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

Posts Tagged ‘Manet

Stevenson and painting / 2

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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