As one of the greatest technical virtuosos in art history, Tissot was the quintessential celebrator of his era. James Jacques-Joseph Tissot was born in 1836 in Nantes. In 1856 he moved to Paris and it was here that he established close ties with both Whistler and Degas. While visiting Antwerp, Tissot fell under the influence of the Belgian academic painter Baron Hendryk Leys, whose style of highly detailed and polished works he mirrored till his death. Tissot refused to classify himself as an Impressionist and declined to exhibit with them, although he was close friends with both Morisot and Manet.
From 1870 to 1871 France waged a bloody war with Prussia, during which Tissot enlisted in the National Guard as a sharpshooter. Afterwards, a civil war broke out pitting the revolutionary Paris Commune that Tissot supported against the right-wing government that inevitably took power. Tissot thus sought exile in London. He settled in a bohemian suburb of St. John’s Wood and began to concentrate on the themes of ‘modern life.’
It is not until he met and fell in love with a divorced Irish woman, Kathleen Newton, in 1876 that his art took an abrupt turn, which coincided with his return to etching. Conscious of the stigma attached to a divorced woman, Tissot ceased to frequent the society he had courted previously. During this time of isolation his works center on domestic scenes that idealize Kathleen and her two children. Kathleen was truly his model and his muse. After her death from consumption in 1882, Tissot returned to Paris. He attempted to recapture the success that he had achieved in London in depicting stylish studies of fashionable society ladies, and in 1883 he began work of the series titled La Femme a Paris. They were intended to be visual equivalents of short stories using psychological drama. But the public preferred the simplicity of his pure Belle Epoque studies. From 1886 onwards, Tissot concentrated on religious themes creating a series of illustrations for the Bible. These projects were cut short with his death in Buillon in 1902.
Etching was an integral part of Tissot’s work. After 1875, he pursued the medium with vigor. This was most likely due to the influence of Whistler’s etchings and the encouragement of Seymour Haden, who with Delatre, the printer had a profound influence on Tissot’s etching style. Many of Tissot’s etchings are derived from his paintings. However he saw etching as a total art form in and of itself. His eye for pose, gesture, rich materials and emotional drama are brought together in a combination of line and ink which makes them amongst striking and absorbing prints of their genre.
Tissot was heavily influenced by the opening up of Japan to the West bringing with it Eastern objects of exoticism. Oriental fascination reached a grand scale at the 1862 International Exhibition in London. Tissot was a connoisseur collecting Japanese woodblock prints as well as objects d’art that adorned his home. Tissot’s appeal to the Society of the day was the combination of traditional style with utterly modern subject and that remains his appeal. It is his emotionalism beneath the elegant surface that lifts his work into the world of great art.
Today, Tissot’s paintings and etchings are in great demand, and his work is featured in many of the world’s finest museums.