Through the mirrors, lightly, and what Tissot saw there


Looking at this paiting, it may seem that the posting will be again about the art-mirrors created by Ingres that I just wrote about. Because it is, of course, an exact copy of the portrait of Madame Senonnes.

Bu no, this posting will be about a very different painter.  I believe his art was deeply influenced by the works by Ingres (and in particularly by his mirror works), yet also exceeded them and transformed in a very interesting direction. In some way his works has achieved the real (mirror) depth that  was lacking in Ingres’ masterpieces.

To my knowledge, this paiting is currently in the collection of the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, the very museum that also has the original Portrait of Madame Senonnes.  However, I didn’t find any information about this work on their website.

I first thought it’s a drawing, pencil or ink, but then I found it’s in fact a real oil paiting, and quite large, ± 80 x 100 (that is, it is comparable in size with the original), only made in this , rather original, monochrome manner.

The copy couldn’t be created earlier than 1852 when the original portrait was acquired by the museum, and later then 1856, when its author left Nantes for Paris. So, who’s is him?

The artist behind this homage is portrayed on this early work by Edgar Degas, created around 1867, already in Paris. His name is  James Tissot:

In fact, I have already written about this painter, as early as 2007, but not in this blog (and not in relation to art-mirrors, the topic I got interested much later. This is the link to that old posting – The view with a view (though the text is in Russian).  But the picture (paiting) I was writing about is more or less self-explanatory, though also amazingly enigmatic.

To make this posting self-containing, I will copy it here too:

I think it is a very powerful work, and very original. But it was made much later, around 1885,  and it has a very complex story behind it; I will come back this story, but for now will return to a more direct chronological flow.

The real name of this artist was  Jacques Joseph Tissot. Interestingly, but he has chosen another, more English name, very early in his life, and the majority of this works are signed as James Tissot.

His father was a fabrics merchant in Nantes, and not just fabrics but drapery and upholstery, that is, the fabrics used to make furniture and design interiors.  It is a very large business even today, and it was even bigger by then because in many houses fabrics had been used to decorate walls (today we would use wall-paper, or even paint for these purposes).

We have recently went to one of the expo’s where companies presented designs and patterns used for contemporary fabrics (the famous Mood in Brussels), and OMG, what a beauty! Surprisingly, we spotted that it is still very male business, the majority of both sellers and buyers were men.

(After this expo I contemplated a bit on how great it would be to offer the works from my aman-geld project to these people; but then again, it would need time to produce these photographs AND to market them to this audience, and this is… well)

But back to Nantes in the 1850s, and to James Tissot. Whose mother was, in fact, also in a very interesting business, of hatmaking (also known as millinery); again, a very big business in the times when no woman would even think of going out of house without wearing a hat.  She was also very religious, and young Tissot was a frequent church goer (which perhaps wouldn’t be the case if he would be born in a more secular Paris, for instance).

Typical for these times, his parents would love to see Jacques Joseph following their own career, and eventually taking the business of his father. He didn’t, but apparently the knowledge of fabrics, and of material culture in general that he inevitably acquired in his childhood has helped his tremendously in his artist’s life.

He was born in 1836 – which means that the very first portrait that I showed earlier was likely made when he was 17-18 years old, this is a work of an apprentice, not yet a master.

In 1856, when he was 20, Tissot travels to Paris and enrols into the École des Beaux-Arts, the oldest and most prestigious art institute in France. James Tissot didn’t study directly under Ingres (though he was obviously very familiar with his works, see the homage above), but among his teachers were three direct pupils of Ingres: Jean-Hippolyte FlandrinLouis Lamothe, and Jules-Élie Delaunay. The latter one was in fact a friend of his mother, and Tissot even stayed at his house for while.

So, in a sense Tissot was surrounded by Ingres: the master was present with his works, via his students who became the teachers, and also in the very manner of teaching art. Which, as I wrote earlier, was mainly centered on copying the works of old master (and then of Ingres himself).  In fact it is when copying the paintings in Louvre Tissot met Degas, and then via him got acquainted with many other, less orthodox painters.

