Ruffles and flourishes: James Tissot (1836-1902) was a master of them. In his meticulous, highly detailed paintings, ladies and gentlemen of the late 19th century sip tea, stroll, dance, eat and pose, almost always dressed to the nines. Tissot amplified the glamor of their clothing and the luxuriance of their surroundings to make such pretty pictures. They were popular in London and Paris in his lifetime and prized by American collectors well into the latter half of the 20th century.
But was Tissot more than a fussy society painter? Many critics, then and now, think not. "James Tissot: Fashion & Faith" at the Legion of Honor takes a different stance. Informed by new scholarship, curator Melissa E. Buron, with colleagues at the Musée d'Orsay and the Orangerie in Paris, proposes a more complex view of an artist who famously turned down Edgar Degas's invitation to join the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, possibly because he was more famous than they were. How times change.
Tissot's extraordinary artistic talent is obvious in the 70 paintings and other objects on view. The stunning "October" (1877) [top left], which opens the exhibition, is quintessential Tissot: it shows his lover and muse, Kathleen Newton, in an exquisite black, fur-trimmed, embroidered jacket and ruffled skirt, walking along a golden autumnal trail. His focus on high-style and his precision with the brush is even more clear in exuberant works like "Painters and Their Wives" (c. 1883-85), a dense outdoor café scene celebrating "Varnishing Day" before the annual Paris Salon.
Perhaps more captivating than his genre scenes are Tissot's portraits—especially "Portrait of Mlle L. L..." (1864) [below right]. Set in a room that is more homey than elegant, it shows her in billowing black dress and red bolero, meeting the viewer's gaze, and led to several commissions, including formal group portraits like "Portrait of the Marquis and Marquise de Miramon and Their Children" (1865).
It's also obvious from "Fashion & Faith" that Tissot's art reflects his biography. He grew up in Nantes, in northwest France, the son of a textile merchant and a milliner with her own hat shop—steeped not only in fashion but also in market trends. As a young artist, he absorbed medieval, neoclassical and academic traditions, then flirted with history painting, Japonisme and aestheticism. He served as a sharpshooter during the Franco-Prussian War.
He also knew many artistic peers in France and England, and their influence is unambiguous—with his "The Thames" (1875) and "Holyday (The Picnic)" (c. 1876) recalling Manet, "The Two Sisters; Portrait" (1863) conjuring Whistler, and other works drawing on Sargent, to name a few examples.
Yet unlike theirs, Tissot's art stayed within the lines. And, in contrast to the social tensions in many of their works, Tissot's subjects seem slight.
But they were not necessarily vacuous, as critics have claimed: "Fashion & Faith" recasts Tissot as a storyteller whose narratives deal with human relationships beneath their decorous surfaces. There's the poor wallflower in "The Ball on Shipboard" (c. 1874) and the boy whose marriage offer was refused in "The Captain's Daughter" (1873) [below left]. In "Too Early" (1873), a man and his three daughters embarrassingly appear at a ball prematurely, so nouveau—a theme he reprised in "Provincial Woman" (c. 1883-85), where the same overly ruffled quartet has grown older, but not wiser.
Likewise, Tissot's deep love for Newton is conspicuous. Aside from "October," she is the beautiful woman in the spectacular "Winter or Mavourneen" (1877), where she stands in near silhouette against a window, looking away, and in the striking "Mrs. Newton with a Parasol" (c. 1878), among others. When she was stricken with tuberculosis, he records her decline, ending with the poignant "Summer Evening" or "The Dreamer" (c. 1881-82), which shows her near death.
The day after her funeral in 1882, Tissot left London, after 11 years there, for France, and by 1885 had begun a new chapter—the "Faith" of this exhibition. Attempting to contact Newton in the afterlife, he took up spiritualism, producing a strange, atmospheric painting, "The Apparition" (1885), which until this exhibition was thought to be lost (though it is familiar from prints he made of it). It shows a shrouded Newton, aglow with inner light, guided by a medium.
At the same time, Tissot rekindled his Christian faith, transformed by a vision he experienced at the Church of Saint-Sulpice. He focused the rest of his life on religious images, making hundreds of sketches and watercolors chronicling the life of Christ, many published in his illustrated New Testament, a 1903 copy of which is on display. Later, he turned his attention to the Old Testament.
A gallery of these images—articulate, precise, sometimes stirring—ends the exhibition. They were warmly received in Europe and in the United States, bringing Tissot wider fame and more fortune. They may be the most influential part of Tissot's oeuvre, as their sequential nature inspired early filmmakers and his images affected more recent ones, too, such as William Wyler in "Ben-Hur."
"Faith & Fashion" surely deepens our understanding of Tissot, and it may convince some visitors that he is underestimated. Still I suspect that for many he may remain just a virtuoso with the brush. And what's wrong with that?