James Jacques Joseph Tissot
The Bridesmaid (c.1883-85)
By Dave Roberts
'The Bridesmaid' (1883-85), is a painting depicting a social event which were the hallmark of Tissot. A beautiful young women is pictured flirting with the groomsman, their attraction for each other taking over the moment as they appear oblivious to all those around them.
The scene from a middle class wedding, typical of the social circles in which Tissot would live in both London and Paris.
Jacques-Joseph Tissot was born in 1836, in the French seaport of Nantes.
The son of a successful shopkeeper, and devout Roman Catholic, he attended a Jesuit boarding school. His father was unimpressed with the idea of his son becoming an artist, but eventually gave way to his son's chosen career.
In 1856 Tissot went to Paris to train as a painter at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts under Ingres, Flandrin and Lamothe. It was here that the young Tissot met the young James McNiell Whistler, one of the most notable 19th century artists. It was during this time that Tissot became a friend of Impressionist painter Degas. Entirely for the purposes of a publicity stunt, Tissot changed his name with the addition of a Christian name 'James' becoming James Jacques Joseph Tissot.
In 1869 Tissot produced caricatures for Vanity Fair magazine, including a brilliant caricature of Frederic Leighton attending an evening reception.
In 1870 the Franco-Prussian war broke out which saw the defeat of France, and the occupation of Paris. In 1871 Tissot fled to London, England where he took refuge with journalist Thomas Gibson Bowles - the Founder / Editor of Vanity Fair.
Enjoying his new social circle in London, Tissot's oil paintings depicting 'social events' including 'The Bridesmaid' rapidly became very popular.
These paintings also present an interesting record of social life at the time, which was not without controversy.
This was period when the commercially successful were earning more than the aristocrats who had established themselves as patrons of art. The politics of art then, almost a reflection of the modern day, the differences then between artists and establishment - compare this with today and you have a similar situation in many art galleries where art is owned by the public, yet controlled by a few 'sometimes arrogant' council employees who wrongly believe they are in control. When the control starts to move away from them, or it is demonstrated that they have no real power of control, then the only hope they think they have is to castigate that which they do not understand. To all and sundry it smacks of fear, in reality it demonstrates alienation of the real world which they benefit from, but fail to live or understand. Perhaps Ruskin's attacks on Tissot demonstrate this perfectly as he described Tissot's paintings as: "mere painted photographs of vulgar society."
In 1873, Tissot bought the house in St John's Wood where he lived for the rest of his time in London. His popularity in England became the envy of the Parisian painters including Degas.
His popularity was not to last though, he struck up a relationship with Kathleen Newton who was to become his mistress. Kathleen had what was in those days considered a colourful and adulteress past, she became his model and the great love of his life. Yet in his social circles although many men also secretly had a mistress, Tissot lived openly with Kathleen.
This situation forced the painter to choose between his love for Kathleen or his social life. He chose Kathleen.
Tissot's days of fame and popularity were at an end with the conservative social circle, but as in all walks of life, they were not outcasts, merely moving on, they entertained the more liberal artistic friends at their home.
In the late 1870s Kathleen became seriously ill with the great 19th century killer Tuberculosis. Tissot remained devoted to her, but in 1882 the love of his life committed suicide. The devastated Tissot immediately left their home in St Johns Wood and never returned.
Tissot was never to fully recover from his great loss, it is thought that he visited spiritualists in the hope of contacting Kathleen beyond the grave.
He returned to Paris where he continued working, painting social scenes as he had in England.
Tissot died at Buillon on Friday 8th August 1902.
By Paul Ripley
Tissot was born Jacques Joseph Tissot in Nantes, to a middle class family. He initially studied art at Beaux-Arts in Paris. Tissot's early paintings are mainly historical, & heavily influenced by the Dutch School.
He came into contact with the Impressionists as a young man, and was leading a fairly unadventurous life. This was changed totally by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Following the crushing French defeat in this war, and the subsequent fall of the Paris Commune, Tissot decided to move to London, which he did in 1871. This move must have caused considerable problems in his life, and the painter needed to earn some money quickly. Tissot started, therefore, to paint accomplished highly finished pictures of London society, and social events, including the famous 'Too Early' These pictures were virtually an instant success with the art viewing and buying public, but not with the critics.
Tissot's success in London aroused considerable jealousy amongst his Impressionist colleagues in France, where he was regarded as a very minor figure. The critical hostility Tissot's pictures met with, is not easy for us to understand today. The main criticisms were that the pictures were really only painted photographs, and they were vulgar. There is some truth in the first case, though the paintings show dazzling technique, and a dash of Gallic wit and sophistication, home grown English artists were quite unable to match. In the second case the basis of the adverse comment, was the class-consciousness of British society at that time. The pictures were held to show shallow nouveau-riche society at it's worst.
In 1876 an event occurred which changed Tissot's life. He met a young and attractive Irish divorcee called Kathleen Newton. Kathleen had married an English army officer in India. She had formed an adulterous relationship with another man, borne his child, and returned home in disgrace, beyond the pale of polite society. Kathleen Newton became Tissot's mistress, and moved into his London home. This necessitated a radical change in his lifestyle, as the sophisticated, well-dressed, and good-looking painter had become a popular figure socially. Tissot withdrew from the social round, living quietly at his Grove End home with Kathleen. They did, however, entertain less conventional friends from the artistic community. Kathleen Newton became Tissot's muse, and appeared in many of his pictures. She was in every sense the love of his life.
Another attraction for Tissot was the Port of London, and the river Thames. His paintings with the river as the background have an evocative atmosphere missing in his other work. One can almost smell the smoke, and hear the shouts of the dockers and watermen.
In 1882, Kathleen Newton died of consumption at the age of twenty eight. Tissot never recovered from this tragedy, and moved back to Paris within a week of her death.
He was never again romantically involved with woman. His house in London, was sold to Alma-Tadema. Initially Tissot carried on painting society and genre pictures in Paris, but soon gave this up, devoting the rest of his life to painting religious scenes. He visited the Middle-East twice to find genuine backgrounds for his religious paintings. In late life Tissot became increasingly interested in Spiritualism, a vogue of the time, and of course his motivation for this interest is not a mystery.
Tissot died at Buillon on Friday the 8th August 1902. A great artist, his beautiful fallen woman, and a tragic love story. It has everything! In recent years Japanese and American collectors have fuelled a vast increase in the value of Tissot paintings. The critics remain hostile. Does it matter?
Article By: Dave Roberts.
First Published: 2007.
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