However, and while being very familiar with the new avant-garde of that time (for instance, impressionism, and later pointillism), himself Tissot always remained a fairly conservative, both in terms of technique and the themes of his art. His first works are almost excessively classical, almost archaic. For example, in the 1860s he mainly paints church services and (pseudo) medieval scenes.

Marguerite in Church (1860)

The Return of the Prodigal Son (1862)

These are all very large works (the latter paiting, for instance, is more than two meters wide), they are very elaborate and time-consuming to make. They are very accurate, and from the very beginning Tissot shows that he knows what he paints, whether it’s a church interior or details of the clothes.

When he needs to paint some medieval scenes in European towns, not only he meticulously studies the works of Lucas Cranach (whom he highly regarded, that’s why Degas painted Tissot with Cranach’s self-portrait on a background), but also travelled through Belgium, visiting Ghent, Bruges, and Antwerp, and then goes to Germany.

In Antwerpen Tissot met Jan August Hendrik Leys, no so very famous today, especially outside Belgium, but by then a leader of a very impactful movement of ‘historic romanticism’ (that’s how this school is known today, but of course they called themselves differently, claiming that they are the Painters of History).

Below is one of the typical works by Leys that depicts a service of Adriaen van Haemstede, a fmous reformist priest of 16th century.

Jan August Hendrik Leys – Adriaen van Haemstede secretly preach in Antwerp in 1552 (1858)

This, and many other similar works by Flemish and German masters have made a great impact on Tissot. He was prone to realistic depictions from start, but lately became almost obsessively focussed on details of material culture. Romantic or not  ideology-wise, but these works very accurately show the world material, clothes, furniture, interiors and so on. Today we would call it ‘visual anthropology’, and this is what makes it so very interesting (though we have to be carefully filtering its ideological content).

They paintings of this kind were very successful, both commercially and reputation-wise. Tissot got his first Salon award from the very first time he presented his five paintings there in 1859, and one of them was immediately purchased by a museum.

Very quickly Tissot become a popular and well-paid artist, mainly creating the portraits of aristocracy. Here is one of the typical examples of his works of that period:

Portrait of the Marquis and Marchioness of Miramon and their children(1865)

Again, this is a very large canvas, 1.7 x  2.2 m, and all its surface is lovingly covered with all sorts of nice details, including nearly a dozen of different fabrics (I highly recommend to have a look at a much larger version of this picture on the site of Google Art Institute, where you can zoom-in and see all this beauty – the picture above is clickable).

As we see, the figures are still quite static, though already a bit more alive and emotional than the ones by Ingres or his direct pupils. Plus, the settings are already outdoors, and Tissot depicts these natural elements also pretty well (for example, this notorious air that impressionists will become so famous for, much later.

Tissot of course also makes a lot of portraits in the interior too, such as this portrait of Colonel Frederick Gustavus Burnaby:

Colonel Frederick Gustavus Burnaby (1870)

Unfortunately, the map on this painting does not show Central Asia (the maps from, and about this region is another subject of my interests). Or else it would be an interesting overlap of these two. Interestingly, Colonel Burnaby has written a very interesting book about his travels in the region,  A Ride to Khiva: Travels and Adventures in Central Asia.

However, such male portraits were rather exceptional for Tissot, who was mostly know by the portrait of the noble ladies, which he created a plenty (and thanks to that this posting has a subject to write about).

Below is one of the earliest first ‘mirror portraits’ by Tissot (may be even the first one, if not to count the homage I’ve shown above). It is known as Portrait of Mlle. L.L. (another name common is Lady in a red jacket, 1864).

Portrait of Mlle. L.L. (1864)

We don’t know who was the model for this portrait, although it may have been know for the contemporaries. The work was presented at one of the Salons and got very positive reception. The work is now at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris that describes the “huge success of the canvas is due to its original and rather mysterious composition (What is the young woman sitting on and who is she to allow herself to be painted this way?), as well as to the astonishing colour scheme, a bright red jacket borrowed from a zouave’s costume and the dull green surroundings.

