So why am I interested in a non-British, non-Australian artist who concentrated on society portraits?
Tissot, Goodbye on the Mersey, early 1870s
James Tissot (1836-1902) was born in Nantes. He was raised in a French seaport city and throughout his career, he impressed with his painting of ships, rigging, ports and water. He studied art at Beaux-Arts in Paris and following the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, Tissot chose to move to London. There he painted highly finished, beautiful paintings of London society.
Many bloggers have turned their attention to Tissot. Scholars and Rogues blog in ArtSunday: love among the ruffles noted that until his lover’s death by suicide in 1882, Tissot was a society painter exiled from high society, who worked for and sold to the successful merchants, bankers and brokers of London. “Paintings of vulgar middle-class boating parties, portraits of overdressed ironmongers’ daughters and their pomaded swains in brand-new suits”, sniffed Ruskin.
Still Tissot worked, in constant demand, and in doing so created a marvellously detailed record of a very specific time and place, a canvas history of dress, manners and values. As Cris, Artist in Oregon noted Tissot’s parents had run a clothing business in his youth and he was something of a dandy himself.
Hollister Hovey found fine portraits of men by Tissot. Not male partners and staff, helping women in their activities, but men as the sole focus of portraitly attention.
Tissot, The Emigrants, c1875
Lines and Colour blog noted that Tissot was also an accomplished etcher, having learned much from Whistler.
Mardecortesbaja was particularly on-topic for me for since the blog focused on Tissot’s attraction to the Port of London and the river Thames. Tissot loved the Thames, its ships and bustle. It may have taken him back to his youth. The blog’s example, Two Friends, was especially dynamic, with its small boat moving forward into a space in front of the picture plane as the taller ships lead our eye backward into the space of the painting, reinforcing the sense of movement. His paintings with the river as the background have an evocative atmosphere. I agree that a viewer could almost smell the smoke, and hear the shouts of the dockers and watermen.
In my pursuit of emigration art, Tissot’s dockside pictures were an important part of his desire to paint a uniquely British subject: the Victorian problem of emigration. And, it should be noted, all the emigration paintings were created during Tissot’s 11 years in Britain.
They pointed to the sad restlessness of the people waiting on the docks with steamer trunks in By Water/Waiting at the Dockside 1881 and to the tearful waves of those left behind on Goodbye on the Mersey. The central theme of this painting was the leave-taking of a loved son and fiance.
Tissot, Waiting at Dockside, 1881
View the woman climbing aboard the ship in The Emigrants c1875. The image showed a woman carrying a small child and a bundle on her left arm, standing on the deck of a ship looking down. There were men in front and behind her but the woman seemed to hover, perhaps because her husband had gone on ahead of her to ? Australia. While she and her child were emigrating to find a better life, the voyage itself was both dangerous and lonely. Tissot maximised the dramatic backdrop of masts, ropes and flags.
As difficult to find as these images are, the theme of emigration and the conditions that forced people to seek a life overseas fascinated Tissot. Clearly he was interest in the drama of severing ties with one’s native land. In The Two Friends c1881, a man stretched to shake hands with a soldier who leaned out from the rigging of a steamer that was about to pull away from the dock. Other figures engaged in leave taking remained along the edges.
Tissot, The Two Friends (etching)
I value Patricia Tryon Macdonald (ed)'s work Exiles and Emigrants: Epic Journeys to Australia in the Victorian Era, the well written, well produced catalogue of the exhibition held in Melbourne (from late 2005) and then in Canberra (in 2006). Other recommendations, which I have not read myself, include Eric Richards' Britannia's Children (2004) and David Fitzpatrick's Oceans of Consolation (1994), and Jordana Pomeroy et al., Journeying Women: Victorian Women Artists Travel, Lund Humphries, 2006.