One of Tissot’s great achievements was a series of fifteen paintings of identical size on the theme “The Woman of Paris” produced when he returned to France, which he showed at two solo exhibitions in Paris (1885), then London (1886). This spectacular and wholly original form of presentation was intended by the painter as a means of re-establishing himself on the French art scene.
Tissot chose as his subject the Parisian woman, the epitome of modern, sophisticated beauty, but also of a certain art of seduction. In these paintings in which women embody by turn male fantasies of dolls and the Sphinx (the title of one of the paintings in the series), the focus is primarily on the looks exchanged between men and women – and the spectator. The series allowed Tissot to address all the major themes of the Naturalist movement such as boulevards, shops, the entertainment scene, finance, and the social world of artists.
Tissot, who had re-established his ties with literary circles prior to his return to Paris, notably with his friends Edmond de Goncourt and Alphonse Daudet, hoped to adapt his series for publication. He produced his own engravings which he was keen to accompany with short stories by Ludovic Halévy, Théodore de Banville, Alphonse Daudet, François Coppée, Albert Wolff and Guy de Maupassant. A subscription was raised, but the project did not come to fruition. This can perhaps be attributed to the exhibition’s overwhelmingly poor reception. French critics accused these Parisian women, and the artist himself, of being too British. This failure led Tissot to embark on his project to illustrate the Bible, which occupied the final fifteen years of his life.