Small museums are not only a treat because of the wonderful gems sometimes found in their collections; they can also one-up larger museums in their ability to be flexible and open minded about their exhibitions. (They often have to be so, when vying to assemble exhibitions by borrowing from larger and more prestigious institutions.) The result can often be small informal exhibitions that larger museums wouldn’t be able to fit into their schedule or display spaces.
Such is the case with a small exhibition at one of my favorite small art museums, The Delaware Art Museum, which has built a tiny but beautiful show around three paintings. An anonymous private collector has loaned the museum three wonderful paintings by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (often simply called James Tissot), a French painter who was dissed for many years as a society fashion artist; which, in fact, he was. (Picture a painter today who specialized in portraying fashionable members of high society decked in haute couture, sharing drinks and gossip at the latest Hollywood party.)
Tissot has only recently regained favor as an accomplished academically trained painter (which he also was, having trained at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris and the atielier of Ingres), who combined those skills with the subtle light and color of his friends Whistler and Degas in the service of a keen observation of social realism.
It wasn’t what we usually think of as social realism, revealing the plight of the poor and downtrodden, but rather insightful observations of the lives of the fashionable members of the upper class, among whom Tissot moved comfortably in both Paris and, when the social upheaval of the Commune made things made things too hot there, in London. As an example, see In the Conservatory (sometimes called The Rivals).
The three paintings on loan to the DAM are Mavoureen, (an Irish term meaning “my darling”, also known as Portrait of Kathleen Newton), a beautiful three-quarter length portrait of his mistress and favorite model, which has a feeling of Manet or Degas, Dans le Serre (In the Greenhouse), my favorite of the three as it sits on one of those sublime edges where impressionism meets realism, and Young Ladies Admiring Japanese Objects, a shining little jewel of academic realism and 19th Century Orientalism around which the museum has fleshed out the exhibit with three Japanese woodblock prints from their collection. (I’ve chosen other works to show above, just because I like them and found reproductions online that show Tissot’s style to better advantage than some others.)
Tissot’s scintillating colors and facile technique did little to endear him to critics at the time, or to most of of the Impressionist circle, aside from his two friends, but it works great for me. I love his paintings of beautiful young women, decked out in their finest, amid lush tropical plants and the polished tile floors of conservatories, the sun washed decks of luxury cruise ships and the bright lawns and formal gardens that were the playgrounds of the privileged in London and Paris.
His body of work in these areas was preceded by early history and literary themed paintings and followed by other subjects. The untimely death of his lover, who was stricken with consumption (tuberculosis), left him devastated. He immediately sold his house in St Johns Wood (which was later bought by Alma-Tedema) and moved back to Paris. He became involved in Spiritualism, which was popular at the time, in an attempt to contact the spirit of his beloved Kathleen. Eventually, after frequent visits to churches while researching settings for certain paintings, he had a profound religious experience and he devoted much of his later work to religious themes.
Tissot was also an accomplished etcher, having learned much from Whistler, and sharing with him a fascination with the docks along the Thames waterfront in London (his paintings of which are some of his best work, IMHO). He also shared with Whistler, and many of the Impressionists, a fascination with oriental objects, prints and furnishings.
The Tissot paintings on view at Delaware Art Museum will be there to March 30, 2007. At other times, and in other places, look through the list on Artcyclopedia for museums displaying his work. Reproductions, even those in books, don’t give a real feeling for his wonderful command of color, terrific draughstmanship and deft handling of the medium of oil painting.