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James Tissot
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Château de Buillon, Jura
A French painter and printmaker who worked in England for part of his career, James Tissot is remembered today more for his depictions of fashionable women of the 19th century set in languorous genre scenes, than for his Biblical illustrations, which were very popular at the beginning of the 20th century. The son of a prosperous merchant, Jacques-Joseph Tissot was born in Nantes, France, and educated in Jesuit schools in Brittany, Flanders, and Jura. About 1856 Tissot left Nantes to study painting at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and changed his name to James. During the late 1850s he met James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) and Edgar Degas (1834–1917), both of whom became close friends. Degas painted a portrait of Tissot in 1868 (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art). Tissot first exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1859. Over the ensuing seven years he enjoyed increasing success with historical paintings strongly influenced by the Belgian artist Hendrik Leys (1815–1869). He then switched to depicting scenes from contemporary life executed in the same style as his earlier work. The Fine Arts Museums’ Tissot Self Portrait (ca. 1865), a painting familiar to many Legion of Honor visitors, was done during this transition. Tissot experimented with etching in 1860 and 1861, and then abandoned the medium until 1875. He first began exhibiting in Britain at the Royal Academy in 1864 and continued to exhibit there regularly until 1877, when he changed to the Grosvenor Gallery. Tissot stayed in Paris during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, where he served in the National Guard, and during the Commune of 1871. He moved to in England later in 1871, perhaps because of an association with the Commune or perhaps to seek a better art market. Thomas Gibson Bowles (1842-1922), the founder and editor of Vanity Fair, was an English war correspondent during the War and had become Tissot’s friend. With Bowles’s assistance Tissot established himself in London, again becoming a successful painter of contemporary life. He also designed caricatures for Vanity Fair. Tissot purchased a home in St. John’s Wood in 1873 and cultivated a large circle of friends that included Whistler and the artist and physician Seymour Haden (1818–1910). Tissot resumed etching in 1875, and continued to make prints for twenty years, eventually producing nearly ninety plates. Around 1875 Tissot met Kathleen Irene Kelly Newton (1854–1882), a beautiful divorced Irishwoman with a scandalous past. Sometime during 1876 or 1877 she moved into Tissot’s house with her two children. Because of Kathleen Newton’s tainted reputation, and because they did not marry, Tissot withdrew from social life. From 1877 until 1882, Mrs. Newton was an almost ubiquitous model for Tissot, appearing in many of his well-known works. They lived together as a family until her death from tuberculosis in November 1882, after which Tissot returned to Paris, although he occasionally visited England. He mounted a one-man exhibition of his art at the Palais de l’Industrie in Paris in 1883. According to one of his contemporaries, Tissot had been drawn to spiritualism in the late 1870s after the death of his brother. In 1885 Tissot began an intense pursuit of the occult that not only coincided with his grief for Kathleen Newton, but also with his having experienced a religious vision in the church of St. Sulpice while making sketches for a painting in his Femme à Paris series. He requested that the well-known English medium, William Eglinton (1857–?), conduct a series of séances, and at one Tissot thought he saw Mrs. Newton, an occasion memorialized by an oil painting, now lost, and a mezzotint (W. 76), an impression of which is in the Museums’ collection. Transformed by his vision in St. Sulpice and the séance, he abandoned secular art, devoting the rest of his career to religious subjects. He began an ambitious project of Biblical illustrations and traveled to the Middle East repeatedly in the 1880s and again in 1896, researching the landscape and people meticulously. He produced a commercially successful series of hundreds of watercolor illustrations of the Old and New Testament that were reproduced widely and exhibited in Paris, London, and the United States. After 1897 Tissot lived an increasingly reclusive life. He had inherited the Château de Buillon near Besançon in the Jura from his father in 1888, and died there in 1902. (CNS 2002, Rev. TNB 11/2013.) Selected bibliography: Lochnan, Katharine, ed. Seductive Surfaces: The Art of Tissot. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999. Marshall, Nancy Rose and Malcom Warner. James Tissot: Victorian Life/Modern Love. Exhibition catalog. New Haven: The American Federation of Arts. Yale Center for British Art. Yale University Press, 1999. Matyjaszkiewicz, Krystyna, ed. James Tissot. Exhibition catalog. London: Barbican Art Gallery. New York: Abbeville Press, 1984.