Jacques Joseph Tissot was a 19th-century French painter and engraver. The artist was also known for the anglicized version of his name, James Tissot, and was admired throughout his life for his portrayal of the Victorian bourgeoisie. He produced under the guise of Realism, but his work, as of some contemporaries, was also influenced by the Japanese ukiyo-e. Since the mid-20th-century, interest in his artwork has risen, and his paintings began selling at record prices at auction houses.
The French artist Jacques Joseph Tissot was born in 1836, in the port city Nantes. Tissot’s father, Marcel Theodore, worked as a carpenter and made a good income after moving to the region. Eventually, he saved enough to buy some land near the riverside. The painter also began to invest in the textile and fashion business. Tissot inherited his father’s admiration for fashion, which can be later seen in his illustrations and portraits of women.
As the Tissot family was Catholic, they decided to send Jacques Joseph to a Jesuitic school in Vannes. With certain reluctance, his parents accepted their son’s artistic vocation. There is little information about his life while living in Nantes, but the painter had a fondness for depicting seascapes and port scenes, a probable influence of his earlier days.
With his family’s approval, Jacques Tissot left for Paris in 1856. There, he attended the Academié des Beaux-Arts as a student of Louis Lamothe and Jean Hippolyte Flandrin - both Masters had studied under Ingres. The painter Jules-Elie Delaunay, a friend of Tissot’s mother, offered for him to stay at his home in Paris, which granted him some financial stability in these first years.
Along with having classes at the Academy, the artist went to the Louvre to copy the works of Old Masters - a common practice of art students. He met fellow artists Edgar Degas and Edouard Manet, as well as James McNeill Whistler, an American artist - all of which eventually went against the institution of Academic art. They broke the accepted norms of Classical education and changed figurative painting forever. Along with these painters, Tissot’s work dealt with the depiction of Modern scenery and urban life.
Tissot participated in the prestigious Paris Salon for the first time in 1859, bringing artworks influenced by the piece Faust by Goethe and with themes of the Middle Ages. He participated with five oil on canvas in the event and by this time already went by the name James Tissot, a decision inspired by his anglophilia.
Throughout the 1860s, the artist achieved great success while investing his time in portrait painting. These portraits are among his most famous paintings. Portrait of Mademoiselle L. L. (Young Woman in a Red Jacket) is an example of one of these early mature works. The Circle Of The Rue Royale, painted in 1866, is another example of the high degree of elegance that the artist achieved when portraying people in their leisure activities.
In 1864, he participated in the Salon again, receiving considerable acclaim for two works, including the picture Two Sisters. His first connection with his beloved nation, Britain, happened during this year as he participated in a Royal Academy event. His participation in the show settled a precedent, enabling him to make commercial contacts so later he could move to England.
A great deal of Modernist painting is indebted to Asian and African art. While Paul Gauguin found inspiration in Tahitian culture and Matisse and Picasso were fascinated by African masks and sculpture, Tissot was one of the passionate admirers of Japanese prints.
It was around the mid-1860s when the painter reached his artistic maturity, and this influence became apparent in his oeuvre. Some examples of his artworks inspired by Japanese culture are Jeunes Femmes Regardant des Objets Japonais (Young Ladies Looking at Japanese Objects), Young Women Looking At Japanese Objects, and The Japanese Vase. In a Portrait of James Tissot done by Edgar Degas around this time, it’s possible to see Japanese pictures on the walls.
Tissot fought to defend his country in the Franco-Prussian War, also engaging in the Paris defense during the rule of the Commune. Despite these engagements in arms, he left for London in 1871 and returned to French territory only ten years later. The painter had already built an impressive career around this time and worked with the magazine Vanity Fair providing illustrations and caricatures.
Established in an impressive villa in St. John’s Wood, he was ready to continue his career as an artist. One of the novelties of this moment in his life was learning new techniques, as he did with etching through the tutoring of Sir Seymour Haden. Tissot became a popular artist among wealthy British business people, but he also met opposition. The famed critic John Ruskin described his paintings as “simple colored photographs of a vulgar society.”
Degas asked Tissot to participate in the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, but he did not attend, although he was in close contact with the participating artists. In the same year, he received Berthe Morisot in his house and went to Venice in the company of Edouard Manet. Whistler was also an older acquaintance with which he kept contact.
During the next year, he met his companion, Kathleen Newton, with who he had a son in 1876 named Cecil George. Kathleen can be seen in some of the painter’s portraits, such as Mavourneen, Kathleen Newton In An Armchair, and Type Of Beauty. They lived together until she passed away from tuberculosis in 1882.
In the decade that he lived in London, James Tissot became highly respected and commissioned by the upper classes. His elegant manner and his attention to the details of outfits and soft lightning had a high demand. His artworks are understood as “conversational social pieces” and as a kind of documentation before photography was popular and accessible.
Shortly after Kathleen passed away, the painter returned to Paris. He had no problem regaining his local reputation, opening a solo show in the Palais de l’Industrie in 1883. An exhibition happened in 1885 in the Galerie Sedelmeyer, and the show was called Quinze tableaux sur la femme à Paris. Unlike his work in Britain that dealt with the ascending nobility, he depicted women from all social conditions.
By the end of his career, Tissot renewed his faith and retook Catholic subjects in his work. While studying a religious piece in the Saint-Sulpice Church, in the year 1888, he had a spiritual revelation. His production during the next years were all highly related to religious narratives.
Beginning in 1886, the French artist took three trips to the Middle East to gather references of people and surroundings for his Biblical paintings. He concluded a series of 365 gouache paintings that depicted Christ’s life. The series was well-received, and he exhibited parts of it in Paris, London, and New York. It is now part of the Brooklyn Museum’s collection.