It’s a good portrait, no doubts, but anyone who is familiar with the first mirror portrait by Tissot, its homage to Ingres, would obviously questions it’s ‘originality’, both in terms of composition and the color scheme:

In fact, two lines later the museum’s descriptions adds: “[Although] nowadays people see Ingres’s influence in the pose, particularly in the nonchalant right arm dangling over the black satin skirt or in the reflection in the mirror which brings to mind the portrait of Madame de Senonnes or that of Madame Moitessier [by Ingres]. The museum is not fully convinced, but I am, however a work on its own, the portrait is a clear reference to the work(s) by Ingres.

Despite the mirror depicted here is already different (it’s a wall mirror, not a pier-glass of Ingress, it resembles that latter even by small details, such as a small card (a photograph?) in the frame.

And typical for Tissot, a wide variety of fabrics, both of clothes and also ‘wallpaper’ (which was made of fabric by then).

Here is a tricky issue: Again, the museum’s descriptions states that “contemporary critics saw other derivations for this friend of Manet and Degas“,  “Mr Tissot, the crazy primitive of the most recent Salons has suddenly changed his manner and moved closer to Mr Courbet“.

If you ever seen any painting by Gustave Courbet, you should be very surprised with this comparison.  The surfaces of both Courbet’s portraits and especially landscapes are very texturised, this manner of applying paint brushes is almost sculptural:

The copies that we see on our screens rarely allow to detect, and to admire these qualities. We see tiny scratches on the above copy of Tissot’s portrait, but this is because it was likely made by scanning an image from a book (I found it as is in the internet).

The actual, original works by Tissot are unbelievably polished, almost glossy (it’s not srtange that he was called a primitivist (as in Flemish primitivists.) The following version of the same portrait conveys this quality a bit better:

The shining gloss of his (mirror) portrait is seen very well on another work, the Portrait of the Marquise de Miramon (1866)

Portrait of the Marquise de Miramon, née, Thérèse Feuillant (1866)

In many ways this portrait can be considered the epitome ofTissot’s portrait genre (epitome in a sesne of ‘perfect example’, not a ‘short summary’. This work is full of splendour and luxury, both literally (since very expensive things are seen here on every square centimetre of the canvas) and artistically, because its refined and elaborated technique.  And yet it’s not a pompous show-off but a humane, intimate depiction of life.

For a contemporary person her pink peignoir would say a lot, for example, the very fact that it’s not a special,   ceremonial dress to go out but a homey cloth. Even inside their own house woman couldn’t wear such robes everywhere, they should have changed it for dinners, for example. What we see is a small glimpse into private, otherwise closed world. And yet at the same time, this style, with a cape and lace trim, was the most fashionable one at the time.

The mirror here still doesn’t play any particular role, besides just being there and reaffirming the wealth of the interior, and of its owners. A small vignette, but we still see a card enclosed into a frame).

One of the fashion hallmarks here is the presence of various ‘Japanisms’, such as, for example, a screen with the storks, or a porcelain fish on a mantleshelf. These were very rare and expensive items at that time, affordable to the wealthiest families only; they will become cheaper in 20-30 so that even a poor artists like Van Gogh will be able to buy them (a larger number of counterfeits will help, too).

There will be plenty of these ‘japanisms’ in later works by Tissot. The following portrait is almost entirely dedicated to this theme:

Young Ladies Looking at Japanese Objects (1869)

Interestingly, but this paiting has a mirror, too, embedded in the ‘Japanese’ cupboard. I write Japanese in inverted quotes because this piece of furniture could be already made in France or England. In responce ot this fashion fad local masters quickly established production of ‘authentic’ look-alikes.

I’ve seen one such example in Chicago Art Institute (and even wrote about the mirror in my posting about this trip); to make the reader’s life easier, I will show it again:

The cupboard looks very ‘Chinese’, but made already in England.

Tissot depicted such embedded mirrors, too. Here is just one examples, of which I have only  a very poor copy, unfortunately:

L’Armoire (1867)

Interestingly, but we actually find two mirrors here. In the reflection of the wardrobe’s large mirror we see a smaller mirror on a mantleshelf . The composition may be seen as a reference to the numerous mirrors in the mirrors of Ingres’ Madame Moitessier.

