LE HAMAC

James Tissot
LE HAMAC
Drypoint
1880

An original James Tissot Drypoint print.

(The Hammock)

1880

Original etching and drypoint printed in black ink on laid paper bearing a portion of the block letter “Van Gelder” watermark.

Signed and dated in the plate in the title margin below the image lower left J.J.Tissot / 1880.

A richly printed impression of Wentworth’s definitive state from the edition of approximately 100

Catalog: Wentworth 46; Tissot 41; Béraldi 37.

10 7/8 x 7 1/4 inches

Sheet Size: 14 9/16 x 11 1/16 inches

This etching belongs to a group of works, including three paintings shown in the Grosvenor Gallery exhibition of 1879, that show Kathleen Newton wearing a fashionable black dress and swinging in a hammock in Tissot’s garden in St. John’s Wood. Although no reviewers of the Grosvenor exhibition identified Newton, they appear to have recognized the location as suburban London. As one writer commented, these were “pictures of the ‘detached villa’ kind.” (The phrase refers to the distinctive architectural type of the newly emerging suburbs, the freestanding house.) Despite their apparently innocuous subjects the pictures in question were savaged by the critics. One fumed, “this year [Tissot] tries our patience somewhat hardly, for these ladies in hammocks, showing a very unnecessary amount of petticoat and stocking, and remarkable for little save luxurious indolence and insolence, are hardly fit subjects for such elaborate painting.” To determine why the pictures evoked such anxiety, we need to re-examine the meaning of the phrase “pictures of the ‘detached villa’ kind.”

The humorous magazine Punch identified Tissot’s setting as St. John’s Wood and, perhaps insinuating intimate knowledge of Tissot’s personal life – he was, after all, living with Newton outside of matrimony – referred to this suburb in a way that reminded the informed reader that, in addition to being a domain of domesticity, it was also famous for fashionable kept women. As one commentator darkly proclaimed, the female inhabitants of the area were composed of “divorced wives, not married to anyone in particular, mysterious widows whose husbands have never been seen, married women whose better halves were engaged in the City.”

Had Tissot overtly represented a prostitute and her clients, his painting would not have been sanctioned by an Establishment institution such as the Grosvenor. Indeed, he seems to have taken some steps to prevent his model being read in this way: in at least one of his Grosvenor pictures – as in the present etching – Newton is clearly wearing a wedding ring. Apparently, neither this sign of respectability, nor the presence of innocent children playing in the background, were enough to render the situation above reproach.

For many Victorians the new suburbs were not peaceful havens of domesticity but unintelligible and rather threatening products of the modern age. In 1883 an article in the Architect referred to them as a “terra incognita,” comparing them to the American prairie and their inhabitants to pioneers in a “perfect wilderness.” The speedy growth of the suburbs meant that it was more difficult to define and comprehend suburb and city alike, given the confusion as to where one began and the other left off. The blurring of the previously clear-cut categories of “city” and “country” also prevented the easy description of this novel landscape. Thus the suburban garden became a defining, deceptively attractive element.

The ambiguity of the woman in Tissot’s hammock pictures, whose identity as a respectable bourgeois wife was open to question, was inflected by and in turn contributed to the potential disruptiveness of her suburban garden surroundings. According to the reviewer for the Illustrated London News, these images portrayed “the St. John’s-Wood life in conservatory or garden (where the London soot seems to be fast penetrating),” implying with this graphic metaphor that the domain of suburbia had been infiltrated by urban vice.

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