James Jacques Joseph Tissot
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Image courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
A Woman Seated in Profile, Facing Right, 1873
Black chalk with bodycolor on blue paper
22.8 x 29.0 cm
WA 1942.108

James Tissot’s A Woman Seated in Profile, Facing Right, is preparatory sketch for the oil painting The Captain and the Mate, both completed in the year 1873. The Captain and the Mate was recently purchased by the Andrew Lloyd Weber Collection and now makes its home in London, not far from the Ashmolean’s sketch.  The finished  painting features two couples seated on the deck of a boat docked Thames-side.  The couple in the foreground is comprised of Margaret Kennedy (our sitter) and John Freebody, Captain of the ship, the Arundel Castle.  The Captain looks plaintively into the distance, hands clutched together at his chin, and Ms. Kennedy, arms undetectable under her costume, looks over the brim of his hat, out into the harbor.  Further back, but more central in the composition, are a couple in passionate discussion (and were drawn after Ms. Kennedy’s brother and sister).

Jacques Joseph Tissot was born in 1836 to a prosperous merchant family in Nantes, France, and died in 1902 in Buillon (near Besançon), France, in a house inherited from his father.  Tissot’s fear of and reverence for his successful father and the strong influence of his mother shaped the way that he went about making art. His mother, a devout Catholic and a hard-working woman, supported him in his desire to make art, and was instrumental, in the face of his father’s opposition, in his going to Paris to pursue a career in art in 1856 (or 1857).  It was also the religious belief that she instilled in him that inspired in part his earliest and last bodies of work. Tissot’s lifelong desire was to prove to his father by way of monetary success that his chosen path as an artist was a viable one, and this desire to make money and connect to a purchasing public kept Tissot away from some of the more controversial paths of production at the time, like Impressionism; this impulse kept him seated within conservative illustrative and academic tradition.

Shortly after moving to Paris in the late 1850’s, Tissot began to study under Hippolyte Flandrin and Louis Lamothe, both of whom had been trained under Ingres.  This provided Tissot with a good hand for clear draftsmanship and the ability to represent life realistically. He had a brief alliance with the École des Beaux-Artes, but didn’t stay, instead aiming to move into the marketplace, or the Salon, where he first exhibited pictures in 1859, soon after coming to Paris.

Tissot’s artistic production experiences three main phases of focus.  The Ashmolean’s drawing is from his second phase of concentration, and the three can be described in the following terms, the first and third of which I’ll discuss first, as they have less to do with A Woman Seated in Profile, Facing Right:

Tissot’s early work (1850-1864) dealt with historical and religious painting, working often from Goethe’s Faust.  He developed a somber and weighty style influenced by Baron Henry Leys, who was a practitioner of the “Style Troubadour,” a heavy and mannered mode of romantic historical painting.  The seriousness and gravity of scene and atmosphere and the interest in the dour or brooding figure Tissot developed during this time stayed with him throughout his career.

Near the end of his career, in the mid-1880’s, Tissot is said to have had a vision of Jesus while in a church in Paris, and this event returned him to his Catholicism and changed his output from the secular to the religious, with his undertaking to illustrate the New Testament.  Contemporary critics and his friends of the time, like Degas, doubted the reality of his conversion, or self-discovery, especially considering the extraordinary public acclaim and financial success he found with this phase of his work.

It is the twenty or so years of work between 1864 and 1885 that raise the most salient questions for the drawing found in the Ashmolean’s collection: this is the point in time when Tissot was concerned with contemporary life, costume, social behavior, and, his main concern, the challenge of rendering difficult graphic detail.  In addition to this, he began looking in 1866 at the work of Alfred Stevens, a Belgian painter of fashions and French women, and in a similar style, Tissot embarked on an almost entirely decorative enterprise for twenty years.

A Woman Seated in Profile, Facing Right was purchased by the Ashmolean in 1942 and can be counted among a group of approximately nine sketches of women that Tissot completed at the same time and in the same style. Almost all of the related sketches have been paired with paintings; making them not presentation drawings, but instead works that assisted in the planning of primary compositions. Tissot’s having been academically trained meant that he worked in a way that produced preliminary sketches and small paintings to work out the details of figures intended for inclusion in larger compositions, and our drawing can thus be studied alongside its companion painting.

Tissot had gone to London in 1871 to flee the Paris Commune and he ended up remaining there in until 1882.  While in London, he began working for Vanity Fair as an illustrator through a friendship with its director, Thomas Gibson Bowles.  He illustrated the Defense of Paris for the magazine, and it is through his involvement with this craft that his use of the blue illustrator’s paper that the Ashmolean’s drawing resides on came to be.

The drawing, which measures 228 x 291 mm, is completed in black, red, yellow, and white bodycolor, on the unprimed blue illustrators’ paper which has faded to a dull blue-gray over the years and has experienced some foxing, or growth of a flowery brown fungus which was treated to arrest its further growth and to quiet its appearance in 1966.

The background is left untreated, and it is through the paper having resisted slightly the application of the bodycolor that one can observe that the paper was handled dry, with a fairly dry application of paint.