At the very first sight all the Tissot’s mirrors that I have shown so far are not much different from the ones by Ingres. However, even in these first mirrors we can spot quite a significant difference, an attempt by Tissot to depict the mirrors not as simple reflective surfaces but as the ‘doors’, entrances to a different space (not necessarily in a Big Sense, as Cosmologically or Spiritually different space, but simply spatially different one, such as ‘different room’ kind of space).

For instance, let’s consider the painting called L’Escalier (Staircase) (1968)

I am not sure if there is any mirror in the work, as the central plafon in the center, behind a woman, is likely just a part of a glass partition. Nor I see any mirror above the fireplace in the background. Nonetheless, this work is great example of a very skilful creation of ‘additional space’ in the painting, whether it is achieved with the help of mirrors or not.

All the signs were pointed to a very successful career of a fashionable painter of the Paris’ high society. Small issue happened with this very society.

In May 1871 in Paris happened what was later labelled as La Commune de Paris, or the Paris Commune. The events in Paris were one of the first examples of what will be later labelled as ‘lumpen communism’, with its characteristic slogans ‘loot the looters’,  ‘thunders of volcano’, and the final l’éruption.

I actually don’t know how and why Tissot got involved into this mess. Neither his origin, no his views were remotely close to your typical supporter of la Commune. Some say that he – similar to many other city dwellers – has initially joined one of the Parisian defence units (that is, the defence against the Prussian army that sieged the city in the Autumn of 1870). His unit then joined the сommunards, and Tissot wouldn’t have much freedom to choose otherwise. Others believe that this could have happened as way of self-defence, since the status of a communard would protect his own house from looting (again, a very common motif for many citizens back then).

As we know, the Commune was suppressed relatively quickly, and many Communards prosecuted (I would say, rather mildly: from several thousands prisoners detained after the defeat of the Commune only a couple of dozens or so were executed, about a thousand was jailed but the majority of them were released during the  year first). Of course, the full truth is that a large number of Communards were in fact killed during the fights, as the common rule was ‘take no prisoners’, so we can speak about ‘mildness’ only in a very relative terms.

In any case, Tissot decided not to temp the fate, and similar to many other more wealthier ex-Communards opted for a run. In his case it was the run to England.  It wasn’t a completely unprepared flight, he was in London before, where he had customers and partners. Moreover, even while still in Paris  he began to collaborate withVanity Fair, the magazine published in London. One can even call his ‘escape’ a calculated and well-prepared relocation.

In London he almost immediately got a job as an illustrator for this very Vanity Fair, where he starts drawing cartoons on famous politicians and celebrities The is, for example, his version of Charles Darwin.  As an active Catholic, Tissot could not have any particularly warm feelings towards him.

In addition to the illustrations he very quickly began to do exactly the same as in Paris, to paint portraits of the wealthy elite, and the waiting room of his studio was soon filled with the gentlemen and ladies who came to discuss a commission.

His works, usually very bright and colorful, have became particularly ornate and festive in England:

Holyday (1876)

As before, he paints a lot of female portraits, but so far I found only one with a mirror. Itself is not very remarkable, yet it does continue the theme of ‘opening up  another spaces’:

Portrait of Sydney Isabella Milner-Gibson (1872)

I also found only one portrait of a man with a mirror, but it’s a rare breed anyway:

Portrait of Chichester Parkinson-Fortescue, Baron Carlingford (1874)

Tissot also create many works that depict more public life of the high society, their visits to theaters or circuses, or a home concert, like in this case. Here we see a very different type of mirror, a very large panel that would typically decorate a main hall.

Hush! (The Concert) (c.1875)

During 1872 alone Tisso earned almost 100,000 francs, the amount comparable to the annual income of a high-rank official.  A monthly salary of 1,000 francs would be considered a very decent one at this time.

While living in London, Tissot didn’t break his relationships with friends and colleagues in Paris.We know about his very active correspondence with Degas, and via the recommendation of the latter Tissot was visited by Berthe Morisot. In 1874 he made a trip to Venice together with Édouard Manet.


