Do you like rich vivid colors? Lots of bows and bustles? Rigging on ships? Distant and unreachable beautiful woman who became to you the embodiment of spirituality? Then Tissot is for you. Who can write about the bustle without mentioning Tissot?!
The lack of costume updates can be explained by the lack of a person to effectively lace me up in the corset. Without the corset laced, I can’t fit the skirt or do preliminary bodice fitting. Whilst I wait for the Olive gown photos and for a good lacer, I will post photos of paintings of Tissot, the master painter of late nineteenth century dress. He is the king of the painters of the bustle. In fact, a common misconception is that he liked the dresses more than the women. He kept several dresses on hand in his studio, all outrageously complex. The hard to read patterns on the gowns distort the lines of the paintings, making them characters within the story.
He had a long-term mistress La Belle Irlandaise, a red-headed beauty who’s stunning skin showed up lovely even in the unforgiving black and while photographs of the time. She was Tissot’s ideal heroine: a beautiful, fashionable woman living on the fringes of society after her husband divorced her when she confessed her love for a man she had met on the ship that was taking her to her wedding. She had two known illegitimate children, one of whom may have been Tissot’s. Due to her scandalous past, Tissot did not publicly recognize their relationship. He was his beautiful ‘kept woman,’ who domesticated his life whilst she slowly faded away from consumption and died at the age of 27 at her own hands in a Bohemian effort to cheat the illness that was taking over her body. Perhaps had she not been so ill, she may not have been so docile.
But it is not Kathleen Newton that makes the paintings so marvelous. She is merely the idol of Tissot’s adoration: the beautiful woman of the 1870s and 1880s. Tissot heroine is not aggressive or angsty, ambitious or conniving, nor suffering from insanity or violent deaths. She is not naked and bold. But neither is she caged, but domestic, lounging, peaceful and absolutely fascinating. Though Tissot’s painting is not abstract, his idea of woman is.
Tissot enjoyed painting portraits of women in circumstances we would consider now to be the height of moral filth in the Victorian Age, that is, in context of a man. In “The Captain’s Daughter,” a Captain and a young sailor of promise are clearly discussing a marriage between the young man and his daughter. The daughter is distant and disinterested, as if looking away to a far away place beyond the daily world. They were often daughters, such as in “The Warrior’s Daughter,” or widows or orphans.
What all of Tissot’s paintings of women have in common is they rarely look their pining lovers in the eyes. Even “October” and “Young Lady in a Boat,” where his subject faces the viewer, she seems to be looking at you only by chance, like as if you just happened to be there. His women never impose themselves upon you aggressively, but rather passively and totally, like fascination itself.
Tissot, like the bustle, has a reputation for Victorian and intellectual mediocrity, partially, perhaps because the woman, her clothes, and social circumstances were his favorite subjects. But his work is subtle. His subjects (almost always female until his religious period after the death of Ms. Newton) could be doing something borderline inappropriate, not enough to cause an overt scandal, but something that clearly states her individuality and suggests something compromising. In the domestic scene of “the widow” she looks vaguely content and not at all grieving for her unseen husband. In “The rifle range” the heroine, decked out in enough frills and puffs to sink a battleship, is shooting a pistol. A young woman in Paris is being helped to a carriage by some glad gentleman in “The Bridesmaid.” “In the London Visitors,” she stares at the viewer, not at her older male companion who struggles with a map and guidebook. I could go on.
When Tissot painted all of the frills and buttons and complexities of the bustle, I believe that he regarded them as a metaphor for the complexities of women. He was grasping to understand them, not subjugate them, and it was through his obsession with the details of the clothes, the ‘rigging’ of rules of society that both protected, clothed them, and held them in place. The clothes are not his women. Nor are they gilded prisons in which his women are kept. They are the outwards manifestations of how they approach the world of the late nineteenth century, with complexity, distraction and decoration, and subterfuge, whilst the women themselves are the distant seeing faces, who seem oblivious and distantanced to and from the plannings of men. They inhabit another world, the only glimpse thereof being their festooned clothes and far-off faces.
*DISCLAIMERS BY THE AUTHOR
1. I would not advise any man, women or child to attempt to emulate Tissot’s views on male-female relationships. They invariably end in consumption/suicide (for the women unless you are Chopin) and depression (generally for the men).
2. Please feel free to correct me if some of facts are incorrect. Most of what I wrote about Newton and the bit about Tissot’s studio I read in a book about the painter over ten years ago. I tried to verify much over the internet, but not everything you read on the internet is, well, true.