The Curious Case of James Jacques Joseph Tissot

James Tissot, Marguerite in Church, 1865

Purchased at Christie’s of London in 1927 as a gift for Mrs. Sloane, Marguerite in Church by James Tissot (1836-1902) is one of the finest panel paintings in our collection.

Tissot at his easel

Jacques Joseph Tissot — his given name — was born to merchant class parents in Nantes, France in 1836. In 1856-7 he moved to Paris  to study at L’École des Beaux-Arts alongside his friend Edgar Degas. Tissot’s style was heavily influenced by his mentors Ingres and Flandrin, but it was his friendships with avant-garde artists outside the academy that inspired him most. Edouard Manet and James McNeill Whistler were amongst Tissot’s closest friends; so close, in fact, that shortly after meeting Whistler, Tissot anglicized his name from Jacques to James.

[To see a portrait of Tissot painted by Degas, click here.]

Few painters can give us so glossy and accurate a picture of French and English society as Tissot. Like Whistler, Tissot was equally at home in Paris and in London. During the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), Tissot, a Parisian Commune sympathizer, fled to London to escape imprisonment, where he remained until 1882. During his English exile, Tissot enjoyed a decent reputation amongst the British social elite, and he was commissioned to paint many of what are now regarded as his finest pictures.

The Gallery of H.M.S. 'Calcutta' (Portsmouth), 1877

After his return to Paris in 1882, Tissot became disgusted with high society and the nouveau riche — themes central to his early work — and spent the final years of his career laboring over a series of 700 biblical illustrations. His “Life of Christ” series now resides at the Brooklyn Museum. His steady retreat into religious life was perhaps precipitated by the death of his Irish lover and muse, Kathleen Newton, who took her own life in the final stages of consumption in 1882.

Kathleen Newton in an Armchair, 1878

Despite a career plagued with criticism from the likes of Henry James and Oscar Wilde, Tissot enjoyed considerable success from an early age and lived comfortably on his commissions. His first scene featuring Marguerite [The Meeting of Faust and Marguerite, now at the Musée d’Orsay] was purchased in 1861 by the French government for inclusion at the Luxembourg Gallery.

Unlike others in the Faust series, our Marguerite has never had the benefit of a frame. The back of the panel provides faint evidence (“maybe there were nails here?”), but as far as our records go the painting came to the Hermitage sans frame in 1927.

Plans to frame the Tissot predate my arrival, and it was one of the first projects I pursued. Careful research revealed that Tissot was, in fact, terribly particular about his frames. As I got deeper into the project, however, I was plagued by a niggling question: how does one select a frame for such a painting without totally screwing it up?

Tall order.

I decided to find another painting from the Faust series — one similar in both size, shape, and subject matter — and see how closely it could be matched. Further research into the practice of matching frames revealed a host of stories out of large museums. Trouble is, most of those stories involved silicone molds and hand-carved replicas costing upwards of a million dollars.

At this point in the process my eyes turned into dollar signs and I blacked out. Thankfully, I am surrounded by professionals at the Hermitage, and when the decision became too onerous my Collections Committee came to the rescue. It just so happened that Mark Lewis, painting conservator at the Chrysler and long-suffering responder to my emails [thanks, Mark!], was headed on a courier trip to Rovereto, Italy.

While in Italy, Mark promised to have a look at the Musée d’Orsay’s Tissot, on display at MART as part of a traveling exhibit entitled “From Stage to Painting, The Magic of Theatre in 19th Century Painting: From David to Delacroix and Fuseli to Degas.” He reported back in February in an email replete with photos, and we settled on the d’Orsay frame as a prototype for ours.

I emailed the Musee d’Orsay requesting a detailed image of their frame. The following is a faithful transcript of my email:

Bonjour, Je m’appelle Lauren. Je vais à la bibliothèque. Où est le restaurant? Nous devrions avoir un verre de vin! Merci beaucoup! Baguettes!

The d’Orsay curator replied:

Here is a photo. We speak English.

Mark alerted me to a nearly-identical frame for sale at Art Works Gallery in downtown Norfolk. Photo in hand, I drove straight there and spoke at length with the proprietor, Anton. After much discussion with Anton, Mark, and a final vote from the Collections Committee, we selected a twin of the d’Orsay frame in lovely gold leaf. Placing that order was the culmination of  a trip to Italy, a botched email written in high school French, and many, many months of discussion. I was nervous, to say the least.

That was six weeks ago. The custom frame arrived today, to much fanfare:

Be still my heart.

The reveal!

Don't touch the art.

Stay tuned for our next chapter: Tissot and Frame, Together at Last!


Curator’s Catch-22

As I mentioned in a previous post, we have in our collection some exceptional 1920s dresses. Two dresses and a cape are going on exhibit in May as part of our Mend Our Broken Art conservation campaign.

The conservation fee for each textile includes funds for the construction of a custom mannequin. Custom mannequins are a crucial part of preservation and they are typically built by conservators over many months. Keep this in mind.

As the exhibit approaches, I find myself in a curator’s Catch-22. In order for the dresses to be displayed properly (and to keep them from being damaged further), they must be mounted on custom mannequins. However, the only way the dresses will ever have custom mannequins is by going on display. The dresses must go on display to be adopted. Aaaand, therefore, the dresses must be adopted to be properly displayed.

Follow me?

In a moment of extreme frustration I sent a desperate email to the Registrar at the Chrysler Museum, Molly Marder, asking her for help. I’m not positive but I think my message read something like  “OMG HELP MANNEQUINS WHHYYYYY.” She wrote back calmly saying yes, they had some mannequins in storage and yes, we could borrow them. Success!

Last week Colin, Molly and I  journeyed deep into the bowels of Chrysler storage to dig out the mannequins. I’m not sure if we were in the basement or the attic, but I’m fairly certain we crossed a moat.  Once arrived, we dug through coffin-sized boxes of dismembered limbs until we had three complete bodies. It was an adventure of epic proportions, and thankfully Molly documented each step along the way:

You have a blue foot? Well, I found a red leg.

Shaking hands, making friends.

Like I said: I think we passed over a moat.

Many, many thanks to Molly and the rest of the folks at the Chrysler for loaning suitable mannequins. I’ll be sure to bring my torch and miner’s helmet for the return trip.

Stay tuned for a mannequin update: this time fully clothed!

Snuff, and the Bottles We Keep It In

Seeing how Virginia was once a mighty tobacco state it seems perfectly natural for the Sloane collection to house one of the most popular tobacco accessories of all time: the snuff bottle. The story of our snuff bottle collection (nearly 70 of them, in fact) begins with the introduction of tobacco to China. Let me paint you a word picture:

The tobacco crop’s dizzying rise to power occurred during the 17th century, after widespread cultivation in the American colonies.  As worldwide demand for tobacco grew, so did America’s bargaining power.  Once the crop made its way to Chinese shores (in the form of gifts from foreign diplomats), the Chinese penchant for tobacco grew at a considerable rate.  At first, Chinese elite reserved the right to use tobacco solely for themselves.  Importing the crop was far too expensive for the lower classes to afford, and as a result the habit was exclusively upper-class for many years.

The prevailing notion was that tobacco possessed superior medicinal qualities and nearly every minor ailment was supposedly cured by a quick pinch and huff up the nose.  Everything from headaches to fertility problems could be solved with snuff.  With this medical epiphany came the movement to make snuff accessible to all classes of people. Crops of tobacco flourished in Chinese soil, and widespread use quickly became a social norm.

Unlike the West’s large boxes and spoons, China had to adjust its packaging of snuff to meet the social standards of a culture without pockets or coffee tables.  Rounded and small in shape, the first snuff bottles were tucked discreetly away in sleeves, or dangled from belts and sashes.

An early example carved from smoky agate; a simple scene of three monkeys

The elaborately carved bottles one might associate with Chinese fine art came at a later date when there were more options for carrying the awkwardly sized pieces.  The Hermitage collection of snuff bottles spans the full spectrum of design, from the simplest tear drop shapes to intricately carved masterpieces.

An elaborately carved bottle in blue crystal, the scene depicting a fox chasing birds

The curious thing about snuff bottles is that — no matter the level of craftsmanship — a bottle signed by its maker is exponentially more valuable.  Signed bottles are extremely rare, and only the earliest snuff bottle artists continuously left a signature.  As mass production of the bottles began in the 19th century, the importance of a name became an afterthought.  This is not to say there aren’t signatures on later pieces, because there are – but the likelihood of finding one is quite slim.

Another exceptional bottle carved from a single piece of coral; the scene undercut with lotus stems and depicting a boy teasing a Fu lion.

Like many collectibles a snuff bottle’s importance comes down to the owner’s taste, which is why there is still such a large market for them today.  As we probably all know by now, Mrs. Sloane had eccentric – albeit enlightened – taste and her collection of snuff bottles is the perfect embodiment of her flair for the dramatic. Whether the motif is monkeys, cheerful fisherman or birds in flight there is always a wily character enlivening each bottle.  Mrs. Sloane’s exceptional collection perfectly encapsulates the attention to detail that echoes across Chinese fine art.

Every Day is Grant Writing Day

I want a show of hands. How many of you have ever written a grant? I don’t see many hands… but maybe that is because you are all still at your desks, writing grants. Forever.

