During the second half of the 19th century, the face of European art history was altered by artists on both sides of the English Channel. This week’s FRAME|WORK features Le Banc de Jardin (The Garden Bench ), a print by French artist James Tissot, who was as at home with the Victorian avant-garde in London as he was with the Impressionists in Paris. This print is currently on display in Gallery 18 at the Legion of Honor and Tissot’s painting also appears in the special exhibition The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde, 1860–1900.
In England, the Aesthetic Movement repurposed design and art to espouse the ethos of art for art’s sake, aspiring to make beauty accessible to all; while in France, Impressionist artists engaged with nature outside of the studio and, using light and color, broke down previously adhered to boundaries of visual representation. James Tissot’s career spanned these two groundbreaking artistic developments both geographically and creatively, a dichotomy perhaps best represented by his choice of friends at the École des Beaux-Arts: Edgar Degas and James Abbott McNeil Whistler.
After a series of military engagements, Tissot left Paris for England in 1871, where he swiftly established himself in London society. In France, Tissot had concentrated on the depiction of women, drawing on well-known Impressionist tropes, such as Japonisme. Across the channel, he continued in this genre, cultivating a reputable career painting high-society Victorian women. In 1875, the artist met the subject of The Garden Bench, an Irish divorcée named Mrs. Kathleen Newton. Tissot’s preferred model and companion, Mrs. Newton quickly moved into Tissot’s household where she remained until her death from consumption in 1882.
Throughout his tenure in London, Tissot maintained close connections with the Impressionists, including Edouard Manet, with whom he traveled to Venice. But when Degas invited Tissot to participate in the first Impressionist group show, he declined, cementing his role as an artist independent of any particular movement.
After Mrs. Newton’s death, Tissot returned to the Continent where he began experimenting with printing techniques, including the notoriously difficult art of mezzotint. In France, mezzotint was known as the manière anglaise ("English way"), which afforded the newly repatriated Tissot’s work a fashionable English sensibility.
The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde, 1860–1900 is on view at the Legion of Honor through June 17.