James Tissot: Fashion, Faith and a Life of Passion
The story of James Tissot is fascinating. Boy grows up in a family of successful merchants, and at 17, expresses his wish to become an artist. Father does not approve, but Mother, a successful, hat designer, understands his desire and encourages his ambitions. He fights in the Franco-Prussian War, leaves the port town of his youth and becomes a successful painter in England, where he also learns etching techniques and draws caricatures for Vanity Fair. He falls in love. It changes his life, his art.
Installation view of James Tissot: Fashion and Faith at the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, October 2019. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
Gwynned Vitello: There’s been a lot of excitement about this show.
Melissa Buron: Actually, we’ve had an unprecedented number of docents wanting to tour this exhibition. Over 100 people signed up, and they could only have 60 in rotation. I gave the docents a lecture three years ago when I was incubating the show and the ideas, so I’ve been working on this show for something like seven years plus. All those years of work coming together, then it all kind of feels like warp-speed at the end of the process.
I remember the painting of The Shop Girl when I interviewed you for the Millinery exhibition, and I’m happy she’s back.
One of the points of origin for the exhibition was the fact that we have one of Tissot’s self-portraits in the collection, circa 1865. I very much have a historical crush on James Tissot, but that portrait is really important because there are only a few self-portraits that Tissot ever made. He is in a lot of photographs and used photography throughout his career, but we really only consider three painted portraits to be definitive self-portraits, so they’re ours.
James Tissot, "La Femme à Paris: The Shop Girl," 1883–1885. Oil on canvas, 57 1/2 x 40 in. (146.1 x 101.6 cm). Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Gift from Corporations’ Subscription Fund, 1968. Bridgman Images. Image provided courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
How did you get so acquainted with him?
I started here in 2008, but had seen a number of exhibitions by that time. I had been to many as a courier, just getting to see different shows, and there were a couple of projects that were really important where Tissot was featured very prominently. There was an exhibition called Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity, and it was in Chicago, the Met and also at the Musee D'Orsay. Tissot was really the star of the show, but what’s interesting is that he is not an Impressionist. So I talked to the curator who originated the concept of the show and wondered how she felt about that. She said, "Well, no, I get it. He’s not, but you can’t do a show about 19th-century fashion and not include Tissot." So I started thinking how interesting it was that this guy could hold his own among a group of artists who are arguably better known today, household names like Monet, Degas and Manet, for example. Another fascinating angle for me was that I was also working on a concept for my PhD at the time. I was interested in 19th-century mysticism, and how it may or have impacted artists’ visual vocabulary because there was a huge vogue and zeitgeist for mysticism, spiritualism and séances.
I had no idea it was popular, so accepted, at the time.
I think it’s partially because of technology where we had all new mediums: photography, electricity, the telephone, all these kinds of new ways of being in the world. And I also think that toward the end of the century, or when times are feeling more chaotic, there is a deepened cultural sensitivity to things that are mystical.
Well, that should be happening right about now, but tell me more about how were you able to parlay this into an exhibition?
I realized that Tissot was going to be a big character in my PhD because he was an artist who was very open about his curiosity about spiritualism. Because he was the subject of my thesis and because I had been thinking about how he really held his own so strongly at the other shows, I came to the conclusion that he would be a great subject for his own solo. We got it on the schedule way back but worked it out to open here October 12, then go to Paris at the Musee d’Orsay, where they have a significant number of Tissot’s paintings, in Spring of 2020.
James Tissot, "Self Portrait," ca. 1865. Oil on panel, 19 5/8 x 11 7/8 in. (49.8 x 30.2 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, Mildred Anna Williams Collection, 1961.16. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
In researching him, I was surprised that I couldn’t find a history of solo exhibitions.
The last major exhibition on Tissot was in 1999, and it was organized by Yale, so it’s been 20 years. There was a one-venue exhibition in Rome a couple years ago, but this is the first West Coast exhibition ever. And in doing my research, I came to find that there are about a dozen Tissot’s in private collections around the Bay Area, so he has a real affinity with local collectors. We have a major painting in our collection at the de Young. He often appears in thematic exhibitions about the 19th century, but he really is deserving of his own.
Obviously, academics know him, and so do the docents. But when I’ve mentioned his name, more people know the watch than know his paintings.
It’s a bit of a mystery why he is not more well known today, but the best hypothesis I’ve come up with…
And this is your own –
Is the fact that he had no children and never married. So, as we saw recently in the Monet exhibition, Michel Monet, one of Monet’s sons, carried on his legacy and made sure his collection ended up in the Marmottan Museum. So really, I think having someone carry on the torch is important. When Tissot died, he was living at a remote chateau in southeastern France. Two nieces inherited everything, and they sold a lot of things. I just think not having a spokesperson is really tricky.
