Tuesday, August 17, 2010

James Jacques Joseph Tissot - 'Good bye' - On the Mersey

Price Realized £831,650

signed 'J.J. Tissot.' (lower right) and further indistinctly inscribed 'Good Bye/on the..../...' (on the stretcher)
oil on canvas
33 1/8 x 21 1/8 in. (84.2 x 53.6 cm.)

London, Royal Academy, 1881, no. 981.
Paris, Palais de l'Industrie, Exposition des oeuvres de M.J.J. Tissot..., 1883, as 'Le départ d'un Cunard.'
Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts, 1881, no. 910.

'Good bye' - On the Mersey was one of two pictures which Tissot exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1881, to which he returned that year after a long flirtation with the Grosvenor Gallery. The scene is the harbour at Liverpool. The foreground figures are on a ferry crossing the river Mersey from Birkenhead, and are waving farewell to an ocean- going liner (identified by Tissot when he exhibited the picture in Paris in 1883 as 'un Cunard') which is weighing anchor. Its destination is no doubt America, since Liverpool was the chief port in England for ships sailing to the United States.

In retrospect the image is a poignant one, seeming to foreshadow Tissot's own departure from England some eighteen months later as a result of the death from consumption of his muse, Kathleen Newton. But this context apart, the picture strikes a curious note of desolation. Neither the drab, almost monochromatic colour scheme, nor the fact that so many of the figures are seen from behind, mitigates this impression. Tissot painted many shipboard, harbour, and riverside subjects. Few are as light-hearted as the well-known Ball on Shipboard of 1874 (Tate Gallery), but their narratives, though usually complex, seldom strike so dour a note as we find here. Christopher Forbes, cataloguing the picture for the Royal Academy Revisited exhibition, aptly described its mood as 'subdued and introverted'. More recently Christopher Wood has called it 'the most sombre of all (Tissot's) pictures of travel and departure'.

This impression is all the more strange in that this is clearly not one of those emigration scenes which loom so large in Victorian genre painting. Those on board the liner are not, we feel, the anxious or bitter souls in Madox Brown's Last of England, still less the pathetic dregs of society seen in Herkomer's Pressing to the West. They are surely affluent middle-class voyagers going abroad on business or holiday, just as the well-healed crowd who wave them off seem to do so with no sense of angst, no tearful awareness that the parting is final.

Mrs Newton herself stands prominently in the foreground, waving a white handkerchief. She had met Tissot in 1875 or 1876 when she took refuge with her sister in St John's Wood, where Tissot, himself a refugee from the Commune, was living. Irish by birth, she had been forced at the age of seventeen into an arranged marriage with a surgeon in the Indian Civil Service, but by the time she arrived in India she was already pregnant by an army officer she had met on board ship, and the marriage ended in divorce almost immediately. Tissot is said to have seen her for the first time when she was on her way to post a letter. At all events, by the end of 1876 she had moved into his house in Grove End Road, and they lived together until her death in November 1882.

The meeting of Tissot and Mrs Newton, wrote Michael Wentworth in an article he contributed to Christie's Magazine shortly before his death last year, 'charged both their lives. For Kathleen Newton, whose chaotic romantic life had already taken her to India and left her with an illegitimate daughter, Tissot represented a second chance of a kind only too rare in Victorian England. Like Carrie Brattle in Trollope's Vicar of Ballhampton, Kathleen's failing lay more in a trusting nature and a generous heart than in any innate viciousness, and she rose superbly to her new role as the artist's muse. Tissot, for his part, seems genuinely to have loved her, and to have found inspiration in her gentle beauty that would last a lifetime'. With an eye for style that seems uniquely Parisian, he transformed her pleasant but unremarkable prettiness into a formidable ideal of elegance and chic.

Tissot made no secret of their liaison. Indeed he seemed to flaunt it by so often giving Kathleen a leading role in his paintings. Hers is one of the most familiar and recognisable faces in Victorian art; perhaps only some of Rossetti's models - Lizzie Siddal, Fanny Cornforth, Jane Morris - rival her in this respect. But Tissot was to pay heavily for the joy and inspiration that Kathleen brought him. Widely known to be 'living in sin', with two illegitimate children, one of them their own, they were shunned by polite society and forced to lead their own rather introverted lives, either in the seclusion of 17 Grove End Road or at resorts like Ramsgate, the subject of several of Tissot's paintings and etchings, where no-one asked any questions and the absence of a wedding ring made no difference. Tissot's career also suffered, many a patron fighting shy of such an open celebration of illicit love, all the more blatant for being couched in a pictorial language which in any case seemed disturbingly cynical and sophisticated by English standards. Nor did the relationship itself ultimately prove consoling. Tissot was devastated by Kathleen's death at the age of only twenty-eight. Unable to endure Grove End Road without her, he fled almost immediately to Paris, never to return.

Four years later the house where the couple had lived was to be taken over by Alma-Tadema and drastically remodelled and refurbished


Dolls from the Attic said...

Beautiful haunting painting, with a sad and touching story attached.
I love the monochromatic palette as well, it really suits the mood of the painting. Lovely!

Hels said...

oh yes! I love Tissot's early paintings and certainly knew about his relationship with his muse, but I had no idea they lived together, raised children and suffered the stings of an offended community.

Have a look at his paintings after Kathleen's death. They became all religious and serious.

Hermes said...

Thanks both. I hadn't really thougt about this, but Helen is quite right.