James TISSOT (Nantes, 1836 – Chenecey-Buillon, 1902)

Seated Portrait of Méry Laurent holding her little Japanese Dog “Princess” tightly

49.5 x 34.5 cm. (19 ½ x 13 9/16 in.)

Pen and brown ink wash applied with a brush
Signed and dedicated, lower right

• France, Private Collection.

• James Tissot, l’ambigu moderne, [exh. cat.], RMN-Grand Palais, Paris, 2020.
• Nancy Rose Marshall, Malcolm Warner, James Tissot: Victorian Life, Modern Love, London: Yale University Press, New Haven, 1999.

Contrary to accepted beliefs, Jacques-Joseph, called James, Tissot, was not born in England but in Nantes, the former capital of the Dukes of Brittany, in 1836. His name was only anglicized upon his profitable trip to London in 1871. Jacques-Joseph was the son of a pair of merchants who ran a fashion and novelty shop, a fact which probably inspired the young man in his depictions of fabrics and silks which occupied a preponderant place in his work.
In France, young Tissot’s art education began at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris where he had lessons from Louis Lamothe (1822-1869) and then Hippolyte Flandrin (1809-1864). Very few biographical elements of the painter’s youth are known, and no letters or evidence evoke the young artist’s complex artistic ambitions. Between his arrival in Paris in the late 1850’s and his departure for London in 1871, Tissot met the greatest artistic figures of his time, who encouraged him to embrace the art of portraiture. He was friends with Whistler, Manet, and Degas who did his portrait in 1867 (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Inv. 39.161), as well as of the Belgian Alfred Stevens who communicated his charming vision which mixed academism with Impressionist modernity.
More than a glimpse of society, Tissot’s oeuvre evokes a decisive period of modernity in late 19th century Occidental art. In France, the artist illustrates life under the Second Empire, inspired by new aesthetic aspirations between a crisis in the hierarchy of genres and an overturning of academism, motivated by the painter’s expression of his own originality.

During his lifetime, Tissot enjoyed great notoriety which was constantly renewed during his career through various events and exhibitions which honored him in France and in England. In London, he focused on Victorian society and depicted the outings of Navy officers with young discreet women who accompanied them.
Tissot’s fortunate period in England would nonetheless have unhappy repercussions when his companion, Kathleen Newton, died prematurely in 1882. The artist’s life and work were disrupted. Upon returning to Paris that same year, Tissot sought through his portraits, nonetheless, to render the essence of femininity. His “silent elegants” could be evoked, pensive, evasive, and almost haunted in a new melancholic vision of female representation, probably a form of nostalgia for his companion who had disappeared.

With this image of daily bourgeois life, Tissot’s work became really famous.
Our drawing is evidence of the close attention he paid to these high society women. The sitter is no other than Méry Laurent, whose maiden name was Anne Rose Suzanne Louviot (1849-1900), and who served as a muse for many painters in Paris, including Henri Gervex, James Abbot McNeill Whistler, and even Edouard Manet (ill. 1). She was also a source of inspiration for the greatest writers, such as Marcel Proust and Emile Zola whom she welcomed at her literary salons. An actress, comedian, and model, Méry Laurent became an unavoidable popular figure in the second half of the 19th century. She is described by her contemporaries as a joyful smiling woman, character perfectly rendered by Tissot in our drawing.

Before being a painter, James Tissot was a terrific draughtsman. In a close-up view on a large sheet of paper, the artist depicts the young woman seated in an armchair and holding her little dog “Princess” tightly against her.
From the beginning, Tissot assembled a catalogue of photographic reproductions of his paintings which he mounted in an album which he conserved carefully, like a catalogue raisonné or a sale catalogue which allowed him to show potential future clients samples of his compositions. The art of photography, which had only recently come into fashion, was a medium commonly used by painters. With it, the artists could reduce the length of time considerably in which sitters had to pose. It also made it possible to capture light in a new way. Tissot certainly worked from photographs. For our work in particular, the artist probably was inspired by a Paul Nadar photograph depicting Méry Laurent holding her little dog in her arms (ill. 2).

Although done only in pen and brown ink wash, Tissot renders his figure quite vivaciously and plays with the effects of different shades of ink so as to yield a work in several tones. Sometimes using a lot of water so as to give the effect of watercolors, sometimes loading his pen with ink, the artist emphasizes certain lines in order to work on light and shade effects in the face, as well as to reinforce the effects on luxurious fabrics such as hat feathers and the fur of the coat collar worn by his sitter who is attired in the latest fashions. The little dog is skillfully entwined in fabrics on the left of the composition: a little fantasy which brings more energy to the composition.

A few years before his companion’s death, Tissot abandoned society subjects in order to devote himself entirely to his religious convictions. Right up to the end of his career, he displayed Biblical subjects which were nourished by his travels in Palestine and Jerusalem, and inspired by the mystic visions of his contemporary Gustave Doré (1832-1883).
Among his contemporaries, Tissot was a resolutely modern artist who gained much recognition, was successful throughout his career, and was defended by the greatest merchants of his time, including the famous Adolphe Goupil (1806-1893) who scattered his works across France, England and the United States.
transl. chr

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