James Tissot, French, 1836–1902. "Portrait of Mademoiselle L. L...," 1864. Oil on canvas, 48 7/8 × 39 1/8 in. Musée d’Orsay, Paris, Acquired at the Thiébault-Sisson Sale, 1907, RF 2698 Musée d’Orsay,© RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY. Image provided courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
But he’s such an expert painter and led such an intriguing life.
I’ve been saying for a few years that he is the trifecta of what I think a curator looks for in seeking an interesting subject for a monographic exhibition. First and foremost he is a very talented artist across a variety of media, including oil painting, watercolor, printmaking, and enamels. So he’s a maker, and he’s making constantly, with a lot of skill. Second, he has a fascinating life. He comes to Paris in his early 20’s, he’s meeting artists like Whistler and Degas, though of course, they’re all young and not yet famous. But he ends up staying there during the Franco-Prussian War during the Siege of Paris. An actual sharpshooter, who made sketches of the war, he ends up leaving because of the violence. He sees economic opportunity in London and becomes successful. He’s very good at understanding the market and selling his work. I know artists sometimes get criticized for that, but … he was making a living.
Apparently, from the start.
Yes, though he did have a pretty good foundation. His parents, who were very entrepreneurial, owned a textile business in Nantes, which is a port city in France. His mother was a registered owner of a shop that sold hats, ribbons and dresses, so he came from a hard-working family that understood industry and finance. By the time he gets to London after the war in the early 1870s, he has already been successful, already has had a painting purchased by the French government for the State art collection. He gets to London, and he’s an outsider … but he’s still able to buy a big house in St. John’s Wood, which is a kind of an artist’s colony, a Bohemian suburb. The house still exists today, and it’s right across the street from Abbey Road. If you look at that famous Zebra crossing where the Beatles did their album cover, it’s the same street as Tissot’s mansion. But there’s only a blue plaque for another artist who lived there later. You know the blue plaques they have in London for historic houses? I’d like to get one up for Tissot!
Okay, so he’s in London, and then, this is where a kind of personal event happens that is very important for the arc of his professional career. He meets a young woman named Kathleen Newton around 1876, and he falls in love with her. She becomes the model for many of his most iconic paintings, and they seem to have lived a happy life together. One complication was that she was divorced and they were both Catholic, so they could not marry. Not much is known about her since we don’t have a diary or a large number of letters, but she did have two children, and probably neither were fathered by Tissot. She dies of tuberculosis in 1882 at 28 years of age, the two children end up living with her sister and they stay in London.
James Tissot, French, 1836–1902 "Holyday (The Picnic)," ca. 1876. Oil on canvas. Image: 30 x 39 in. (76.2 x 99.4 cm) Frame: x in. (92.5 x 118.5 cm) Tate. Image provided courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
He didn’t seem to have a legal claim to the children, but I think if there was any thought of that, he would have tried to get a legal claim to take them to France. But he doesn’t. He returns to Paris, completely heartbroken. And like many people of his time, he attempts to contact Kathleen Newton, his deceased love, through spiritual séances. And he’s not shy about the fact that he’s doing this. In fact, it was as common as going to a movie theater on a Friday night. People just got together over their séance table.
I remember playing with the Ouji boards with my friends, but, ha, it was kind of a secretive activity.
It was a totally social thing! It was performative, You might go see a séance, you might go see a spiritualist perform a séance, you might have them come to your home. It was incredibly popular. There were skeptics, of course, but there wasn’t what we would perceive to be a social stigma. There was curiosity, and it seems that a lot of people who were devoutly Christian –
Yeah, what about that??
It didn’t seem to conflict! I wouldn’t say that the Catholic Church, of course, would condone trying to contact spirits through a séance, but a lot of people felt they could reconcile both belief systems. So this is where, for my research, it gets really interesting.
Tissot returns to Paris and decides to make a monumental series, including The Shop Girl, illustrating different types of women in Paris.
James Tissot, "The Ball on Shipboard," ca. 1874. Oil on canvas, 33.125 x 51 in. (84.1 x 129.5 cm). Tate Britain. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
At the same time, he is in mourning?
He’s in mourning and he’s met with some skepticism when he returns to France because everyone is, like, “Well, where have you been for 11 years? You’ve been to London and now you think you can come back to France?”
Is this around the time that he paints The Prodigal Son?
He makes it just before he returned to France, probably while Kathleen Newton is sick and he’s thinking about being a person in a foreign land who’s left his homeland, wondering, “What would it mean if I were to return? Would I be accepted back into my family?” It doesn’t seem like he was ostracized by his family, so I don’t think he was a prodigal son.
