Jacques Joseph Tissot grew up in Nantes, dividing his time between the family drapery business and the quays of the river Loire. This boy, already enrolled as “James” in school, and initially interested in architecture, chose to become a painter and moved to Paris in 1855-1856. He trained in the studios of Flandrin and Lamothe, both followers of Ingres, who instilled in him a love of drawing.
However, Tissot’s true models were not French. Looking further afield, the young artist developed a love of the Primitives – the late mediaeval German masters (Cranach, Dürer, and Holbein) and the Italian painters of the Quattrocento (Carpaccio, and Bellini) – and among his own contemporaries the Belgian artist Henri Leys, and the British Pre-Raphaelite painters in whom he recognised a similarly authentic approach to observing the world and exquisite execution. Tissot’s successive enthusiasms were fuelled by travel since he visited Belgium, Germany and Switzerland in 1859, and then Italy in 1862.
Tissot exhibited at the Salon in 1859. His works “full of odd peculiarities, and strange and curious things like the creations of a Nuremburg toymaker” (Olivier Merson) attracted attention, but also harsh criticism. The painter was accused of producing pastiches of the old masters and Henri Leys, and of wallowing in the archaic: “it is sad to see an intelligent and gifted artist betraying his talent with pedantic imitations,” wrote the critic Paul de Saint-Victor.
However, within the space of a few years, Tissot laid the foundations for an original style comprising sharp draughtsmanship and contrasting colours, a sense of detail and accumulation, and weary or repentant figures, which he subsequently applied to modern themes.