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Hide and Seek, 1877

James Jacques Joseph Tissot was born on October 15, 1836 on the western coast of France. A contemporary of Whistler, Degas and Manet, he reached a fair degree of success in his life yet strangely is almost forgotten today. Born twenty years before Sargent, Tissot would examine contemporary modern life while idealizing beautifully dressed women. Tissot had an eye for capturing moments and facial expressions that deserves particular attention because he did it without resorting to melodrama. He had an acute sense of light and composition, telling a story without having to a need to say a lot, yet still manages to captivate. Oddly enough, in his later years he suddenly became religious and his paintings took a mostly artificial turn, failing to capture the spontaneity and freshness of life that he was a master of. On occasion, he took biblical inspiration into anachronism and made modern-day interpretations of the bible, some of which are worth noting.

In Hide and Seek above, we see a quiet afternoon in the living room of wealthy owners. I love how Tissot has three children hiding on the left, looking coyly at us while the child on the floor awaits her siblings. Note the room is in two-point perspective. Tissot's repoussoir of the drapes creates a vertical sliver of triangular light that bathes the woman reading the newspaper, while to her right a door with a hint of flora catches our eye. Out of the frame on the left another window spills light onto the child on the floor. What is interesting here is that the room itself is a subject...the furniture, the carpets, the lamps, tea kettle, exotic animal rugs...Tissot creates a real presence with the ordinary. I like the cool greenish brushstrokes of the shiny floor contrasting with the heavy texture of the floral patterned area rug. Tissot creates a tactile experience as well as a snapshot of nineteenth century life. And it works.

Self-Portrait, ca. 1865

The Gallery of H.M.S. 'Calcutta', ca.1877

This peaceful composition tells a story: a young naval officer leans on the railing of this ship, appearing to look out into the port but is also interested in the curvaceous woman in yellow to the far right, also leaning on the railing but is "blocked" by a chaperone, uncomfortable to the flirtation going on yet casually looks out also. The young woman to the right gracefully hides her face behind her fan enjoying the attention of the handsome officer. It doesn't seem like much to our modern eyes, yet in this Victorian world Tissot is commenting on the formal propriety of social mores and its inability to hinder natural desires. The choice of colors is also fascinating here, the blue of the chaperone is conservative and cold while the yellow of the young woman is fresh and innocent. The painting was considered scandalous by some when it first exhibited.

Seaside, ca.1878

A simple portrait where Tissot uses soft light to enhance the unique texture of her dress and create a character. She is confident and self-assured, leg crossed, sensual even though covered from neck to ankles. Tissot's yellow features prominently again, fresh and vibrant without being obvious. The attention to pattern and detail is a trademark of Tissot we see once again in the floral pattern of the sofa and in the yellow pillows. His use of environmental elements and texture along with keeping the subject as natural as possible creates a strong sense of presence and realness, something that makes Tissot highly underrated as a portraitist.

Captain Frederick Gustavus Burnaby, ca.1875

A noted traveller and soldier, Captain Burnaby was something of a celebrity in his day, having fought and written about his adventures throughout Spain and Russia. Tissot captures him here in full uniform, cigarette in hand, talking casually in the lavish settings of the Royal Horse Guards. Tissot's attention to furniture detail again adds a warmth and richness to the portrait, helping to define the character. Note his helmet and jacket on the sofa. Near his side are books and a cap. Near his highly polished shoes are what appears to be a pair of shields on the floor, while the map on the wall symbolizes his worldly travels. Portraiture like this is eloquent and yet so simple. Artists who fawn over Sargent should be looking here if they want to really learn something about how to capture people.

The Bridesmaid, 1885

Another allegory on Victorian life, this painting appears to our eyes like a Norman Rockwell in its immediacy. The cramped composition and one-point perspective create a sense of urgency, yet our eyes stop to look at this young bridesmaid about to enter a world of privilege in the stagecoach of this groomsman. This time Tissot focuses on the reaction of the people on the street, from the envious women to the young boy who is surprised by the couple's outwardness. Here the attraction is not physical at all, but materialistic and we see a strong blue tendency in Tissot's palette, with virtually no yellow in sight except for the tiny bonnet on her head. Instead of elaborate textures Tissot uses the street and the surroundings to tell the story. Note the greens in the pavement beneath them.

Tissot was a perceptive voice of his generation, without spectacle or melodrama, which may explain why he isn't regarded as highly today. Learning to see is everything in art, and Tissot most definitely could see.


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