Seductive but slick, are James Tissot's paintings more complex than they seem? This is what the Musée d'Orsay exhibition intends to demonstrate.
James Tissot (1836-1902), London Visitors, 1874, oil on canvas, 160 x 114,3 cm, The Toledo Museum of Art.
© Richard Goodbody Inc., New York
Admired in his time for his calm, composed painting, James Tissot (1836-1902) subsequently suffered from a long period of disenchantment for the very reasons that made him so popular. "At the last retrospective devoted to the artist at the Petit Palais in Paris, in 1985, the reviews were vicious," says Paul Perrin, curator at the Musée d’Orsay and co-curator of the exhibition. It took until the early 2010s for people to come to terms with this type of 19th century painting.
But Tissot has never entirely disappeared from the landscape, and some of his pictures are part of the collective imagination. "We wanted to show the density and depth of his images," says the curator. "Tissot was modern in terms of his subjects, way of being and how he led his career rather than his style. His paintings are full of references to literature, music and events in his life. He had an academic approach; he refused Edgar Degas' invitation to take part in the first exhibition of the future Impressionists in 1874. Some of his works evoke the aesthetics of the Pre-Raphaelites; other are tinged with Symbolism. But he remained free and independent."
Tissot's work is intimately linked with events in his life, which we follow in the exhibition's chronological circuit: his brilliant début in the Paris of the Second Empire, with large bourgeois portraits and Japanese-style subjects, and the London period from 1871, with his paintings of Victorian society, which delighted a clientele of aristocrats, industrialists and bankers. In England he met Kathleen Newton, the love of his life, who died from tuberculosis in 1882. He recorded her long decline in series of portraits, while his light-coloured paintings gave way to a darker iconography. Tissot returned to France, taking refuge in spiritualism (The Mediumistic Apparition, 1885) and religion. His series of illustrations of the Bible, after a journey to the Holy Land in 1886, was a great success, even as far off as the US.
A close study of his paintings reveals his exceptional virtuosity. His compositions are skilfully constructed. They teem with detail, and particular care is lavished on the setting, the rendering of fabrics and above all the materiality of objects. In addition (and this is one of the surprises of the exhibition), Tissot even created some himself. A group of vases, teapots and jardinières reveals his unexpected liking for cloisonné enamels.
Sixty-odd paintings suffice to give an overview of the painter's different facets while avoiding repetition and a sense of overkill. Tissot was talented, but not a genius. His art is finely crafted, but in no way revolutionary. His subjects are varied, but his style never really developed. Nonetheless, he was a singular artist, and that makes him an interesting one.