James Tissot was known for two things — his immensely popular Bible
illustrations and his paintings of contemporary Victorian society.
My friend Paul Zahl says that the Bible illustrations influenced the
iconography of the early Hollywood Biblical epics, and he may be right,
but I’m not a big fan of these works, aesthetically speaking.
They’re drawn in a looser, more impressionistic and decorative style
than his easel paintings, and to me don’t have the same power.
The easel paintings strike me as downright stunning. In them the
use of an almost photographic draftsmanship and sometimes subtle but always highly
dramatic evocations of spatial depth result in works that utterly
Tissot had a number of compositional strategies for producing an
impression of spatial depth. The most characteristic was the
depiction of semi-enclosed spaces with portals onto wider spaces
beyond, which cause the eye to come to rest momentarily in the
foreground space and then to explore the background space, which
reveals itself almost as a surprise, a release.
Tissot also had a knack for compositions involving larger groups in a
public space, like a ballroom, in which the empty areas of the scene
suggest the potential for action within it. The strategy is very
explicit in the painting below, Too Early, in which the future of
the evening unfolds like a ghostly vision around the few early arrivals
waiting for the festivities to begin.
This is a perfect example of how visual space can be charged with
emotion — we populate the half-empty ballroom with future dancing, just as
the early arrivals do . . . we enter into the emotional anticipation of
these folks who’ve arrived a little too soon.
Tissot’s genius at suggesting depth through composition and modeling
also allowed him to produce canvases which shimmer with surface colors,
like the canvases of the Impressionists, but almost simultaneously draw
our imaginations irresistibly into the space depicted — something the
Impressionists were rarely concerned to do. The effect is
magical, and one that movies would soon learn to achieve in more
spectacular ways than the academic Victorian painters had at their
command. Their most potent charm was appropriated, and their
school of painting faded into history.
But when we look at Tissot’s paintings today, when our imaginations are
drawn into the spaces of his world, we can achieve a remarkable sense
of intimacy with the Victorian society he observed, we can share the
concerns and sometimes even the emotions of its long-vanished
inhabitants . . . and there’s an enchantment in that which will never