I guess I was putting too much drama into that aspect. But, okay, now he’s back in France.
He’s back, he moves to Paris and goes to a church to do some research for one of the Women in Paris paintings. As he attends Mass, at the moment when the host is lifted and there’s the transformation of the host into the body of Christ, he says that he experienced a spiritual vision where he saw Christ consoling two cousins and that propelled him to make a painting of this vision. Now, this painting is in the Hermitage in Russia, and we actually can’t borrow it because of our current relationship with that country. So it’s not in the show, but it is a weird painting!
James Tissot (1836-1902). "le départ de l'enfant prodigue". Huile sur toile. 1863. Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris, Petit Palais. Image provided courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
Hmm, he starts on a series about women but at the same time, he’s making the spiritual paintings too?
Hold on, the thread is coming through. He says he is propelled to make, over the course of almost 17 years, 700 watercolors total. He works first on the New Testament, the life of Christ and makes 35 watercolors that document his life, the New Testament, in addition to pen and ink sketches. He goes to the Holy Land to do research, then returns to France.
That was unusual, wasn’t it?
Artists did go to the Holy Land sometimes, but to do this combination of multiple trips, along with the documentary research, then producing so many watercolors is almost cinematic.
And I understand that he did influence filmmakers, right?
Alice Guy-Blaché, the first woman to direct a film, based The Passion of the Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ on the watercolors of Tissot. The set and costumes are based on the Tissot Bible. Then there’s DW Griffith's Intolerance. In William Wyler’s Ben Hur where you see the crucifixion from a kind of aerial view, it’s from one of Tissot’s most important watercolors where he represents the scene from the perspective of Christ on the cross. He could see narratives unfolding in his mind’s eyes. For him, to be able to see how storytelling needs to be about zooming in on a particular figure, then zooming out to a crowd scene while getting the nuances of costumes and drama of architecture, is really ahead of its time,
Then it comes full circle when George Lucas and Steven Spielberg made Raiders of the Lost Ark. They also used one of the watercolors, using the Ark of the Covenant as the reference point for the Ark that Indiana Jones finds. So Tissot is quoted even there.
James Tissot (French, 1836-1902). "What Our Lord Saw from the Cross," 1886-1894. Opaque watercolor over graphite on gray-green wove paper, 9 3/4 x 9 1/16 in. (24.8 x 23 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Purchased by public subscription. Image provided courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco..
Why did he choose watercolors for these paintings?
I think part of the medium was that he was able to get some of these transparencies, as in the Bible having all these mystical episodes of angels appearing, Jesus being tempted by evil spirits and an assortment of other spiritual visions. He illustrates the Bible in a very matter-of-fact, but spiritual way, and so publishes a multi-volume version that becomes known as the Tissot Bible. All the illustrations are exhibited together, then published in this volume, which includes Gospel stories, as well as his own reflections of traveling to the Holy Land.
I was surprised that this particular exhibition became such a successful touring show.
It exhibited in Paris and London and then came to the United States, and while the Life of Christ illustrations are traveling across the States, John Sargent suggests to the Brooklyn Museum that they must acquire this group of watercolors because they are so important they will put Brooklyn on the map as a major museum. So they acquire the entire set: everything from watercolors to pen and ink sketches, including the sketchbook, which they acquired later. They were on view for many years, then went into storage when religious art became unfashionable in the 20th century.
So part of the reason Tissot isn’t so well-known today is because the last two decades of his life were primarily spent working on this campaign to illustrate the Bible. He was spending a lot of time in the Holy Land, as well as in the Chateau in Southeastern France, so he was pretty removed. He’s also having these major exhibitions where he’s getting high accolades for the religious work he has done. All the while, he’s interested in spiritualism, going to séances, and makes a painting of what he claims to have experienced, a vision of Kathleen Newton with a spirit guide appearing at a séance. In researching this exhibition, we’ve actually located the painting and it is on view for the first time since his lifetime.
James Tissot, French, 1836–1902 "Moses and Joshua in the Tabernacle," c. 1896-1902 Gouache on board 7 3/8 x 8 13/16 in. (18.7 x 22.5 cm) The Jewish Museum X1952-208 Image courtesy the Jewish Museum. Image provided courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
Was someone looking for it in conjunction with this exhibition, or was it a fortunate coincidence? And how was it found?
Hmm, I’ve been looking for it during my research, just trying to get an answer about what could have happened to it. It was found in a private collection, and now we have the greatest number of Tissot watercolors that has been presented since the Life of Christ show at the Brooklyn Museum. To contextualize his work, we’re really devoting an entire gallery to his spirituality, and that will be the final gallery of the exhibition. It’s really the climax of his career, so it will be the grand finale.
Circling back, how does the exhibition open?
