21 May 2024

James Tissot's art. Thanks San Francisco

Tissot, Bad News/The Parting, 1872, 
69x91 cm. National Museum Cardiff 

Jacques Tissot (1836-1902) fought in the Franco-Prussian War to defend Paris, as part of the Paris Commune. His 1870 art evoked the period of the French revolution. But it wasn’t a happy time for the Commune; he left Paris for London in 1871 and spent a decade as an ex-pat in London, immersing himself in and chronicling modern society.

When Tissot refused Degas’ invitation in Mar 1874 to join in the first Impressionist Exhibition, he paid a price. But why would Tissot leave Lond­on where he was do­ing very well on his own, especially financially? His pict­ures were shown at the Royal Academy, and his portrait of ad­venturer Frederick Burnaby was hung in the London Int­ernat­ional Exhibition, 1872. He could buy a lovely house in St John’s Wood!

Look at the attention Tissot paid to composition, costumes and col­our. But in Bad News/The Parting (1872), we focus on more than the faces’ sorrows. The young captain, ready in his uniform, sadly slumped forward at the prospect of imminent departure, as did his sweet­heart. Glimpse the other sailors sadly going out to join their ship.

Yet under Manet's influence, Tissot did scenes from modern life eg fashionable women. He loved social events and balls, painting fun metropolitan life. But even his loveliest society pictures showed rich and complex commentary on Belle Époque culture, religion, fashion and politics. The exhibition included many key modern-life works from his time in London and Paris eg The Ball on Shipboard (1874) and The Prodigal Son in Modern Life (1882).

Tissot, The Ball on Shipboard, c1874. 
84 x 130 cm. Tate, London.

In Holyday/The Picnic (1876), two young girls were shown having a great deal of fun, picnicking with a gentleman. Why did they bother with a chaperone; he was doing his own thing by a lakeside tree.
Tissot, Holyday/Picnic, c1876.
76 x 99 cm. Tate London 

The exhibition James Tissot: Fashion and Faith started at the Legion of Honour in San Francisco in Oct 2019. The curators knew the artist was organised and ambitious when they discovered his 1857-1890 carnet de ventes/sales book while the exhibition was being researched.

In 1874, Tissot proudly displayed his paintings in his London house studio, a fashionable thing to do, before suc­cess­fully submitting them to the RA: London Visit­ors (1874). Note the diligent man pausing on the steps of the National Gallery buried in his guide book, while his wife looked directly out of the picture to search for something more inter­est­ing. In their det­ailed depictions of elegant dress, these society scenes were accomp­lished examples of his later work. 

Tissot, London Visitors, 1874, 
160×114cm. Toledo Mus Art, Ohio 

In many of them, Tissot set up an eye-to-eye confrontation in his portraits, as if encouraging them to assert themselves as modern independent women. The show displayed October (1877); the painting depicted Kathleen Newton, a young Irish divorcee, who had become his live-in lover and muse until her death from TB in 1882. Dressed in black, Kathleen looked calmly at the viewer as she hurried through a park.
Tissot, October, 1877. 
216 x 109 cm, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

A week after Kathleen tragically died, Tissot permanently left London. The change in direction that followed this move was the best part of the exhibition. It was on his return to Paris that Tis­sot paint­ed his well-known La Femme à Paris series (1883–85)

It was then that Tissot had a revival of his Catholic faith which led him to spend the rest of his life painting Bib­lical events. He spent long periods of productive retreat at his family estate in the French countryside, nurturing his commitment to religion.

As was popular during the late C19th, Tissot dabbled in mysticism and attended Spiritualist séances. His famous mezzotint from the Fine Arts Museums’ collection, The Apparition (1885), depicted the ghost of Kathleen Newton with a spirit guide as they reportedly appeared to Tissot during a séance. 

In 1886 he left for the first of three visits to the Holy Land where he sought traditions from biblical times. During these trips, he and produced hundreds of water­colours to illustrate the Bible. Very popular in Tissot’s lifetime, these religious images became known as the Tissot Bible. Meantime his The Annun­cia­t­ion was adopt­ed wholesale for silent films from 1916 on. 

Tissot, Christ's Blessing, c1885 

Back in France, he retired to his rural chateau and embarked on the massive project of illustrating the New Testament in 350 water­col­ours. These were exhibited to popular acclaim in Paris, London and then on tour across the U.S. In 1900, The Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences bought the whole set. The printed version, The Life of Christ (1897), known as the Tissot Bible, became popular.

A group of biblical watercolours was lent to the exhibition from the Brooklyn Museum and the Jewish Museum, New York. The final room in the exhibition displayed eight Old Testament and 14 New Testament illustrations, plus part of a print­ed edition of The Life of Christ. Among them was the daring What Our Saviour Saw from the Cross, which raised the viewer to exp­erience Christ’s perspective.

