James Tissot’s Weirdly Sexy, Astonishingly Cinematic, and Spiritual Paintings

Installation view of James Tissot: Fashion & Faith at the Legion of Honor, featuring James Tisso’s “October” (1877) in the center (image courtesy the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

SAN FRANCISCO — James Tissot: Fashion & Faith at the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco is a crowd pleaser with — as the title implies — something for everyone. Nineteenth-century French art is a reliably big draw for museums, but this is a different 19th-century France. Not Impressionist or Post-Impressionist or anything else with immediate public cachet, but as James Tissot: Fashion & Faith more than demonstrates, it is wildly likable nonetheless. What’s more, it’s been over two decades since there was a Tissot show in the United States, and this is the first-ever Tissot exhibition on the West Coast, so this is a rare chance to experience the work of an important, but under-known painter.

While many names around him are familiar — Whistler, Manet, Morisot, Degas (Tissot famously turned down an invitation to join the first Impressionist exhibition) — Tissot was an oddball masquerading as a successful society painter, an artist who’s been shunted aside for not participating in the forward march of capital “M” Modernism.

The show opens with a life-sized portrait, “October” (1877), of an elegant woman bundled in a black finery of ruffles, fur, and feathers, framed by golden autumn leaves. This is Tissot’s lover, Kathleen Newton, the fulcrum of the artist’s life and of the exhibition. Newton is the embodiment of and catalyst for both fashion and faith. The show is essentially a love story, arranged both chronologically and thematically, and unfolds almost like a serial novel. A precursor to Proust, say, in paint.

This isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. Witness Tissot’s massive 12-figure group portrait, “The Circle of the Rue Royale” (1866–68), depicting, among other wealthy art lovers, a young man in a gray top hat and pants on the far right, Charles Haas, who was the inspiration for Charles Swann in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.

James Tissot, “The Circle of the Rue Royale” (1866–68) (via Wikimedia)

The men’s fashion in this painting, so similar and yet so personal to each, is exquisitely observed. As the son of a textile merchant (father) and milliner shop owner (mother), Tissot knew his fabrics and his fashion. This skill situates him within a lineage of French artists going back to 18th-century portraitists like Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun and Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, for whom fashion was a signifier, yes, but also an opportunity to present bravura technique in paint. The way Degas or Manet might depict a Japanese screen to great painterly effect, Tissot deploys curving necklines, feathers, muslin, and silks.

Remaining in France (unlike Monet and Pissarro, who left the country) during the Franco-Prussian War, where he served as a sharpshooter, Tissot documented the horrors of war in his notebooks. Gutted by the experience, he left Paris for London, where he fell in love with Irish divorcée Kathleen Newton. As Catholics, they couldn’t marry, but this didn’t stop them from sharing a home and raising Newton’s children together, at least one of whom may have been Tissot’s.

Tissot documented the pleasures of, and poked fun at, the Vanity Fair of Victorian England. “London Visitors” (about 1874) is representative of his style and sly wit, where overdressed tourists look to be leaving the National Gallery (which, according to the background clock, has only been open 30 minutes) and hurrying along to the next attraction. There are pops of yellow on the young guides’ stockings and ginger in the beard of the tourist gentleman, but otherwise it’s a sea of gray and black. The energy of the scene comes from the frank stare of the fashionable woman, looking in the direction of whoever left the still-burning cigar on the foreground steps. It’s weirdly, wonderfully sexy.

James Tissot, “London Visitors” (about 1874), oil on canvas, Toledo Museum of Art (image courtesy the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

In 1882, Newton died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-eight. Tissot painted tender portraits of her until the end, two of which are in the show. Soon after her funeral, Tissot returned to Paris, bereft, where in the Church of St. Sulpice he experienced a profound vision of faith, after which he turned from portraying society to illustrating scenes from the Old and New Testaments so earnest and intense and frankly religious that if his previous fashion plate paintings hadn’t already been too out of touch with avant-garde movements to engender serious interest by later art historians, such Christian obsession surely would have.

For being so out of step with the ostensibly secular art of modernism, Tissot’s biblical watercolors feel oddly familiar. That’s because they’re astonishingly cinematographic, with sequential scenes that work almost like film stills. You get the sense that if you could run them on high speed, one to another, you’d easily have an early film. But it’s not just the seriality of the scenes. There’s a different kind of point of view in play that’s quite different from the usual conventions of painting. “What Our Lord Saw from the Cross,” for example, where the whole scene unfolds from Christ’s perspective, is a scene-stealer.

James Tissot, “What Our Lord Saw from the Cross” (1886-1894), opaque watercolor over graphite on gray-green wove paper, 9 3/4 x 9 1/16 in. (Brooklyn Museum, purchased by public subscription, image provided courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

In fact, Tissot’s biblical watercolors caught the attention of a number of filmmakers. The images would directly influence the look, style, architecture, and costume of films from one end of the 20th century to the other, from the work of Cecil B. DeMille to George Lucas. Tissot’s version of the Ark of the Covenant, as depicted in “Moses and Joshua in the Tabernacle,” for example, looks familiar because it’s the model for Raiders of the Lost Ark.

James Tissot, “Moses and Joshua in the Tabernacle” (c. 1896-1902), gouache on board, 7 3/8 x 8 13/16 in. (the Jewish Museum, image courtesy the Jewish Museum, image courtesy the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Alongside passionate Christian interests, Tissot also harbored spiritualist ones. At a private séance in London held by famous medium William Eglinton, Tissot saw Kathleen Newton again. The painting he made afterward, “The Apparition,” was long believed lost, though known via a mezzotint he did of it. Rediscovered in researching the current exhibition, this is the first time “The Apparition” has ever been shown publicly. It’s fascinating as an artifact, but anemic as a work of art. Too soft and a little vapid. Nothing like Newton in her last days or the point of view of Christ.

James Tissot, “L’Apparition Médiunimique” (The Apparition) (1885), mezzotint 25.375 x 19.375 in. (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, image courtesy the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Hanging near “The Apparition” is an enamel plaque by Tissot with a spiritual mashup of Egyptian deities, the Four Evangelists, a large yin-yang symbol, and his own monogram, titled “Panel with theosophical symbols.” Maybe, bizarre as it sounds, rather than an artist woefully out of step with modernism, Tissot was right in line with what was to come, the spiritual in art, which lead to the pioneering abstraction of Hilma af Klint and Kandinsky and Malevich, all inspired by theosophy.

James Tissot, “Panel with Theosophical Symbols” (1888), cloinsonné enamel on copper (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

James Tissot: Fashion & Faith continues at the Legion of Honor, San Francisco through February 9. The exhibition is organized by Melissa Buron, director of the Art Division at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and Paul Perrin and Marine Kisiel, curators of paintings at the Musées d’Orsay and Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris (where the exhibition will be on view March 23–July 19, 2020), and Cyrille Sciama, director of Musée des impressionnismes Giverny.

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