James Tissot: Painting the Victorian Woman, The Hepworth, Wakefield, UK – review

Degas tried to win him for the Impressionists, Ruskin dismissed his paintings as “unhappy mere photographs of vulgar society”, Henry James called him “hard, vulgar and banal”. But James protested too much. Dissecting social convention through anecdotes of fashion and flirtation, with jewel-like, minute descriptive qualities, Tissot’s oddly angled, disorienting close-up depictions of leisured Victorians evince exactly the mix of brittle surface, sensuous undercurrent and moral uncertainty that characterises James’ novels.

Born a draper’s son in the port city of Nantes – textiles and ships, the details of both exquisitely rendered, haunt his oeuvre – Tissot lived in London in the 1870s, and his work, sitting uneasily between English and French art, is under-rated. Small but welcome, Wakefield’s show centres on the museum’s painting “On The Thames, or How Happy I Could Be With Either”, supplemented by a handful of loans from Tate and Sheffield.

“On The Thames”, set at water level and marvellously depicting the variety of vessels steaming into port, features a threesome reclining in a small boat, the languid man hardly bothering to choose between his two sumptuously attired companions: it caused a scandal when exhibited at the Royal Academy. “Portsmouth Dockyard” revisits the theme, with a kilted Highland Sergeant making his choice. “The Gallery of HMS Calcutta” compresses Tissot’s familiar trio of one man and two women on to a deck. Hemmed in by ornamental iron railings, a naval officer bypasses a chaperone to flirt with a young beauty whose fan hides her laughing features from him – though we see them, and her frank display of her hourglass figure.

Almost aggressively, Tissot forces the viewer into collusion. At the same time he insists – especially by his flat, asymmetric patterning, influenced by Japanese prints, and harsh cropping – that his narratives, like the social rules his figures subtly transgress, are mere artifice. A chronicler who fixed the fashions of an epoch, he also went beyond them to the ambivalence of modernity.

From March 28 to November 3, www.hepworthwakefield.org

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