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Curator Diary - James Tissot: Ambiguously Modern

13 May 2020

Just as one of our paintings was about to be the star work in a major exhibition on James Tissot at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, museums and galleries across France were forced to close. Here chief curator Andrew Bonacina discusses the work.

The Hepworth Wakefield is best known for its collections of 20th-century and contemporary art, with major holdings of Barbara Hepworth’s work at its heart. Founded in 1923 with a forward-thinking collecting policy shaped by Ernest Musgrave, the Wakefield art collection was conceived with the aim to nurture a public understanding of contemporary art and its relations to modern life. As such, focus was placed on acquiring works by the up and coming artists of the day, including of course local stars Hepworth and Henry Moore, alongside other British artists including Roger Fry, Harold Gilman, John Piper and Ben Nicholson.

Alongside these contemporary works, the collection also grew historically, through gifts presented by local benefactors and industrialists and some choice acquisitions of pre-20th-century works that deepened the collection’s thematic focus on everyday life and society. It was in this spirit that the Wakefield Art Gallery acquired a work by James Tissot in the late 1930s.

Jacques Joseph Tissot (1836-1902) was born in Nantes, France and made his name as an artist from the 1860s onwards, painting scenes of contemporary Parisian society. He moved to London in 1871 where he stayed for a decade, living amongst a community of artists in the St John’s Wood area of London. He maintained a fascination with England throughout his life, even changing his name to James to appeal to the British public and collectors, amongst whom there was growing anti-French sentiment at the time. Tissot carved out a successful career depicting life in the modern metropolis, focusing in particular on the fashionable young women of the bourgeoisie. While he was often criticised for his pandering and flattery of the nouveau riche, close examination of many of his works reveals subtle depictions of class inequality and the impacts of industrialisation on all sectors of society.

When first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1876 On The Thames (or How Happy I Could Be With Either) was hugely controversial, attracting comments about its questionable subject matter being ’thoroughly and wilfully vulgar’. It features a man and two unchaperoned young women on a champagne picnic on the Thames; no genteel Cambridge punt for these modern young urbanites, instead they embrace the vigour of industrial city life, belching smoke and all. The very self-satisfied looking male character is believed to be based on Tissot himself, while the women are based on Mrs Newton, Tissot’s lover, and her sister. In a climate of growing hostility towards French or Continental-style paintings, some critics deemed the painting ‘too French’, pointing out the questionable morals of the characters. Tissot assumes the guise of a naval officer, a role often associated with drunken or immoral behaviour, and prone to engaging with prostitution.

The work was originally owned and probably commissioned by Kaye Knowles whose wealth came from his grandfather’s Lancashire colliery business. The background of the painting contains references to the source of his wealth: a gasworks, coal-freight, smoke from the coal-fired steamships and the Thames itself, vital to British industry. The polluted appearance of the scene contributed to contemporary anxieties around air pollution, with all the connotations of disease and contagion that come with it. The painting, considered one of Tissot’s most accomplished compositions, joined Wakefield’s art collection in 1938 and quickly became one of our most popular works.

As one of Tissot’s most significant paintings, it is frequently requested for loan to temporary exhibitions across the globe. Just days before museums around the world were forced to close, I was in Paris to oversee its installation at the Musée d’Orsay where it is included in its exhibition James Tissot: Ambiguously Modern. It was thrilling to see an image of the painting – one I’ve gotten to know so intimately standing in the galleries in Wakefield – blown up on billboards across Paris, and on the cover of the excellent exhibition catalogue – a happy example of British-French exchange and collaboration which I’m sure would have delighted Tissot himself.