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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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James Tissot was a highly regarded French artist from the 19th century whose styles placed him on the fringes of the Impressionist and Realist art movements.

The more famous elements of his oeuvre can be categorised into two genres, namely the depiction of European high society plus various artworks along religious themes. His career is normally discussed and analysed from that viewpoint, with academics choosing to address one or the other in great detail, or just his life in full. Besides his elaborate paintings, which made use of both oils and watercolours, there was also a plentiful array of illustrations too. Whilst artist Tissot cannot be considered as famous as most members of the Impressionist period, his style has also found favour with the art loving public and in recent years there has been an increased focus on all artists from the Victorian era.

If we deliver further into his scenes of high society we will discover several recurring themes. Firstly, there are a number of maritime based artworks that point to the artist’s childhood in Nantes as well as his considerable time living in the island nation of the United Kingdom. Examples of his work in that genre includes The Gallery of HMS Calcutta (Portsmouth), Ball on Shipboard and Boarding the Yacht. The artist's devotion to Catholicism would fluctuate across his lifetime and when it was at its strongest, so related themes would start to appear in his work. This was particularly apparent in his later years, which included a series of watercolours such a number of depictions of Moses and Jesus.

During his formative years, Tissot would spend considerable time in the company of a number of significant artists who would help to shape his artistic direction. He was a strong minded character who famously turned down the opportunity of joining the early Impressionist exhibitions in order to preserve his fiercely independent nature. Despite that, he would still count a number of its members within his social circle and much of his work has clearly taken influence from them. Degas' famous portrait of Tissot revealed their own friendship, whilst Manet and Whistler was also well known to him on a personal level. Despite avoiding the group in an official capacity, Tissot was still able to achieve considerable success financially during his own lifetime.

Manet was someone who wanted Impressionism to capture real life, as he saw it. Tissot precisely did just this, albeit from the privileged viewpoint of the upper and upper-middle classes. However, his refusal to connect officially with the movement has undeniably damaged the strength of his own legacy. In recent years there has been an attempt within the US to re-look at artists such as this one in order to re-promote their achievements. The same has been done with several members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, including Morris, Holman Hunt, Burne-Jones and Waterhouse. Several notable academics have completed detailed studies into their work, having been awarded generous scholarships from institutions looking to refresh interest in what they consider to be amongst the most charming art to have appeared during the 19th and early 20th century. Some of these studies are available online as lecture videos or instead as published papers or art history books are are important in the development of our knowledge of artists such as these.

Charles Baudelaire published an article in 1863 titled Le Peintre de la vie moderne and this encouraged many artists to pay attention to the simple elements that make up modern life, rather than just focusing on historical events from the past. He wanted the mundanity of life to be captured and recorded for future generations by the best artists of his time and Tissot was one of those who decided to follow this path, at least for a period of his career. This decision would help to establish his financial future, with the Frenchman becoming successful from an early age, with the content and output being warmly received by the wealthier parts of society. Those who took against these topics were notable, but always in the minority and unable to block his rise to fame. In terms of his own living quarters, the success of this approach enabled him to relocate from a bohemian setting into a richer part of Paris. He was now very much a part of the establishment, and this would bring both advantages and disadvantages for the rest of his career.

He would keep this house for the rest of his life, frequently using it as the setting for his work. There were collections of Asian objects which he collected over a long period and would decorated the interior of his home with them, see La Japonaise au Bain and Young Ladies Looking at Japanese Objects for two examples of asian art on his career. The European art scene was particularly influenced by various elements of Asian culture during the 19th century, with many of the more wealthy artists collecting items from this region. Besides Tissot, we are also aware of Van Gogh who put together an impressive collection of Japanese prints. Tissot was also interested in the beauty of female clothing, and this continued into many of his most famous paintings, where the rich and famous would display their flamboyance and elegance during these social events. He would capture scenes of fun aboard ships, whilst being safely moored in the harbour. You might argue that the women themselves were part of the display of design beauty, not just the items that they were wearing.

Paris itself was the centre of the world for fashion at that time and this became part of his brand when he relocated to London in 1871. Many of the artists with which he spent time were equally as interested in the UK as he was, seeing an element of artistic freedom within the culture that appealed to these modern-thinking individuals. Artistic opinions in France tended to be more polarised, where one was forced to take sides on an argument, even when they would have preferred to stay neutral. Despite his later rejection by some British academics, most were welcoming to his career and excited to have a respected French painter in their midst. There was, additionally, a number of highly profitable merchants within the country who were seeking commissioned pieces from respected artists such as him. Political instability within his native France as well as the location of his friend, Whistler, in Chelsea, West London, forced him to take the decision to relocate across the channel.

Initially he would produce a number of magazine illustrations, mainly caricatures for a new publication before some of his respected artworks such as Too Early and Hush! would soon follow. The local British audience appeared to approve of the sense of humour within his work and he soon established a considerable following for his work. He was now starting to receive a share of some of the wealth that washed around the city of London at this time and he was enjoying the social opportunities that the British capital offered him. We must not forget, too, that his initial birth name was actually Jacques, and that he consciously chose to amend it to James when young, giving an early indication of his interest in British culture. He would at this point start to produce scenes of maritime meriment on the English south coast, as well as across on the Isle of Wight.

At this point the painter was re-using models across a variety of artworks. You may spot figures across several of his more famous works. Even one or two of the outfits appear to have been reused, but only the most eagle-eyed follower of the artist would have spotted these. Socialising on or by the river has occurred many times within the Impressionist movement and those close to Tissot were particularly fond of these themes. It was therefore unsurprising that he then produced a whole series of paintings based on different situations around the Thames. These now serve as an eye into the past for us today, offering exquisite detail of the daily lives of those more fortunate members of society. There is a romantic element to the fashion and activities of the day, with any hardship experienced by others being carefully tucked away off canvas.