Although James Tissot was initially more academic in his approach to subject matter when a young artist in Paris, by the time he fled to London in 1871 he was ready to explore ‘modern conversations’ – themes that celebrated everyday life. As an associate of Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas, he was cognisant of the Impressionists’ aim to capture a single moment in time, as well as the Realists’ focus on everyday subject matter.
Knowing Tissot’s reputation for parody and wit, the title of the painting could well be laced with deliberate irony. Whereas a second version, Preparing for the Gala, contains no hint of ambiguity, the uppermost British Navy Ensign in Still on Top is barely visible, and the elderly assistant wears the red cap of the Communards, for whom Tissot fought during the Siege of Paris.
Japanese ukiyo-e printmaking was extremely influential in European art and costume design in the latter part of the 19th century. A great collector of Japanese prints and objets d’art, Tissot demonstrates the influences of two cultures in this painting. Son of a milliner, he has meticulously painted the woman’s striped black and white dress, so that one writer claimed that you could unpick it at the seams. The woman kneeling among the flags has a shawl draped and tied over her bustle, rather like the obi worn by respectable Japanese women.
Still on Top was stolen briefly from the Gallery’s collection in 1998. Although it suffered some damage, it was painstakingly conserved and remains a great favourite with Gallery visitors.