In the composition, the sitter floats in the lower-left corner of the page, and casts a gaze impassively across the frame, directly level with its horizontal edges. Presented with what appears be a portrait, the viewer looks first to her face, which is of a fully ghastly pallor increased by the contrast of three daubs of carefully applied blood red which serve to designate her inner ear, her mouth, and her nostril.  The paleness of her skin and the satisfied lassitude of her expression create a strange psychological tension against the apparent focus, or subject, of the drawing, which can be identified as the woman’s costume.  This quick shift of attention which takes place while moving between the expected and the actual subjects of the drawing causes a disorientation which is compounded by the complexity and confusion of the outfit.

Easiest to digest is the white hat perched atop the sitter’s head.  It features a brilliant blue ribbon, and it is regrettable that the paper has faded, as the imagined contrast between the ribbon and the original blue of the paper seems very rich.  Its most striking feature is its counterpoint to her white face, in being, unbelievably, still whiter. 

Heaped about her person, she bears a multi-tiered black cape of frilled edges over a black and white striped dress of an even more abundant number of frills and structural details.  The cape is split in back, exposing the layers of fabric and ruffle, all quickly but accurately described in strokes of black on white.  Draped over the sitter’s lap is a red tartan blanket, and one can tell from the draping and weight of the blanket that it is some kind of heavy wool, probably woven but not boiled.  All of this is sitting on a flat wash of brown intended to signify a bench.

The foot of the dress is most loosely rendered, with two rows of flicks of the brush beginning at the end of the bench and extending toward the bottom edge of the paper serving to sketch it in.  The rest of the dress shows its shifts in draping not through shadows and folds, but in this same method of stacking rows of parallel hatch marks, shifting once diagonally, once offset by a line of color, once slightly rounded to suggest a bulge.  The same hatch marks build the fringe-like texture of the edges of the cape which appears to blow back in response to the wind.

The garishness of the sitter’s costume and the seeming specificity of the tartan plaid should open questions about the sitter’s identity and the eventual consequences of the groupings of people in the painting, but through a study of Tissot’s work during this second period of production, it becomes clear that both of these matters are quite irrelevant. 

Tissot’s main concern, as is evident even in the preliminary sketch, is not portraiture, or costume itself, but instead the challenges presented by a graphic and linear movement around a figure, facilitated by the pattern of the dress and the frill of the wrap.  One assumes initially that Tissot’s subject is the woman, but the fact that there is almost nothing to describe her face, and that her body is entirely dwarfed and subjugated by her garments, almost imprisoning her form, makes it quickly clear that the woman is secondary to other concerns.

If one saw this drawing isolated from Tissot’s oeuvre, it would seem next that Tissot wants to discuss the particularities of this dress, but looking into Tissot’s work, one sees that he depicts the same (or very similar) black and white striped dresses no fewer that ten times in finished paintings, not taking into account the number of such dresses used in sketches (like the Ashmolean’s drawing). He uses an illustrator’s brushstroke throughout: dry, precise and descriptive, never allowing himself to indulge the urge to move his medium for sensuality’s sake. His hard line and technical accuracy seem to be the main subject of the drawing, and he has found in the striped costume the ultimate showpiece for his ability.

Tissot’s use of striped material began in earnest 1868, when working on paintings dealing with the period of Directoire style, or the late eighteenth century’s preoccupation with the decorative, or applied arts. (Un Déjeuner , 1868, La Partie Carrée, 1870, and Un Souper sous le Directoire, 1869).  The striped dresses and large hats of the time appeared in the looser compositions of the sixties to interest him for their flashiness in the scene, and later, because of the precision of their draftsmanship, for the excitement he derived from retelling their construction. 

This interest being important to him, Tissot was very dependent on his cache of studio props and costumes for the creation of his images.  The dress in Study of a Seated Female Figure can also be found in 1873’s Boarding the Yacht and The Return from the Boating Trip, 1874’s Still on Top, and 1877’s Portsmouth Dockyard (How Happy I could be with Either), which also features the tartan blanket.  Each of the other props appears in various other paintings.  

Tissot did great amounts of painting on the banks of the Thames in the early 1870’s, and with London being one of the world’s busiest ports at the time, this gave him plenty of material on which to practice his fondness for painting detail.  The Captain and the Mate features an ornately rendered network of ships’ rigging in the background which echoes the lines found on the patterning on Ms. Kennedy’s dress.  The vibration between the two banks of lines creates a graphic tension that far outshines any psychological tension that might be taking place on board.  As mentioned earlier, Tissot’s employment as an illustrator for Vanity Fair was earning him a audience and a recognizable hand.  His drawings that appeared in Vanity Fair were mostly satirical portraits of political figures, and fifty in total were published.  They were well received by the general readership, and although not entirely stylistically consistent with his compositions of women, they are similar enough to his preparatory sketches and on side-by-side comparison only reinforce the importance of the graphic line and illustrator’s convention present in the Ashmolean’s drawing.

A Woman Seated in Profile, Facing Right is a drawing of considerable technical skill, and we are fortunate to be able to include it in the exhibition due to its relation to Tissot’s fetishistic practice.  His fundamental and enduring working concerns of line’s movement around form, line’s movement through space, and the depiction of a complicated three-dimensional object on a two-dimensional plane are all exquisitely illustrated.

Jessica Slaven

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