American Culture

ArtSunday: love among the ruffles

By Ann Ivins

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 “society painter,” 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 1870’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. Tissot’s love for a divorcee with an illegitimate child didn’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 Kathleen’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 ironmongers’ 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, it’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 Illustreé 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, you’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.

4 replies »

  1. James Tissot is a forgotten man.

    You can say that again: I never heard of him. He’s truly on a par with John Singer Sargent, a personal favorite of mine.

    Aside from the fashion, I enjoy the poignant expressions on his subjects’ faces too.

    Thanks for tuning us on to him, Ann!

  2. At Sotheby’s spring acution that I attended, there were a few of Tissot’s paintings that were auctioned. I think the lowest price was around $95,000 plus buyers premium. Tissot has been on my radar for years, but I’ve never seen a piece in the market that caught me.


  3. After Kathleen died, he tried for a few years to continue painting portraits, but the general consensus seems to be that his grief for her was too overwhelming, even after leaving London and returning to Paris. Around 1885 he started a series of illustrations (probably the most accurate word) of scenes from the Old and New Testaments – technically proficient but not particularly inspired…

    Russ: I enjoy the sense in his best work of stepping into an ongoing conversation or activity and the impression that his subjects may be posing for each other but not for him.

    Jeff: His best works, in my opinion, are his etchings and mezzotints of Kathleen – they tend to be intimate, freer in execution, altogether more personal and immediate.

  4. Clearly from your descriptive language you love fashion history. And noone depicted the handiwork by C19th women better than Tissot. I did a social history of women’s clothing this semester and often used Tissot as examples that the students might love. But I did not expect the same attention to lush detail in his religious works. That was a surprise. Thanks for the link
    Art and Architecture, mainly