Musée d'Orsay: James Tissot (1836-1902), Ambiguously modern

James Tissot (1836-1902), Ambiguously modern

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James Tissot, Ambiguously modern

James TissotSelf-portrait© Fine Arts museums of San Francisco
James Tissot was born in 1836 and died at the dawn of the 20th century. He enjoyed a long career spanning both sides of the Channel in a period of far-reaching social, political and aesthetic change. Trained in the tradition of Ingres and Flandrin, an admirer in his youth of the Flemish and Italian Primitives, the British Pre-Raphaelites and Japanese art, he embraced in the early 1860s the modern influence which his peers and friends – including Manet, Whistler, and Degas – brought to the French art scene.

He moved to London in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune, drawing on elements of the conventions of British narrative painting to portray the entertainments and idle moments of Victorian society in pictures which were often mischievous and featured multiple layers of meaning.

An aficionado of all things original and eclectic, who was berated for veering towards pastiche but also praised for his stunning forms of personal expression, Tissot always followed his own inclinations. He almost pushed this tendency to the limit on his return to France in the early 1880s when he virtually abandoned painting to devote himself to illustrating the Bible, producing a fresh iconography of Scripture in the closing years of the century, which inspired 20th century film-makers. The great strength of Tissot’s art lies in this desire not merely to explore fresh approaches, but also to embrace new techniques (prints, cloisonné enamel, photography, and illustration) in order to disseminate his compositions. His shrewd insight told him that in an era when technology could produce and distribute images on an unprecedented scale, the artist had a responsibility to manufacture them.

Like their creator – whom Edmond de Goncourt called “this complex being” – Tissot’s works are captivating and ambiguous in equal measure. At first glance they appear to be sparkling and bright, but closer examination of the multiplicity of details uncovers a frequently paradoxical and disconcerting dimension and ultimately reveals that they are suggesting hidden meanings which are not explained. Their brilliance lies in their ability to pique the spectator’s curiosity without ever fully satisfying it, thus allowing individuals to assimilate them on their own terms.

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