The Victorian period was a Gilded Age of extremes. At once there was untold industrial and scientific innovation that created vast Robber Baron wealth and an exploding bourgeois middle class. At the same time this industrial urban sprawl was creating a much larger inner city immigrant class, living in tenements, mining coal and working in factories. Child labor and worker safety laws were none existent. Typhoid, Cholera and disease ran rampant and crime and gang activity was commonplace to the millions of new city dwellers of the late 19th century. The new modern artists tried to depict the changing world of speed and smoke and poverty with new techniques and new ideas.
No one would ever suspect this was going on by looking at one of the great Victorian masters, James (Jacques Joseph) Tissot(1836-1902) Born and trained in France, Tissot studied at the Ecole de Beaux Arts and was close friends with Degas. In order to flee the Franco Prussian War he emigrated to England in 1871, where his fashionable and flattering paintings of English high society won him great acclaim and success.
The Reception 1885
Personally I have a double reaction to Tissot. As a painter I am mesmerized by the mastery of his craft of painting. As an artist I’m uneasy at the saccharine sweet depictions of the illusion (or delusion) of reality. The Barbie doll like depictions of women with their rosebud mouths, elongated fingers and tiny feet put me in a mind of Mannerist Disney princesses. The somnambulant figures languidly floating through their world is more surreal than any fantasy. He came to represent everything that the Modernists were fighting against. Despite this the paintings are enthralling in their detail. Reflections in silver teapots, the embroidery in silk tapestries, and his amber light filtering through chestnut leaves is unparalleled. In a time with only primitive photography, we can glimpse a technicolor high-def document of this lost world.
Later in Tissot’s career, as Modernism eclipsed the fashion for Victorian painting, he rediscovered his Catholic heritage and began a second career as an illustrator well renowned for his illustrating of the bible.
And the Angels Ministered Unto Him 1895
Shunned for most of the 20th century today Tissot is having a renaissance, with many of the others of his contemporaries, not just for a new found appreciation for their craft, but as a sociological curiosity of a gilded age aesthetic that can never be replicated even amongst today's top 1%.
Watch this wonderful opening scene of Martin Scorcese’s “Age of Innocence.” In it you will see the context of the way these paintings were originally displayed. I spy: Jean Leon Gerome, William Bouguereau, and James Tissot.
Many, many more of Tissot's work can be found at the gallery on his Wikipedia page linked to above.