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!


The Murky Depths

My job at the Hermitage is like an iceberg. The tip of the iceberg, as it were, is the part the public sees: polished exhibits, carefully researched text panels and meticulously cleaned interiors.

The other part of my job – close to 96 percent of my duties – floats eerily beneath the waterline, well out of view. And now, thanks to climate change, that ominous bottom part is melting and spilling all over the place. Take this photo as evidence:

Acid-free archival boxes also make great curator forts.

Truth is, the second part of my job is easily the most important, and it is something the public rarely sees. That invisible job is, of course, the ongoing care of the tens of thousands of objects currently off display and housed in storage.

Just a fraction of our collections storage

The Sloane Collection is an especially tough beast. Thanks to the vision and enthusiasm of our patroness, Mrs. Florence K. Sloane, the collection is an exceptional cross-section of art history and comprises everything from Art Deco pieced-velvet opera capes to neolithic jade congs. We have objects made out of tooth, bone, skin, and hair; objects woven from the finest gossamer fibers; objects cast in bronze; objects hewn from rock; objects smelted over a hot fire; objects dug from the earth; objects containing animal skeletons; objects representing turning points in human history; and, of course, hundreds of paintings in all shapes and sizes.

Most of our work is done behind the scenes, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to share it with the public.  It is my special privilege to write about this part of my job here, and I hope you find the process as infinitely interesting as I do. And hey, if things ever get too serious, there’s always Colin to lighten the mood: