The Chiostro del Bramante, which traditionally offers a wonderful setting for special exhibitions, recently hosted Italy's first retrospective of cosmopolitan artist James Tissot. The exhibit ran until February 2016. Those already familiar with his work were thrilled. Those who did not know him appeared surprised to discover what they had been missing.
The rendez-vous in Rome was not my first encounter with James Tissot. Because I live in New Haven I had gotten to know him through visits to the Yale British Art Museum. And because I teach French, I was immediately curious about how, with his French-sounding name, he earned himself a place in the British Art Center.
Although born in France in 1836 as Jacques-Joseph Tissot, he adopted the anglicized name, James, settling in London in 1871, where he enjoyed a successful career. His life had as many intriguing twists and turns as the different artistic styles at which he excelled. Among the painters with whom he associated were Whistler, Degas, Manet, and Morisot, and his work shows affinities with that of his Impressionist contemporaries and the Pre-Raphaelites. Although a brilliant portrayer of high society, he defied convention by living openly with the love of his life, Irish divorcée Kathleen Newton, his Muse who can be admired in many of his best pieces.
The Rome exhibit was effectively divided into nine sections that showcased the impressive range of Tissot's career. But this exhibition offered some special features that deserve mention. The 80 works were displayed in what felt like intimate niches that allowed the viewer to feel very close to the paintings.
Tissot's skill as a painter of fashion was highlighted in a section that had detailed versions of stylish garments of the period attached to full-length mirrors. These allowed the viewer to superimpose her own head on the dresses while considering the inscribed message,
"Mirror, mirror on the wall
Who in this land is fairest of all?"
Another unexpected exhibit feature: a mounted display of bows of the various types seen in Tissot's paintings of women's elegant dresses. And in contrast to the warnings in most museums, the viewer was encouraged to touch the sensual fabrics.
But perhaps the most striking effect of all came when the visitor entered a sumptuous darkened space surrounded by what appeared to be individual portraits of high-society attendees at a glittering ball. We ourselves felt we were in the middle of the gossipy banter at this event, as each portrait lit up and "spoke" to each other about the beautiful woman who had just made her entrance. The effect was mesmerizing and disorienting, allowing us to feel like privileged guests.
It was only when we looked toward the exit of this velvet-walled chamber that we realized we had been looking at details from Tissot's magisterial painting, "The Most Beautiful Woman in Paris." The singular sensation offered by this room was worth the price of admission.
That the curators did not show any religious work from the period of Tissot's late return to the church speaks for itself--a wise decision. We did get a look into his more spiritual side in The Prodigal Son section of the exhibit, a parable with which Tissot closely identified.
Some have thought of Tissot as little more than a talented illustrator, but you should judge for yourself. There will surely be other opportunities to admire the work of this artist. Wherever you are able to encounter him, James Tissot stands ready to welcome you into his fascinating oeuvre.