James Tissot: The Painter of 19th Century Modern Life

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James Tissot: The Painter of 19th Century Modern Life
 “Observer, philosopher, flâneur—call him what you will; but whatever words you use in trying to define this kind of artist, you will certainly be led to bestow upon him some adjective which you could not apply to the painter of the eternal, or at least more lasting things, of heroic or religious subjects. Sometimes he is a poet; more often he comes closer to the novelist or the moralist; he is the painter of the passing moment and of all the suggestions of eternity that it contains.” Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life,” published in Le Figaro on November 26 and November 28, 1863, translated by Jonathan Mayne in The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, Da Capo Press, New York, 1986. The poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire believed that eternal beauty could be found in the ephemeral moments of one’s own era.  His well-known article “The Painter of Modern Life” was a clarion call to the artists of his day, suggesting they leave behind the classical beauty inherited from antiquity and embrace the unique beauty of their immediate environs. “Beauty is made up of an eternal, invariable element, whose quantity it is excessively difficult to determine, and of a relative, circumstantial element, which will be, if you like, whether severally or all at once, the age, its fashion, its morals, its emotions. Without this second element, which might be described as the amusing, enticing, appetizing icing on the divine cake, the first element would be beyond our powers of digestion or appreciation…” James Tissot seemed to follow Baudelaire’s exhortations to the letter by highlighting the glamorous side of the Belle Epoque. In so doing, he believed modern beauty required precision, rather softly modeled impressions. James Tissot, The Red Jacket, 1864, oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay. Public Domain: Wikipedia At the Musée d’Orsay in Paris (June 23-September 13, 2020), the exhibition is called James Tissot: Ambiguously Modern. At the Legion of Honor in San Francisco (October 12, 2019-February 9, 2020), the exhibition was called James Tissot: Fashion and Faith.  Both titles characterize the curatorial ambitions of this enormous show that tackles a most peculiar 19th-century modern artist, whose media included paint, prints, photography, and sculpture. Born Jacques Joseph Tissot, he changed his name to James Tissot in his late teens, well before he moved to England in his mid-20s.  A self-conscious, somewhat contrived bicultural cosmopolitan, Tissot created a public persona at ease with himself in a rapidly changing world. This nonchalance belied an industrious soul who produced hundreds of works, sold primarily to the wealthy beau monde, whom he flattered in his lavish paintings. From start to finish, his strict Catholic upbringing remained his constant moral compass. James Tissot, Self-Portrait, c. 1865, oil on panel, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Palace of the Legion of Honor. Public Domain: Wikipedia Jacques Joseph Tissot came into the world on October 15, 1836. He was the son of a Franche-Comté cloth merchant and Breton milliner. Although much to his parents’ surprise, he chose not to enter the family business, they had only themselves to blame. In 1848, Tissot was sent to a Jesuit college in Brugelette, Belgium, where he developed his aptitude for drawing, especially the local architecture. From there he enrolled in the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris when he was about 20 years old. His mentors were Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres protégés Louis Lamothe and Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin, well-known for their faithful adherence to academic traditions. This taste for carefully rendered forms also dictated Tissot’s preference for early Italian Renaissance artists (such as Bellini, Mantegna and Carpaccio), the mid-19th century British Pre-Raphaelites (Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and John Everett Millais), and 16th century Germans (Hans Holbein the Younger, Lucas Cranach the Elder, and Albrecht Dürer).

Lead photo credit : James Tissot, Too Early, 1873, oil on canvas, Guildhall Gallery, London. Public Domain: Wikiart.

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Beth S. Gersh-Nešić, Ph.D. is an art historian and the director of the New York Arts Exchange, an arts education service that offers tours and lectures in the New York tristate area. She specializes in the study of Cubism and has published on the art criticism of Apollinaire’s close friend, poet/art critic/journalist André Salmon. She teaches art history at Mercy College in Westchester, New York. She published a book with French poet/literary critic Jean-Luc Pouliquen called "Transatlantic Conversation: About Poetry and Art." Her most recent book is a translation and annotation of "Pablo Picasso, André Salmon and 'Young French Painting,'" with an introduction by Jacqueline Gojard.


  • Anna L. V. Josephs
    2020-08-27 10:22:06
    Anna L. V. Josephs
    I agree with Marilyn's comment (below), it's unfair. Paris is out of reach to all of us in the throes of the pandemic (sigh). I would have flown to San Francisco to see the exhibit, had I known about it. I used to teach European History and French and the Belle Epoque is one of my favorite periods.