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Two Figures at a Door (The Proposal?)

A James Tissot painting joins the collection
March 2, 2023
Two Figures at a Door (The Proposal?), 1872. James Tissot (French, 1836–1902). 2022.140

The Cleveland Museum of Art has acquired one of James Tissot’s finest paintings through a partial gift from renowned Cleveland antiques experts Ralph and Terry Kovel and their family. Born and trained in France, Tissot was an artist who straddled the worlds of French Impressionism and British Victorian art. One biographer astutely described him as “the most English of all French painters.” Tissot entered the Académie des Beaux-Arts in 1857 and studied under Hippolyte Flandrin, a favorite pupil of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Tissot also enjoyed early success in the Paris Salons and became close friends with Edgar Degas, James McNeill Whistler, Édouard Manet, and Berthe Morisot.

After serving in the army during the Franco-Prussian War, 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 subjects 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 figures’ faces. 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. 

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.”

Although documented in the artist’s photo albums, Two Figures at a Door (The Proposal?) remained in private collections and unknown to scholars until 2013, when the Kovels lent it to the CMA for temporary display in the museum’s 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 museum acquired Two Figures at a Door (The Proposal?) partly through the generosity of Ralph and Terry Kovel, internationally recognized experts on antiques. They 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. 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. Degas invited Tissot to participate in the first Impressionist exhibition held at Nadar’s Paris studio in 1874, but Tissot declined.

3. The current title has been passed down by oral traditions. 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.

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