JAMES JOSEPH TISSOT (1836-1902)
Reading a Book (England, 1872 - 1873)
Oil on panel
Signed lower left J. J. Tissot
Christie's London, 24 June 1983, lot 87; to:
Umeda Gallery, Osaka, Japan; on behalf of:
Private Collection, Tokyo to 2002
Barbican Art Gallery, James Tissot, 1984-5, catalogue number 47, illustrated page 48
Michael Regan and Krystyna Matyjaskiewicz, James Tissot, exhibition catalogue, Tokyo 1988, catalogue number 20, illustrated pages 59 and 135
London, Barbican Art Gallery, James Tissot, 1984-5, number 47
Tokyo, Isetan Museum of Art, James Tissot, February-March 1988, number 20; travelling to Osaka, Mie, Tochigi and Yokohama
Description / Expertise
Reading a Book is one of James Tissot’s earliest London works, painted at the height of his initial enthusiasm for English life. He had arrived in the city in 1871, driven from his fashionable Parisian house and a successful career by the Franco-Prussian war.
Tissot was born in Nantes, a thriving port on the River Loire and trained in Paris at the studio of Louis Lamothe, a pupil of Ingres. He arrived in London, having escaped with only a hundred francs in his pocket. His friend whom he had met during the Siege of Paris, Thomas Gibson Bowles, the editor of the magazine Vanity Fair, housed him and employed him to draw twenty-two caricatures for the publication.
In Paris, Tissot’s chosen subject matter appealed to the emerging class of new art patrons, who were uneducated in the historical and literary subjects that inspired the Salon painters. In London, his exposure in Vanity Fair had brought him to the attention of British society, whom he began to portray in dramatic scenes of fashionable opulence. Sales to them ensured his success. By the time he sent his first works to the Royal Academy Exhibition in 1872 he was recognised as the most glamorous painter in London.
The intimate scale of Reading a Book suggests that the painting was intended for direct sale to a private collector rather than as an exhibition show-piece. Certainly the light-hearted theme is far removed from the strongly academic works shown by artists exhibiting at the Royal Academy. The eccentric focal point is the sitter’s flamboyant bonnet, lit contre-jour by sunlight flooding through the window.
Three years later, the course of Tissot’s life changed forever. He met the young Irish divorcée Kathleen Newton, who had come to live with her sister near Tissot’s house in Grove End Road. Tissot fell immediately in love and she and her two illegitimate children moved into his house later that year. She became his muse and model for his elegant English society scenes. Although rejected by the very society who worshipped his paintings, the couple were intensely happy until Kathleen’s untimely death from tuberculosis in 1882. Tissot was inconsolable and returned to Paris. The last years of his career were devoted to religious scenes and illustrations for the Bible.