"A picture by M. Tissot will be enough for archaeologists of the future to reconstitute our epoch" - Fashionable James Tissot

15 October 1836, the French painter James Tissot was born in Nantes.

“We went to see Tissot, who does very pretty things that he sells at high prices; he is living like a king. We dined there. He is very nice, a very good fellow, though a little vulgar.  We are on the best of terms; I paid him many compliments, and he really deserves them.” (Berthe Morisot)

Henry James dismissed it as “hard, vulgar and banal” – James Tissot: “The Gallery of HMS Calcutta” (1876)

The discreet charm of the Bourgeoisie. Many artists fall for it, sooner or later, but few made it a distinct style like James Tissot did. Actually, everything started out promising and auspicious, bohémien-wise, born into a well-to-do family of drapery merchants in Nantes, the aspiring painter learned about fabrics and clothes first hand from the bottom up, along with a rather artistic longing for the sea, naturally enough, since he found the Atlantic right at his doorstep in the old harbour town where he grew up. A matelot once remarked that Tissot got every detail right when he drew or painted ships and especially a ship’s rigging and a love for all things nautical show through to many of his works. But first, young Jacques had to become a full-fledged artist, against the will of his old man, naturally, who wanted his only son to succeed him in business, his mother, though, sponsored his aspiring career and soon young Jacques found himself in Paris, called himself James since he already was a bit of an Anglophile, enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and excelled in the wake of old Ingres’ students in considerably talented but rather conventional pieces. Participating in Paris’ burgeoning artistic atmosphere the bourgeois scion left his academic ivory tower, befriended Degas as well as Whistler and found his calling in which he would excel like few others. Very fashionable genre paintings. Tissot became a smashing success on both sides of the channel during the 1860s, unfortunately others were about to successfully smash the Second Empire and the year of 1871 found the fashionable painter with a Chassepot rifle in his hands on the barricades of the Paris Commune. It was, famously, yet another short summer of anarchy, and Tissot thought it best to relocate to London poste haste when the bourgeois Third Republic asserted itself and began its counting-out rhyme that usually ended with former Communards being put against a wall and shot.

“Our industrial and artistic creations can perish, our morals and our fashions can 
fall into obscurity, but a picture by M. Tissot will be enough for archaeologists 
of the future to reconstitute our epoch.”  L’Artiste, 1869, 
in a review of Tissot’s painting, 
"Young Ladies Looking at Japanese Objects", depicted above.

Back in the day, not-so-fashionable ladies used to sew newspapers into the layers to imitate the rustle of the silks of their betters’ wickedly expensive costumes and it is almost as if Tissot had found a way to visualise the custom as one of the 19th century’s best realistic painters in depicting fabrics and the upper classes’ fashion. Or that what passed for it among the nouveau riches and social climbers, much to the dismay of old money and nobility during the second half of the old queen’s long reign. However, Tissot obviously had inherited at least something of the shrewd business acumen of his cloth-trading forebears and managed to back exactly these layers of society as his sujet who turned out to be very generous art patrons when their likenesses, or rather that of the misses and her wardrobe, were depicted as winsome, accommodating and fashionably elegant as Tissot did it. In short, the ex-Communard refugee became a man about town, was able to buy a posh place in St John’s Wood and was even forgiven the cheek to live openly with his mistress in said neighbourhood, a lady with a past, to say the least in terms of Victorian respectability. The story ended in tears, though, after ten years, when the lady, Kathleen Newton was her name, Tissot’s lover, muse and favourite model, chose to commit suicide at the age of 28, rather than fall victim to the last stages of the tuberculosis she suffered from. Tissot would never be the same again, he sold the house to Alma-Tadema, found back to his mother’s devout Catholicism, spiced-up a bit with the fashionable spiritism of the age, travelled the Near East and was content with illustrating the Scriptures, more elegant than Doré but less commanding. He died in 1902 at the age of 65, a year after the Victorian Age ended whose fashion’s chronicler he had become, second to none in elegance with a likewise unmistakeable pinch of irony.

Visualising the rustle of expensive silk dresses: James Tissot: "Still on Top" (1873)

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