Yale Bulletin and Calendar

September 20-27, 1999Volume 28, Number 5

The Ball on Shipboard, ca. 1874,
by James Tissot

Artist's depictions of Victorian-era Britain featured in show

In the Victorian English world where French artist James Tissot lived for more than a decade, his paintings -- and even his lifestyle -- were viewed by some as "vulgar."

When the Yale Center for British Art opens the first U.S. retrospective of the artist in over 30 years, a painting that played a part in Tissot's loss of favor with the British will be one of the exhibition's

The painting, titled "The Hammock," will make its first public appearance in 120 years in the exhibit "James Tissot: Victorian Life/Modern Love," which opens Wednesday, Sept. 22. The painting features as its subject Tissot's mistress, Kathleen Newton, an Irish divorcee who had two illegitimate children. Newton's relationship with Tissot was seen as scandalous by the genteel British society that was a focus of much of the artist's work.

The first and only time that "The Hammock" was publicly shown was in 1879, when it was exhibited in England's Grosvenor Gallery. The work -- which is on loan from a private collection in Greenwich, Connecticut -- will be among the approximately 40 paintings, 40 prints and 20 watercolors in the retrospective exhibit at the British Art Center.

Tissot expert Michael Wentworth has said of "The Hammock": "Among the handful of Tissot's major canvases that have remained unlocated in the late 20th-century, few can be considered as interesting as the rediscovered 'Hammock' .... Long known only from a photograph in the albums Tissot kept to record his artistic production, it has proved to be a beautiful work in its own right, painted at the height of his artistic prowess and a major addition to his oeuvre .... 'The Hammock' stands at the confluence of his artistic career as well as his emotional life in London in the 1870s, when he achieved a brief and fragile balance between art and life that was soon to be tragically shattered."

"James Tissot: Victorian Life/Modern Love" celebrates Tissot's return to both popular and scholarly favor in recent years, according to the exhibit's curator, Malcolm Warner, who is also curator of paintings and sculpture at the Yale Center for British Art.

Known primarily for his highly detailed portrayals of members of upper-class British society, Tissot is considered a leading "chronicler of the social mores of the Victorian era," according to Warner. Works created by the artist throughout his career are represented in the exhibit, with particular emphasis placed on Tissot's years in London.

Born in Nantes, France in 1836, Tissot first gained popularity as an artist in his native country during the 1860s. He associated with many of the leading artists of the period, including James McNeil Whistler and Edgar Degas. In 1871 he moved to London, where he lived until 1882. The works he created in England focused on courtships, the costumes of Victorian women, the Thames River, the streets of London, shipping and seaside resort towns.

"At the heart of Tissot's work as an artist lies the idea of the modern, that which makes the present time distinct in appearance and character from the past," wrote Warner in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition. "Above all, Tissot deals with the manners and customs of modern love: the drama of attraction and flirtation, body language and eye contact, the signs of availability, the many degrees of prostitution, the workings of passion, its frustrations, rivalries and cross purposes, the sorrows of separation and loss -- all of these in the particular forms they took in Paris and London in the later 19th century."

Tissot was generally received favorably by the British, who were avid buyers of his works, although some resented the artist and were suspicious that he was making fun of their manners and morals. Explains Warner: "It remains one of the delights of Tissot's art to see the Victorians through the eyes of a foreigner. He gives us an outsider's take on life and love in this most modern of modern societies, noticing what the British themselves took for granted, teasing them for their famous respectability and reserve, revealing -- by the lightest of touches -- that they too thought about sex."

Between 1877 and 1882, Tissot painted and engraved a number of works using Kathleen Newton as his model. Newton had moved into Tissot's house and in 1876 she had a son, who may have been Tissot's child. "This unconventional relationship seems to have affected the painter's welcome in polite English society, for he withdrew to his own smaller, more tolerant Bohemian circles, concentrating increasingly on depictions of Newton," says Tissot scholar Nancy Marshall in the exhibition catalogue, which she cowrote with Warner.

Following Newton's premature death from tuberculosis in 1882, Tissot returned to Paris, where he first concentrated exclusively on images of women. Among his works from this period are a series of 15 pictures titled "La Femme à Paris." Eventually, he became preoccupied with spiritualism and later, expressed a more traditional religious faith. In this period of his life, he devoted most of his energy to creating biblical illustrations. After his death in 1902, he was most often remembered as a Christian artist. By the late 1960s, however, his work was mostly ignored.

The Yale exhibit is designed to "present Tissot on his own terms, to bring out the intelligence, the inventiveness, and the humour that make him such a highly enjoyable artist," notes Warner.

In conjunction with the exhibit, the Yale Center for British Art is offering an array of special events, including lectures, concerts and films. Events during the month of September include a talk by Warner on "James Tissot and the Comedy of Modern Love" at 5:15 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 22; a staged reading of George Bernard Shaw's "The Philanderer" by members of Yale's English department at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 26 (see related story); and a talk by Wellesley College art historian Anne Higonnet on "James Tissot: Who's Looking at Whom?" at 5:15 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 29. In addition, there will be a gallery talks on the exhibit at 11 a.m. on Thursday, Sept. 23 and 30. All events are free and open to the public. Check future issues of the Yale Bulletin & Calendar for other events being presented in conjunction with the Tissot exhibit.

"James Tissot: Victorian Life/Modern Love" will remain on view through Nov. 28. The exhibit was organized by The American Federation of Arts and the Yale Center for British Art. Works on display were selected from public and private collections in North America, Europe and Australia, including loaned items from the Tate Gallery in London, the Musée d'Orsay in Paris and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Support for the Yale exhibition -- which will later travel to the Musée du Québec, Canada, and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York -- was provided by the Benefactors Circle of the AFA.

The Yale Center for British Art, located on the corner of Chapel and High streets, is open free of charge Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., and Sunday, 2-5 p.m. The center is closed on Monday and on major holidays. For a recorded listing of weekly museum tours and events, call 432-2800 or visit the center's website at www.yale.edu/ycba.


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