James Tissot is a forgotten man. He belonged to no movement, popular or controversial; he was neither a pre-Raphaelite nor an Impressionist, though his career spanned both eras. He was dismissed by early modern critics as a â€œsociety painter,â€ all surface and decoration, recording the frivolity and leisure of pretty rich people in pretty expensive clothes doing pretty pointless things. Interestingly, he was dismissed by his contemporary critics, including Ruskin, not for painting pretty rich people (the mainstay of commissioned portraiture for, oh, thousands of years), but for painting the wrong pretty rich people: the burgeoning bourgeoisie of 1870â€™s Britain. This particular criticism disregards the fact that frankly, the nouveau riche were the only ones who would hire him after he became involved with the notorious Kathleen Newton. Tissotâ€™s love for a divorcee with an illegitimate child didnâ€™t lose him the effortless entree into good society with which he began his ten years in England; his refusal to hide her away or abandon her did.
So until Kathleenâ€™s death by suicide in 1882, James Tissot, a Frenchman who could not return to France, a society painter exiled from high society, worked for and sold to the successful merchants, bankers and brokers of London. Paintings of vulgar middle-class boating parties, portraits of overdressed ironmongersâ€™ daughters and their pomaded swains in brand-new suits, sniffed Ruskin. Still Tissot worked, in constant demand, and in doing so created a marvelously detailed record of a very specific time and place, a canvas history of a decade of dress, manners, values – and not incidentally, of the woman he adored. And I love him for it.
You see, as a devotee of the history of dress, I want to see the details of fabric, the difference in sheen and drape among watered silk and twill and taffeta, the effect of a new set of ribbons on a plain muslin dress, the posture and poses adapted to the exigencies of costume. Yes, itâ€™s pretty. Yes, I just love costume and fashion history. But more than anything, I love an accurate depiction of clothing because it is the record of hundreds, sometimes thousands of hours of handiwork by utterly forgotten women, and at the same time, a snapshot of that most fleeting and changeable of human preoccupations, adornment. Fashion.
Look at an issue of La Mode IllustreÃ© from 1879, and then find contemporary portraiture from, say, the East Coast of the United States, London and Germany. Not only can you compare the interpretations of the mode according to wealth and status, youâ€™ll find regional variations as well: the floral embroidery on an Austrian chemise that hearkens back to the Tyrol, the English devotion to understatement as an expression of elite solidarity, the joyous extravagance of the first American millionaires becoming more subdued as their descendants become more cosmopolitan. Every nuance, every frill and tuck, every trend – touched and built by human hands and human imagination according to human desire.
People make clothes, and sometimes clothes can make people, and sometimes people re-make themselves to suit the clothes and the life they long for. Fashion is masking and social standing and personal fable and art and craft and industry and avocation and technology and instinct, and to those who can read it, fashion is an intimately revealing language all its own. Whether or not Tissot considered these aspects of his work, and I believe that he did, he certainly appreciated the intended effect and recorded it with love and skill.
Sometimes love is enough.