I’ve noticed some funny little rituals surrounding grant-writing here at the Herm. A certain someone — we won’t name names — likes to close her door and blast certain hip-hop albums when her writing reaches a fever pitch. Megan takes walks in the gardens, and lots of them. Kate gulps down iced coffee. I probably have the most annoying ritual of all in that I physically cannot write a decent narrative without listening to bluegrass. And by “bluegrass” I don’t mean Gillian Welch or some other acceptable form of crossover-grass; I mean the clang-dang-dang-diggy-dang of a good ol’ fashioned, footstomping banjo played by the sort of people who eat squirrel stew for breakfast. What can I say? It gets the juices flowing.

Grant writing is a blessing and a curse: a blessing as it forces me to curb my penchant for purple prose, and a curse because GAH I just want to go on and on about how important our Collection is in the grand and glorious pantheon of art through space and time and God Bless America, Y’all. Writing Federal grants is especially difficult, because I convince myself that whoever reviews our application will be a dyed-in-the-wool Patriot. As a result, the metaphorical flag-waving tends to get… intense. Ridiculous and inappropriate? Probably.

I’m just deeply passionate about historic preservation. Aren’t we all, as part of the collective American unconscious? See, there it goes again.

By the way, I’m halfway through a grant. And yes, I will accept mix-CDs by mail.

A Word from our Gardens

Thanks to the careful ministrations of our Curator of Gardens, Yolima Carr, the wisteria is in bloom.

And how!

Not to be outdone, the Snowball Viburnum exploded last week.

Yolima does good work, don’t you think? Keep in mind that she has never used even the tiniest drop of chemical fertilizer. What a champion.

On Interns and Internships

Internships are a crucial component of becoming a museum professional. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You see, I had an internship once. I spent four months hand-sewing labels onto hundreds (perhaps thousands) of identical linens.  When that was done I moved on to picking 100-year-old fingernail clippings out of antique rugs. Sounds awful, but it ended up being transformative: when it was all over I knew I wanted to work in museums. I didn’t care if it meant tedious, solitary horrors; I had the preservation bug, and I had it bad.

Lauren as Intern: half a lifetime and twenty pounds ago.

Colin was an intern, too. On his first day the museum’s plumbing exploded. And by “exploded” we really do mean exploded. Lucky for us, his taste in sweaters hasn’t changed much.

Colin in his salad days

Internships are grueling, miserable experiences, but ultimately they are a right of passage. Reviewing my first internship applications here at the Hermitage quite honestly blew my mind. Now I was the one assigning bright-eyed college kids the sort of tasks that anyone over the age of 21 would take as a serious offense. What’s more, these kids were enthusiastic about it!

Our intern this semester, Rebecca, is no exception. In fact, she may be the bright-eyed-est of them all. As she prepares to leave us, I thought you might enjoy reading a bit about her experience here, in her own words:

Thumbs up for books!

Where are you from?: Burnsville, MN

How do you like Virginia?: It’s awesome, obviously.

What is the most interesting thing you have ever touched in a museum?: A hip bone in a catacomb in Peru. I got in trouble.

Tell us a little bit about what you’ve been working on at the Hermitage: Well, I’ve been helping you build a comprehensive database of all the books in the Sloane Collection. That means filling out, by hand, a condition report on each book. Then I photograph the book three different ways and move on to the next. Then I input all the information into a spreadsheet for eventual cataloging, and upload the photos to correspond with the spreadsheet. The next step is to clean and stabilize the books for future storage.

Do you see yourself cataloging books as a career?: I hope not [laughs]. I would last six months. Maybe.

What was the most interesting book you found during your work?: Definitely an old copy of Vasari’s Lives of the Artists. I also loved the first edition travel guides written and illustrated by George Wharton Edwards. The one for Constantinople is gorgeous. I’m a traveler at heart, even though I’m broke.

You’re leaving us for bigger and better things. (Rebecca: “Do you mean my job at Target?”) What will you miss the most about the Hermitage?: The fun people, dancing around, your strange hand gestures, Colin’s undershirts.

What have you learned at the Hermitage?: How to work in a professional museum environment [editor’s note: we are not always dancing around and gesticulating wildly]; I’ve been really excited to learn the key components of object handling. I’ve only ever done research at museums prior to working at the Hermitage.

What are your ultimate career goals?: Oh, lots of things! Eventually I’d like to own a gallery, go to grad school in museum studies, or work in a museum; I’m not too picky right now.

Ok, more importantly, can you get me a discount at Target: ABSOLUTELY and during the month of April I can get you an extra 10 percent.

We’ll miss you, Rebecca!

Then and Now

Boy's Sleeping Porch: 1940's

Public Programs Command Center: 2010

Today’s installment of Then and Now affords another glimpse of our secret staff offices. Originally the shingled home of two hand-carved beds, today’s Public Programs office is the coolest spot in town. Literally.

(“Duh, Lauren, that’s why it was originally used as a sleeping porch.”)

Kate and Melissa have the best view in the house — straight across the back lawn and down to the shores of the Lafayette River.

I promise to write a separate post about the beds very soon, but for now you can check out their conservation profile on our main site by clicking here (scroll to the bottom).