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James Tissot, Painter of Modern Life

William H. Robinson, Paul J. and Edith Ingalls Vignos Jr. Senior Curator of Modern Art
February 24, 2023
Two Figures at a Door (The Proposal?), 1872. James Tissot (French, 1836–1902). 2022.140

The Cleveland Museum of Art has recently acquired one of James Tissot’s finest paintings, Two Figures at a Door (The Proposal?) (fig. 1). Tissot straddled the worlds of French Impressionism and British Victorian art. One biographer astutely described him as “the most English of all French painters.”[1] The son of a prosperous drapery merchant and a hat designer, he was born Jacques-Joseph Tissot (1836–1902) in Nantes in northwest France. Admiring all things British, he later anglicized his given name to James.

Figure 1. Two Figures at a Door (The Proposal?), 1872. James Tissot (French, 1836–1902). Oil on canvas; 101 x 62.5 cm. Partial gift from Ralph and Terry Kovel and Family, and partial purchase from the John L. Severance Fund, 2022.140

Tissot developed an early interest in art and moved to Paris in 1857 to study at the Académie des Beaux-Arts. He cultivated a meticulous drawing style at the Academy while studying under Louis Lamothe and Hippolyte Flandrin, a favorite pupil of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Tissot began exhibiting regularly in the Paris Salons in 1859, where his paintings were well received. In the 1860s, he became close friends with Edgar Degas, James McNeill Whistler, Édouard Manet, and Berthe Morisot. Degas invited Tissot to participate in the first exhibition of the Impressionists held at Nadar’s studio in Paris in 1874, but Tissot declined.

After serving in the army during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Tissot left France in 1871 and spent the next 11 years working in London. He painted Two Figures at a Door (The Proposal?) at a pivotal moment when he was trying to establish himself in the British art world by focusing on themes that would appeal to the Victorian taste for story-telling subjects. The painting presumably depicts a couple just after the man has proposed marriage and is waiting for a reply. The door may have a symbolic meaning: will she let him cross the “threshold” and enter her life, or will she leave him waiting outside? During this split second of suspense, the viewer’s attention is drawn to the sumptuous dress and fabrics and the sunlight streaming into the room, backlighting the figure’s faces and drawing attention to what they may be thinking. The high-keyed palette reflects the Impressionist fascination with intense, outdoor light, while the subject aligns with the Victorian propensity to scrutinize paintings for their symbolic meaning and relevance to social issues. Through such paintings, Tissot established himself as a major figure in the British art world.

While Two Figures at a Door (The Proposal?) is firmly documented in Tissot’s photo albums, the title was unrecorded and has only been passed down by oral traditions.[2] An intriguing alternative interpretation of the subject has recently arisen that may be connected to a lost Tissot painting from the same period titled Les Amoureux (The Lovers). This interpretation focuses on an important but often overlooked detail in the painting. As observed by fashion historian Sarah Scaturro, one of the buttons on the lower part of the woman’s overdress has been unfastened, and just to the right, an area of the silk tassels has been parted (fig. 2). What this suggests is that while the couple was sitting outside on the veranda, the man reached over, disturbed the tassels, and unfastened the button, prompting the woman to stand up and walk inside to think about the situation. This type of subtle yet suggestive narrative detail fascinated Victorian audiences.

Figure 2. Detail of the unfastened button on the lower part of the woman’s overdress

There has been increasing interest in Tissot in recent years. In 2013, he emerged as one of the stars of the exhibition Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Art Institute of Chicago; Musée d’Orsay, Paris) due partly to his precise rendering of costumes and fabrics. In fact, this was really a rediscovery, as an article published in the journal L’Artiste in 1869 praised Tissot for his acumen at rendering modern life and costumes: “While our industrial and artistic creations may perish, and our customs and our costumes may fall into oblivion, a painting by Mr. Tissot will be enough for archaeologists of the future to reconstruct our era.”[3]

The museum acquired Two Figures at a Door (The Proposal?) partly through the generosity of Ralph and Terry Kovel (fig. 3), internationally recognized experts on antiques, and their family. Ralph and Terry began writing a syndicated column on antiques in the 1950s and have published more than 100 books on the subject. The Kovels have appeared as experts on Jeopardy! and starred in the PBS series Know Your Antiques and the Discovery Channel program Collector’s Journal with Ralph and Terry Kovel. After Ralph passed away in 2008, Terry has continued directing various Kovel enterprises, including a website and an annual guide to antique collecting. The Kovels have been highly active in their native city, serving on the boards of major cultural institutions, teaching classes on antiques, and engaging in a host of philanthropic and community enrichment activities.

Figure 3. Ralph and Terry Kovel

Terry recalls how she convinced her mother, Rita Horvitz, to buy Two Figures at a Door (The Proposal?) after they saw it at a Boston gallery in 1950. The painting remained in the family collection and unknown to scholars until 2013, when the Kovels lent it to the CMA for temporary display in the 19th-century European art galleries. The painting’s absence from public view for so many years makes it a significant rediscovery of an important work from Tissot’s early years in London. This masterful painting displays all the hallmarks of the artist’s mature style in its personal blending of precise drawing, luminous color, concern with modern life, and attention to the sophisticated fashions of the new, urban middle class. The gift of this superb painting from the family’s personal collection greatly enhances the museum’s representation of 19th-century European art.

[1] Olivier Deshayes, James Tissot: Peintre de la vie moderne (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2021), 47.

[2] The painting has been published twice with this title in recent years. See Melissa E. Buron and Krystyna Matyjasziewicz, James Tissot: Fashion and Faith, exh. cat. (San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, de Young, Legion of Honor, 2019), 18; and Sotheby’s New York, “James Tissot: The Proposal,” auction cat., The European Art Sale, 20 May 2021, lot 219.

[3] Élie Roy, “Salon de 1869,” L’Artiste 40 (July 1869), 82.