The New Edinburgh Edition of the Collected Works of Robert Louis Stevenson

Stevenson and painting / 2

with one comment

We saw in an earlier post that RLS was so struck by a painting by Manet that he probably contemplated spending all the money he had in order to buy it. We know that he was very impressed by Millet’s Realist Homme à la houe when he saw it in an etching (L4: 62, 72). Another and very different painter that interested him (or who at least he defended) was James Tissot.

James Tissot criticized by Colvin

Sidney Colvin’s review of paintings at ‘The Grosvenor Gallery’ was published in the Fortnightly Review  21 No. 126 (June 1877), pp. 820-33. In this (p. 830) he criticized two recent paintings by Tissot:

Returning to foreign contributors, we have in M. Tissot another craftsman of astonishing industry and cleverness, and a realist who, instead of adding a grace to nature, takes a grace away. In pictures like the group of cricketers and ladies beside the water under a horse-chestnut [‘Holiday‘], and the naval lieutenant  and ladies on the gallery of a ship of war [‘The Gallery of H.M.S. Calcutta’], the rendering of material facts, is simply masterly; the types and sentiment simply debased and odious. To this mean view of human nature, M. Tissot adds in some of his pictures a trick of Alma-Tadema’s, of crotchety and sensational composition, of showing the world from unnecessary slits and corners.

Here are the two paintings referred to:

Holyday circa 1876 by James Tissot 1836-1902


Colvin was not alone in disliking Tissot’s apparent lack of seriousness. In 1878 W.H. Mallock refers to his ‘tours de force with a brush and a paint pot’ and adds

I think Tissot is the worst and most meaningless of all. I suppose his is what Ruskin would call contemplative art. And what are the highest things of which M. Tissot is contemplative? A girl’s ankles, the high heels of her shoes, the frills of a fashionable petticoat, and the amount of back that she can show through muslin, between her stays and her neckline’ (‘A Familiar Colloquy’, Nineteenth Century 4:18 (Aug. 1878), p. 291).

Yet this was an artist influenced by japonisme, befriended by Degas, Manet and Whistler and invited by Degas to take part in the first Impressionist exhibition (an invitation he didn’t accept). For Katherine Lochnan, author of Seductive Surfaces: The Art of Tissot (Yale UP, 1999) Tissot is a problematic painter:

Deliberately stamping his work with the appearance and taste of ‘vulgar society’, Tissot created paintings and prints that were both aesthetically and socially subversive. He focused on the dichotomy between appearance and reality — while his surfaces are superficially charming, upon closer examination they can be seen as veneers concealing troubling psychological or social dramas. (Back-cover presentation.)

Stevenson’s reply to Colvin

Stevenson disagreed with Colvin and wrote in a letter:

I read your “Grosvenor” […] it seemed to me very nice in tone, and I think all the fellows should be pleased, except perhaps poor Tissot. I can’t think anything “debased and odious” that has such nice light and air about it, as anything of his I ever saw; that seems to me an ideal after a fashion. I want very much to deliver my soul on the subject of this sort of ideal and the sort of sentiment which stands on the same footing. […] It’s a difficult but delightful point. (L2: 211; June 1877)

The ‘light and air’ probably refers to ‘The Gallery of H.M.S. Calcutta’, painted without bright highlights or dark shadow, so showing an interesting focus on technical experimentation. Tissot’s extreme ability in finish is not a reason for automatic rejection by RLS—indeed, he does not mention finish or technique at all, but says that the successful representation of ‘light and air’ is a ‘sort of ideal’, though what he means by this is not easy to say. (Knowing Stevenson’s interest in patterning, he may well have also been attracted by such qualities as rhythm of lines and contrasts of forms, colours and tones.)

In ‘A Note on Realism’, RLS places ‘ideal’ and ‘abstract’ in the same area of meaning (and associated with concision in expression and the use of details ‘of the conventional order’), and opposed to ‘realism’. However, he says ‘All representative art, which can be said to live, is both realistic and ideal’. So in his reply to Colvin we might say that he is identifying, in Tissot’s realism, a ‘sort of idealism’—which I personally would see as something like ‘interest in artistic form for its own sake’.

In the same ‘Note on Realism’ he does not oppose a Platonic ‘essence’ and a less interesting outer form, but sees this outer form as the whole work of art (apart from the initial but incommunicable concept). He does not condemn ‘facturing’ unless it is merely an excuse for the display of technical skill—but in the case of Tissot and Manet he accepts it as contributing to ‘ideal’ aspects of the work of art. And in his reply to Colvin he is not opposed to a highly-finished technique for reproducing ‘light and air’ since this is also an ‘ideal’, i.e. not merely realistic, but an abstract and ideal-driven project.

However, we await a full study of ‘the aesthetics of Robert Louis Stevenson’ in order to understand these matters better.

Written by rdury

20/04/2013 at 4:31 pm

One Response

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  1. Henry James – ‘The Picture Season in London’ in The Galaxy V. 24 issue 2 (Aug 1877) – says that Tissot was, with MM. Heilbuth, and an unnamed other, ‘the most brilliant members of the large colony of foreign painters established in London, and basking in the golden light, not only of the metropolitan sky, but of British patronage.’ He was reviewing a show at the Grosvenor Gallery, where a whole long wall in the first room was covered with their ‘contributions’. He goes on (as only HJ can!):

    ‘Both are extremely clever, but M. Tissot is perhaps more brilliantly so. He is a painter of modern manners. and he generally chooses a subject which takes a kind of “tour de force” to render. One of his pictures represents a corner of the deck of one of the Queen’s ships at Portsmouth, with two ladies and a young officer leaning over the side and looking down at a boat containing a party of their friends, which is putting off. They are women of high fashion, and dressed in garments which have come straight from Brussels; the one in front, in particular, who twists her perfect figure with the most charming gracefulness as she rests her elbows on the bulwark, and, with her head a little thrown back, smiles down lazily and luxuriously at her friends. She wears a dress of frilled and fluted white muslin, set off with a great number of lemon-colored bows, and its air of fitting her well, and, as the ladies say, “hanging” well, is on the painter’s art a triumph of perception and taste. M. Tissot’s taste is highly remarkable; what I care less for is his sentiment, which seems sterile and disagreeable. Like so many other pictures representing the manners of the day, his productions suggest a curious and, I confess it seems to me, an insoluble problem. What is it that makes such realism as M. Tissot’s appear vulgar and banal [emphasis], when an equal degree of realism, practised three hundred years ago, has an inexhaustible charm and entertainment? M. Tissot’s pretty woman, with her stylish back and yellow ribbons, will, I am convinced, become less and less charming and interesting as the years, or even the months, go on. Certain I am, at any rate, that I should not be able to live in the same room with her for a week without finding her intolerably wearisome and unrefreshing. This is not of necessity because she is dressed in the costume of a particular moment; the delicious Dutch painters, Terburg and Metsu, Mieris and Gerard Dow, dressed their ladies in the current fashions of their time, and we find their satin and silver, their velvet and swansdown, their quilted hoods, and their square-toed shoes, delightful still. The only thing that I can say about it is that the realism of the Dutch painters seems soft, and that of such men as M. Tissot seems hard. His humor is trivial, his sentiment stale. Is there then to be no more delightful[emphasis] realism? I sometimes fear it.’

    Nothing like finally coming to the denouement!

    Neil Brown

    27/04/2013 at 6:23 pm

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