James Tissot: Painter of the Gilded Age

See the glamour and the frivolity of upper class lives

By Google Arts & Culture

Self Portrait (ca. 1865) by James TissotLegion of Honor

Born in 1836 in Nantes, France, Jacques Joseph 'James' Tissot would go on to become a successful painter of Parisian and London society. His scenes of balls, operas, salons, and regattas captured the free, modernising spirit of the age, and the eyes of wealthy patrons.

L'Ambitieuse (Political Woman) (1883-1885) by James TissotAlbright-Knox Art Gallery

Born the son of a textile merchant, and with his mother working as a hat designer, Tissot was familiar with fashion and in no need of an income. Before the age of 17, he had decided to become an artist, and set his sights on a formal education in Paris.

The Artists' Wives (1885) by James Jacques Joseph TissotChrysler Museum of Art

Portrait of Mrs Catherine Smith Gill and Two of her Children (1877) by James TissotWalker Art Gallery, Liverpool

Tissot achieved early success. In 1859, he had a series of five works exhibited at the Paris Salon. These were very different to his later works, depicting scenes from  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's tragic play, Faust.

Two Idlers (1888/1889) by Robert Frederick BlumNational Academy of Design

The development of his society paintings began suddenly in 1863. The light, fresh treatment of modern subjects and scenes earned his critical acclaim, and placed him on a par with contemporaries such as Claude Monet and Alfred Stevens.

Holyday (c.1876) by James TissotTate Britain

He specialised in louche scenes of bourgeois luxury, high fashion, and a certain sexual tension. This painting, Holyday, shows young men and women taking a tea break on a hot summer's day, under the not-so-watchful eyes of their chaperones.

The flirtation on display was considered scandalous at the time.

Still on Top (c 1873) by James TissotAuckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki

Tissot was known for his wit, and his paintings aren't without a sense of humour. Still on Top shows the preparation of flags for a regatta. The young woman holds the Imperial German ensign, above her is that of Austro-Hungary, Norway, and on top, Great Britain.

London Visitors (1874) by James TissotThe Toledo Museum of Art

Another modern scene, perhaps painted with a wry smile, shows a pair of tourists in London. We see them exiting the National Gallery onto Trafalgar Square. The man struggles with his guide book, the woman looks far from impressed, and their young tour guide couldn't care less.

Tea (1872) by James TissotThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

In 1871, Tissot left Paris for London. He had fought in the Franco-Prussian War and joined the revolutionary Paris Commune, and decided to escape retribution. In London, he was able to indulge his taste for high class pursuits and for visual pleasure.

Women of Paris: The Circus Lover (1885) by James Jacques Joseph TissotMuseum of Fine Arts, Boston

He continued to paint, and experimented with compositions and subjects drawn from Japanese prints, which were increasingly popular amongst European artistic circles. He was invited to exhibit with the Impressionists, but refused. Still, he maintained contact with French artists.

The Last Evening by James Jacques Joseph TissotGuildhall Art Gallery & London's Roman Amphitheatre

Later in life, Tissot once again found new subjects - choosing to paint scenes from the Old Testament - but for many people, he would always be the painter of incisive contemporary portraits, and his touching vignettes of love and life in the Gilded Age.

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