The event that happened in 1875 has dramatically changed his life. Tissot was almost forty by then, but never married before, and not even even engaged (although we know that he had some lasting relationships back in Paris).

In London he met a young woman called Kathleen Newton, whom he offered to live with him almost after their first meeting, or at least after the first sitting).  This is her portrait,not the very first one, but the one he made later in 1880. He called her ‘my red-hair cutie’.

Kathleen was only 20 when they met, although she already had a child (yet living alone, which was obviously a scandal back then).  Her life is a plot ready to be filmed by Hollywood (in fact, Tossot’s own life is, too, full of events, and I am waiting for a good movie, or better a series, to be made).

Kathleen was born in the family of a British officer who served in India, and spent her childhood in Lahore and Agra (she recalled the trips to the Taj Mahal and even some events of the Sepoy Mutiny in 1858, when she was only four year old.)

In the 1860s her family returned to London, and the girl receives a very education. But her family firmly believes that her destiny is to become a good wife for yet another officer of the British Army. The 16-years (!) old girl is married by correspondence (!!) to one of the former colleagues of her father, a military surgeon working in Kolkata.  Kathleen is sent – alone! – to across two oceans India.

‘Sent’ meant ‘shipped’ by then, meaning that she had to sail for a couple of months. During the trip she had been courted by a captain of the ship. She would tell later that ‘nothing happened’, but perhaps she did respond to some of the romantic moves, or at least not rejected them strong enough (remember, she was 16 years old girl).

When she arrived to Kolkata, she (being Catholic) confessed to a priest about this story, and – oh, the Seal of Confession! – her future husband learns about them, too. Who then considers this is a good enough reason to abolish their marriage contract.

It seems that no one anticipated such a scenario, to the extent that Kathleen didn’t even have money for a return trip. She couldn’t stay in Kolkata either (not only financially it was not possible, but she would be completely ostracised by the British commune there.)

The very same captain has offered to bring her back to England for free, that is, in return to a more favourite acceptance of his ‘courtship’.  She returned to England pregnant, and at the end of 1871 gave birth to her daughter.

She refused to marry the captain (and I am not even sure that there was an offer), yet her own family expelled her from their house, too, leaving her and the child without any means. For a few years Kathleen lived in secret in the house of her sister, who hided it even from her own parents.

They met almost by accident, but it looks that the Big Love flared up almost instantly. Kathleen moved to his studio, and very soon they bought a new large house. In 1876 she gave birth to their son (called, just for the record, Cecil George Newton Ashburnham 🙂  Interestingly, but she would never became his official wife. Bif Love or not, but they are both Catholics.

Tissot will create many portraits of Kathleen, and she would also would be a model for his other works. In England Tissot created plenty of marine paiting, a very popular genre, and wells-sold one.

A Passing Storm (1876)

With time the style of Tissot changes. He got under the influence of James Abbot McNeill Whistler, an American painter who lived most of his life in England. Whistler is considered to be a founder of a peculiar art style (and a movement) called tonalism. Tonalist paitings are created not with the use of lines and boundaries, as in classical drawing, but as an interplay of colorful layers. The main goal of a tonalist is not to recreate an accurate pictorial representation, but to evoke a particular atmosphere, a mood or a tone of a place. This works very well when paiting landscapes, but Whistler erected ‘tone’ as an general ontologial concept of art, and started to paint everything with this idea of ‘tone’ in mind. I wrote earlier about Bonnard, who was very much influenced by the ideas of Whistler.

Tissot started to use softer pastel and gouache more frequently, instead of his favorite oil. Compare this portrait of Kathleen and children with his earlier works (there might be a mirror depicted in this paiting, too, but it could as well be a paiting, at the right border).

Kathleen Newton at the Piano (1881)

Tissot is as happy as a man can be, he is a very successful artist and he lives with the woman who loves him endlessly. Well, Happiness Doesn’t Last For Long, Chapter 1. At some point Kathleen TB. Today it would be healed through by a short-term treatment, back then it was a terminal illness.