This exhibition showed Tissot’s narrative strengths and his skill in portraying the emotion­al world of his sitters.

Tissot also utilised the relatively new medium of photography by painting from photographs and recording many of his works as well as his home and family in well arranged albums. Photographs from the Fine Arts Museums’ collection in the exhibit­ion, along with recently discovered photos published in the exhibition catalogue.

With new knowledge about the artist’s the broad oeuvre and tech­niques, the exhibition provided a critical reassessment of Tissot for us moderns. The exhibition drew on art from Fine Arts Museums of San Fran­cisco; J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; National Gall­ery of Art Wash­ DC; Tate London; Musées d’Orsay et de l’Oran­g­erie; Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris; the Musée d’Arts de Nantes; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; and Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal. The show included c60 paintings, plus drawings, prints, photo­s and cloisonné enamels.


jabblog said...

There is so much detail in his paintings and an almost photographic quallity in his earlier work.

Joe said...

Tissot's An Interesting Story (1870s) was bought by The Felton Bequest for the NGV before the war. Good on you, Melbourne.

Jo-Anne's Ramblings said...

I like his paintings, even though I have never heard of him till now and what an interesting life he had, not always a happy life but that's how it goes.

roentare said...

Thank you for such a nice informative post on Tissot. The story is fascinating to read. His art somehow leaves a mark in my memory.

My name is Erika. said...

This was interesting because I didn't recognize Tissot's name, but I did recognize his painting of Kathleen Newton. It is a beautiful piece, and very cleverly done. I hope you're having a good week.

DUTA said...

I'm impressed by the painting of Kathleen, dressed in black, hurrying through a park. Beautiful picture and background!
I suppose Tissot's biblical works arose great interest among religious circles.

Margaret D said...

A talented man indeed.
I do care for his paintings and love that dress in black, the details is wonderful
Thanks Hels.

Andrew said...

I like his works painted when he was in London. What a fine artist and more people should know about him.

Hels said...


very detailed and very fashionable. Not only did Tissot mix in nice English society, he seemed to admire independent women. Good man!

Hels said...


The NGV reported that Tissot portrayed two fashionably dressed young women ignoring a soldier who is engrossed in his own telling of a tale. This work, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1872, was one of the first paintings Tissot showed in London after he left France at the fall of the Paris Commune in 1871 and critics responded to it with great enthusiasm. Humour and irony struck a chord in An Interesting Story, very appealing to contemporary audiences.

Hels said...


Many artists seem to have suffered tragedies in their countries or in their personal lives. I wonder if that gives them a sensitivity that pushes them into a career when emotion and pain are helpful. Of course it doesn't always protect them eg van Gogh ended up with suicide.

Hels said...


Kathleen Newton ended up as Tissot beloved girlfriend. Kathleen was his model in many Tissot works of art; so much so that we know a great deal about their relationship. She was gorgeous.

Hels said...


I knew nothing about Tissot's religious era. So when writing this post, I looked as widely as I could to see when these paintings were created and where they are on display. Have a look at some of his amazing religious themes in:
"James Tissot’s Bible Series"

Hels said...


how did a male artist know so much about women's fashions and how did he depict those fashions with such beauty? Sigh

Hels said...


Had Tissot not refused Degas’ invitation to join in the first Impressionist Exhibition in 1874, and had he moved back to France, he would probably have been far better known. He didn't really fit in with the British art school and he didn't want to include himself in those French artists who went on to become totally famous. Academic and professional support was important for all artists, at least early in their careers.

Hels said...


Worth examining is a book by Russell Ash that discusses the life and work of James Tissot and presents a fine selection of Tissot's best paintings. Includes a list of his paintings in public collections including 60 illustrations, many in gorgeous colour. Amazon

Gattina said...

Very interesting, I didn't know all that probably because he didn't belong to the impressionist and struggled between different styles. I learned painting in an Art school and we also had lessons of art and history. He was born as Jacques Joseph Tissot but preferred James as first name. I have learned a bit more, thanks !

Hels said...


belonging to an important academic or artistic organisation could be very helpful to an artist, especially early in his/her career while the young artists' reputations were not yet established. But they could also reduce the freedom felt by the young artists who _had_ to go along with the organisations' values. Tissot did as he wanted, but success was sometimes not as easy to achieve during his career as he might have wanted.

Now Tissot's best works make a fortune at auction, but he died way too early to enjoy these successes.

Britta said...

Dear Helen, I learned so much about Tissot by your post! Two or three pictures I knew, but not his oeuvre and about his life. Thank you!

Hels said...


me too... I didn't know about Tissot's religious works and am delighted to accept any help that blogging can extend to all of us.