Jacques Joseph Tissot (15 October 1836
– 8 August 1902), who became known as James Tissot by 1854, was a
French painter and illustrator. He left Paris for London in 1871. He
was a successful painter of Paris society before moving to London in
1871. He became famous as a genre painter of fashionably dressed
women shown in various scenes of everyday life. He also made
paintings illustrating the Bible.
Tissot was born in the port town of Nantes, France and spent his
early childhood there. His father, Marcel Théodore Tissot, was a
successful drapery merchant. His mother, Marie Durand, assisted her
husband in the family business and designed hats. A devout Catholic,
Tissot's mother instilled pious devotion in the future artist from a
very young age. Tissot's youth spent in Nantes likely contributed to
his frequent depiction of shipping vessels and boats in his later
works. The involvement of his parents in the fashion industry is
believed to have been an influence on his painting style, as he
depicted women's clothing in fine detail. By the time Tissot was 17,
he knew he wanted to pursue painting as a career. His father opposed
this preferring his son to follow a business profession but he
gained his mother's support for his chosen vocation. Around this
time, he began adopting the name of James and by 1854 was commonly
known as James Tissot, perhaps because of his increasing interest in
In 1856 or 1857, Tissot travelled to Paris to pursue an
education in art. While staying with a friend of his mother, painter
Elie Delaunay, Tissot enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts to study
in the studios of Hippolyte Flandrin and Louis Lamothe, both
successful Lyonnaise painters who came to Paris to study under
Ingres. Lamothe provided a majority of Tissot's studio education,
while he studied on his own as did most other artists of the time,
by copying works at the Louvre. Around this time, Tissot also made
the acquaintance of James McNeill Whistler as well as Edgar Degas
(who had also been a student of Lamothe and a friend of Delaunay)
and Édouard Manet.
In 1859, Tissot exhibited in the
Paris Salon for the first time. He showed five paintings of scenes
from the Middle Ages, many depicting scenes from Goethe's Faust.
These works show the influence over his work of the Belgian painter
Henri Leys (Jan August Hendrik Leys), whom Tissot had met in Antwerp
earlier that same year. Other influences include the works of the
German painters Peter von Cornelius and Moritz Retzsch. When Tissot
had only exhibited at the Salon once and before he had been awarded
a medal, the French government paid 5,000 francs for his depiction
of The Meeting of Faust and Marguerite in 1860, with the painting
being exhibited at the Salon the following year together with a
portrait and other paintings.
Émile Péreire supplied Tissot's painting Walk in the Snow for the
1862 international exhibition in London; the next year three
paintings by Tissot were displayed at the London gallery of Ernest
Gambart. In about 1863, Tissot suddenly shifted his focus from the
medieval style to the depiction of modern life through portraits.
During this period, Tissot found himself held in high critical
acclaim, quickly becoming a successful artist. Like contemporaries
such as Alfred Stevens and Claude Monet, Tissot also explored
japonisme, including Japanese objects and costumes in his pictures.
A portrait of Tissot by Degas from these years (Metropolitan Museum
of Art, New York) shows him with a Japanese screen hanging on the
Tissot fought in the
Franco-Prussian War as part of the improvised defence of Paris,
joining two companies of the Garde Nationale and later as part Paris
Commune. Either because of the political associations caused by the
latter, which he was believed to have joined to protect his own
belongings, or simply because of better opportunities, he left Paris
for London in 1871. During this period, Seymour Haden helped him
with learning about etching. Having already worked as a
caricaturist for Thomas Gibson Bowles, the owner of the magazine
Vanity Fair, as well as exhibited at the Royal Academy, Tissot
arrived with established social and artistic connections in London.
Bowles gave Tissot both a place to stay as well as a cartooning job
for Vanity Fair.
He quickly developed his reputation
as a painter of elegantly dressed women shown in scenes of
fashionable life. By 1872, Tissot was able to purchase his own home
in St John's Wood, an area of London very popular with artists at
the time. According to The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists, "in
1874 Edmond de Goncourt wrote sarcastically that he had 'a studio
with a waiting room where, at all times, there is iced champagne at
the disposal of visitors'".
He gained membership of The Arts
Club in 1873.
Paintings by Tissot appealed greatly to wealthy British
industrialists during the second half of the 19th-century and during
1872 he earned 94,515 francs, an income normally only enjoyed by
those in the echeleons of the upper classes.
In 1874, Degas asked him to join
them in the first exhibition organized by the artists we call the
Impressionists, but Tissot refused. He continued to be close to the
artists however. Berthe Morisot visited him in London in 1874 and he
travelled to Venice with Édouard Manet at about the same time. He
regularly saw Whistler, who influenced Tissot's Thames scenes.
In 1875-6, Tissot met a divorcee
named Mrs. Kathleen Newton, who became the painter's companion and
frequent model. He composed an etching of her in 1876 entitled
Portrait of Mrs N., more commonly titled La frileuse. She gave birth
to a son, Cecil George Newton in 1876, who is believed to be
Tissot's son. She moved into Tissot's household in St. John's Wood
in 1876 and stayed there until her death in the late stages of
consumption in 1882. Tissot would frequently refer to these years
with Newton as the happiest of his life, a time when he was able to
live out his dream of a family life.
After Kathleen Newton's death,
Tissot returned to Paris. A major exhibition of his work took place
in 1885 at the Galerie Sedelmeyer, where he showed 15 large
paintings in a series called La Femme à Paris. Unlike the genre
scenes of fashionable women he painted in London, these paintings
represent different types and classes of women, shown in their
professional and social contexts. The works suggest the influence of
Japanese prints in their use of unexpected angles and framing, as
well as a monumental context shown in the size of the canvases. This
was the influence of Japanese art, fashion and aesthetics on Western
Tissot in 1898 (detail of a self-portrait on silk).
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In 1885, Tissot experienced a re-conversion to Catholicism,
which led him to spend the rest of his life illustrating the Bible.
Many of his artist friends were skeptical about his conversion, as
it conveniently coincided with the French Catholic revival, a
reaction against the secular attitude of the French Third Republic.
At a time when French artists were still working in impressionism,
pointilism, and heavy oil washes, Tissot was moving toward realism
in his watercolors. To assist in his completion of biblical
illustrations, Tissot traveled to the Middle East in 1886, 1889, and
1896 to make studies of the landscape and people. His series of 365
gouache (opaque watercolor) illustrations showing the life of Christ
were shown to critical acclaim and enthusiastic audiences in Paris
(1894–5), London (1896) and New York (1898–9), before being bought
by the Brooklyn Museum in 1900. They were published in a French
edition in 1896–7 and in an English one in 1897–8, bringing Tissot
vast wealth and fame. During July 1894, Tissot was awarded the
Légion d'honneur, France's most prestigious medal. Tissot spent the
last years of his life working on paintings of subjects from the Old
Testament (Jewish Museum, New York). Although he never completed the
series, he exhibited 80 of them in Paris in 1901 and engravings
after them were published in 1904.
Death and legacy
Tissot died suddenly in Doubs, France on 8 August 1902, while living
in the Château de Buillon, a former abbey which he had inherited
from his father in 1888. His grave is in the chapel sited within the
grounds of the chateau. Widespread use of his illustrations in
literature and slides continued after his death with The Life of
Christ and The Old Testament becoming the "definitive Bible images".
His images have provided a foundation for contemporary films such as
Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Age of Innocence. In the first half
of the 20th century there was a re-kindling of interest in his
portraits of well attired ladies and some fifty years later these
were achieving record prices.