She is dying, and Tissot is ‘dying’ together with her. He continues to paint, but the works of this periods are called ‘dark’ not without a reason.

Here is famous Hide and Seek (1882)

A very dense, packed scene, with many lovely kids and full life and love, yet also very tense and full with presentiments. Again we see the same trick that Tissot keeps playing with mirrors and other reflecting surfaces, when he used them as tiny doors to other spaces.

In November 1882, no longer able to fight the disease, Kathleen takes a horse dose of opium. Tissot spent four days at her coffin.



Here the majority of his biographers write something like “and because of such Terrible Grief and Wound Tissot immediately went into religion and began to paint his religious works.”

That’s not exactly right. The terrible grief was there, so strong that Tissot decided to leave London where everything reminded him of Kathleen and returned to Paris. But he didn’t start to paint very differently.  Sure, his style has been further changed, he increasingly prefers pastel over oil, but paints on fabric, not on paper.  But the first two years in Paris we see large the same subjects, female or male portraits in rich interiors:

Portrait of Clotilde Briatte, Comtesse Pillet-Will (с.1884)

I took this example because of the mirror depicted here, but also to show his different technique, much closer to impressionism (although Tissot never affiliated himself with and -ism, and always refused to participate in any -ism exhibitions).

Here is another interesting work. It doesn’t have any mirrors as such, but plenty of reflecting (and ‘transparent’) surfaces, together creating an interesting cross-space.

La demoiselle de magasin (с.1884)

These cross-, or trans-spaces create a peculiar effect; not only we can look through these transparent surfaces, but it seems that these spaces gaze at us, and through us, thus placing us inside these optical loops and converting into co-participants of these scenes.  In one of the parallel worlds I’d love to see Tissot illustrating Alice Through the Looking Glass.


Another three dots, and another period of life. Tissot is reaching 50, he is wealthy enough not to work for money and stops taking client commissions. Instead, he mostly works on the works on the history of Christianity, and specifically the ones depicting the life of Christ.

Here comes again his meticulous, almost obsessed attention to details.  To be able to recreate accurate atmosphere of the event that happened 2,000 years ago, Tissot travels to the Middle East, in fact, three times, in 1886, 1889 and then one more time in 1896. He spent months in Jerusalem, making sketches of everything he sees around, from architectural details:

to people (using his works, one could compile an anthropological portraits of Semitic people of this area):

and also of the natural landscapes, including rocks and soil.

When back in Paris, he transforms all these piles of sketches into a large series of works about the life of Christ, perhaps the most accurate and (hyper) realistic ever.  These are not oil paintings, but gouaches, but very large and colorful, and many of them are later published as books.

Here is perhaps the most empathic – hyperempathic  – Cruxifiction of all times:

There are no mirrors in this work, obviously, yet we see – experience! – the exact same phenomena of ‘looking through’: us looking through the eyes of Christ, and them looking at, and through us.

Some of his friends believed that Tissot lost his mind, since these works were so radically different from his previous art.  Yet others consider them as the Tissot’s ultimate art achievement. They are also stunningly successful financially, they had been shown at three large exhibition, in Paris, London and then New York, and instantly bought by the largest museums and private collectors alike. I guess his ancestors can still live on the royalties from the millions of the Bibles printed with his illustrations.

He created more than four hundreds of these sheets in total, but I am not aware of any resource that would show them all in one place. The largest collection that I know of can be found on the website of the Brooklyn Museum that bought many of his work at back then. WikiArt is another good sources, but there you will mostly find the sketches, and the large color sheets are only shown as small thumbnails.

There are no mirrors in these works. Not even one.  But they are still interesting in the context of this ‘mirror review’, because many of them play with the same cross-perspectives that we see on the above Cruxifiction, for example. Don’t you start elevating, even if a bit, when looking at this work?

Tissot mainly worked on these religious sheets at the end of his life. I guess, he did draw or paint some oher things too, for example, I have recently found this drawing of 1886 (although this may be just a card based on this earlier painting that I don’t know of).

There are not complicated symbolisms here, but there is a mirror and again this piercing gaze though  multiple spaces, as if magnetically pulling us into them.


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