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James-Jacques-Joseph Tissot, Portrait by Degas

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Rosie Wahlers

Masterpieces of Western Art

Susan Sivard

Essay #2

James-Jacques-Joseph Tissot (1836-1902)

Edgar Degas (1867-8)

Paris, France

39.161

[pic 1]

Aura of an Artist

        The Metropolitan Museum of Art boasts an impressive array of work by the 19th century French Masters– according to its website, “the most important collection of large-scale painting by these masters outside of France.” The gallery “Manet and Impressionism” is populated by titillating portraits: there are proud matadors and elegant women, a crucified Christ, a vibrant bouquet of flowers beside an elderly lady. But there is one that really tempts my eye: a portrait of a serious man dressed in a dark suit. It is Jean-Jacques-Joseph Tissot by Edgar Degas (1867-8). It is a portrait of a painter who is surrounded by paintings, one of which is another portrait.  

        Tissot, a friend of Degas’s, is seated sideways across a wooden chair in his art studio. Surrounding him is a variety of paintings that all extend beyond the boundaries of the frame with short bursts of colorful brush strokes… except for one: the little portrait within the portrait. This tiny painting portrays the bust of a portly nobleman, backed by baby blue. Tissot, in contrast, is a slender full-figure amid muted brown and grey hues, and seems more casual. As he slings one arm across the back of the chair, the other arm props him up against a table. On this table, a black top hat is toppled over and a black cape is draped. Tissot’s hair is as jet black as his outfit. He looks right back at us with sharp, discerning facial features.

        Many of these interrelated elements converge to construct Tissot’s identity as an intense and sophisticated, yet laidback and open-minded artist: Degas portrays Tissot in a candid pose in an open composition, within the creative setting of the art studio, while articulating the scene with a variety of contrasting brush strokes and colors.

        First and foremost, the counterbalance between Tissot's dashing outfit and his informal pose conveys much about his character. He is fashionably and formally dressed, as would be expected of a sitter of high social status. The pose definitely recalls certain conventions of portraiture -- the body turned sideways, the face fully frontal. However, Degas also bucks pictorial tradition by having Tissot seated improperly in the chair with his fancy accessories tossed haphazardly on the table behind him.

        Despite the relaxed attitude of the pose, Tissot seems neither languid nor lackadaisical.  He still holds a slight tension in his legs, holding them close to the chair with a foot raised slightly off the floor. As he props himself up against the table, a long thin walking stick poised between his fingers helps him achieve an effortless composure. The skinny diagonal line of the walking stick visually reiterates his recline, while the placement of this elegant object also reminds us that he is not in total repose, but rather in a relaxed engagement. There is a feeling of intimacy evoked by this portrayal; indeed, the pose does not seem posed at all, but rather like a natural posture a friend might assume while engaged in a witty chat.
        Tissot is not a passive sitter, not a mere object of representation. This is not only conveyed by his pose, but also by his direct gaze at the viewer. This “level stare effectively [places] him on the same social level as the viewer,” and for that matter, establishes him as an equal to Degas (Barnet 35). This viewpoint becomes especially salient within the context of the museum, where the majority of the Degas’s displayed works feature women with their eyes averted. [1] The averted gaze establishes the viewer as a kind of voyeur, whereas Tissot’s direct gaze forces us to engage with him, as if we have joined him in conversation. His penetrating eyes undoubtedly lend him a distinctive intensity that is written across his face.

        A shadow along his jaw highlights his masculinity, while a dash of light on his forehead may denote a radiating intellect.  The precise detail of brushstroke in the rest of the facial area literally sharpens his features. Yet, along with the subtle tilt in his head, gentle touches of pale pink paint around his eyes and mouth enliven him and soften this intensity.

        It is notable that the only other part of the painting depicted with such fine brushwork is his right hand. We can understand the meticulous attention to his right hand as an assertion of his identity an artist—this hand, we can assume, is the one with which he paints.  

        However, a portrait is more than a physiognomic likeness, just as a person is more than a “living body.”[2] Indeed, we understand Tissot as an artist not from the portrayal of his body alone, but mostly through the context of his art studio. The paintings that surround him – one of a large Japanese garden, one of abstract forms, another a copy of a Renaissance portrait –  speak to his worldly, cultured taste. [3] And just as Tissot is posed casually, his paintings are placed on the floor, propped up against the wall. For one of these, we can only see the back of the canvas. This placement evokes the feeling that the paintings are not there merely to impress. Therefore, these surrounding paintings convey sophistication without an air of pretension.

        We see Tissot’s art as a naturally unfolding process. While one piece is being painted on an easel, other paintings lean against the wall in limbo; others still are displayed on the table and wall. In depicting the paintings, Degas employs a brush technique that is more spontaneous and free, especially compared to the fine work on Tissot’s face and hand. There is abundant evidence of Degas’ (and Tissot’s) paintbrush: many spontaneous strokes of paint seem to take precedence over the contours that define figures and objects. Additionally, we see bursts of color – coral red, gentle yellow, baby blue – that repeat throughout the paintings, contrasting with the sober brown and grey tones that constitute Tissot, his clothing, the furniture, and the room itself. The portrait might have seemed entirely serious and somber without these streaks of vibrancy, (especially next to the vivacious painting of the bouquet of flowers directly to its right in the gallery). Perhaps these subtle contrasts within the portrait hint that Tissot’s free spirit comes alive through his art.         

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