result the paintings quiver with detail but are emotionally vacant, and the sacramental vignettes lack the spark of revelation that lit the painter’s scenes of parks and parlours.”

The way one looks at art is influenced by their tastes and preferences informed by their culture, time and experiences. To admire a Tissot in its fullness is to remove it from the constraints of art history and discover the lessons Tissot is trying to teach. He comes from a place built on rules that resulted in a mundane life for most of the middle class. A place where his nationality condemned him to a certain viewpoint. He proposed a problem in the way middle class women lived and asked the questions others were afraid to pose. In doing so, Tissot also exerted his ability to find a subtle beauty in the vulgar. He took this talent and presented spiritual and religious subjects in a well received style. The complexity of Tissot’s works is what makes them favourable. When the viewer becomes conscious of these complexities, it is hard to believe they do not become an admirer. If not for the purpose, for the formal characteristics that make Tissot’s works worthy of valuable wall space all over the globe.

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