I thought a lot about how to start the exhibition, and of course, there is the storytelling of the arch of his life, AND you want to start with a very powerful moment, so I chose a painting of Kathleen Newton called October. She will be surrounded by five examples from the Women in Paris series, though the painting of her is not from that group. I wanted to start by talking about this really important love story and how Kathleen’s death was so impactful on Tissot professionally and personally. It completely changed the arc of his career, and I think this painting is so beautiful. It’s almost life-sized, so powerful that I wanted to start there rather than the beginning.
I was thinking, you know, of Phantom of the Opera where they start with the auction that takes place at the actual end of the story. Or as someone suggested, the Titanic, where they start with the discovery of the necklace. So I’m starting, not at the very beginning but at this very climactic moment. It’s very relatable. You fall in love with someone, you lose them, and then you try and make sense of that in whatever way you can.
James Tissot "October," 1877 Oil on canvas Image: 85 x 42.8 in. (216 x 108.7 cm) Frame:97 x 54.5 in. (246.50 x 138.5 cm) The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, gift of Lord Strathcona and family 1927.410 Photo MMFA, Brian Merrett. Image provided courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
And there was another dimension to him. He must have been very sharp, very witty to be involved with Vanity Fair and journalism.
Yes, the war journalizing imagery. He was such a talented artist who led such a fascinating life. He was part of this milieu of artists of this time period, especially in America and Europe, around whom we have so many exhibitions, especially Impressionism. He was friends with the artists in that movement. In fact, in 1874, Edgar Degas writes to him when he’s living in London, and says, “We’re going to do this kind of experiment, we’re going to have this show, and it’s your duty as a French artist, to come back and exhibit with us.” This is the first time there is a group show of these artists who would eventually become the Impressionists. We don’t have Tissot's’ response – but we know he didn’t exhibit with them either!
There’s been much speculation why, so what’s your take?
My suspicion is that here he is, in a totally different country, doing his own thing very successfully. He had his own brand and style, and in a way, this experimental group show just wasn’t his thing. In looking at the paintings in person, you see some stylistic similarities, and he’s very interested in modern life, as are the Impressionists. He’s interested in society, in fashion, but he is not a realist, he has this important decade in London, so he’s just not an Impressionist. He doesn’t fit into a box. What do you say, that he’s a society painter who also paints about religion? It's very complicated, which is why I find him so interesting.
James Tissot, "Portrait of the Marquise de Miramon, née, Thérèse Feuillant," 1866. Oil on canvas, 50.5625 x 29.9375 in. (128.3 x 77.2 cm). The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2007.7 Image provided courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
I love the expressiveness of his portraits. He paints more than a face, there is always a story.
Yes, he’s an incredibly gifted storyteller, and I think that’s why a lot of filmmakers have been drawn to him. If you haven’t seen it recently, rewatch the Age of Innocence by Martin Scorcese. In the first ballroom scene, the Beaufort Ball, there are four paintings by Tissot that serve as backdrops. There’s the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark and, as we mentioned.
What about his use of photography in his paintings?
He used so much photography. He’s obviously staging himself in poses, and then he’d make a print of that. For example, there’s a photograph in our collection of Tissot in his garden with Kathy Newton. He directly quotes that pose in an illustration he makes for an album. He also uses a photograph for his last self-portrait. No one knows yet who took the photographs, but he’s in them, and they are clearly staged. Another thing he does that was part of the research discover for this exhibition was that he made albums with photographs of his paintings. So from a very early period in his career, he was actually taking photographs to document his work, and he made bound volumes. Unfortunately, one is missing, but we did find a private archive that had a digital copy.
Installation view of James Tissot: Fashion and Faith at the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, October 2019. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
I don’t think about all the preparatory work that goes into a show about painting.
It was a private archive that had a digital copy of the missing album. There were photos of paintings by Tissot that I had never seen before, in color and in black and white. We reproduced a couple of the images in the catalog, and it’s in my introduction. You’ll see that there are images that have never been published before. One painting in that mix illustrates the way this wonderful world of technology can connect us all. I was sitting at my desk reading emails one day, when I got an email from someone who said, “Oh, we see you are doing a Tissot exhibition. There’s a painting our family has that you might like to know about. I called immediately and knew exactly which one she was talking about. They sent an image, and low and behold, it was one of the paintings I was planning to publish in black and white. And here, all of a sudden, I not only have it in color, but have it in the exhibition!
You have the actual painting? What a discovery!
It’s exciting to make those kinds of discoveries because I think Tissot will be a revelation for so many people, but then, for anyone who has seen the previous exhibitions, there will be some new things that are completely fresh.
James Tissot: Fashion and Faith is on view at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor through February 9, 2020