The work of James Tissot is well represented in the exhibition Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity, proving to be the most singular and telling counterpoint to the painting produced by the Impressionist artists during this period. Tissot’s documentary-style paintings are some of the best records we have of the attire of high society Parisians from the 1860s through the 1880s—not only of women but also, critically, men. His Circle of the Rue Royale, from the Musée d’Orsay, is the 19th-century equivalent of a spread in today’s GQ. And we would expect no less from an artist of Tissot’s background; he was the son of a fashion seller and a milliner.
The Circle of the Rue Royale was an actual club for men founded in 1852, the members variously composed of aristocrats, railway barons, and military officers. To be part of this commissioned group portrait, each of the twelve men pictured in the painting paid 1000 francs to be included. The final owner of the painting was determined by lottery. (If you’re wondering, the winner was Baron Hottinguer, seated on the right of the sofa, casually leaning on it.)
All of the men in the painting—marquises, princes, barons—are identifiable, as one would expect for a commissioned group portrait. Less obvious, though, is the way that Tissot has depicted the shifting political affiliations of the members of the Circle of the Rue Royale as the Second French Empire began to give way to the Third Republic. In this paean to male elegance, Tissot has included symbols of this burgeoning political tempest: discarded on the ground at left is the newspaper Le Constitutionnel,representing the rejection of the monarchy; the seated figure at right, Prince Edmond-Melchior de Polignac, holds a copy of the Vie de Louis XVII, a nod to those with continuing monarchic loyalties. And, political affiliations aside, the man standing in the doorway at the far right is Charles Haas, who was apparently one of the sources of inspiration for Proust’s Charles Swann.
Representing the cream of Parisian society, TheCircle of the Rue Royale lavishly pictures the height of masculine elegance in 1868. And it would appear that few choices were available to the well-dressed man. All of the men wear muted colors and ties, accessorized by walking sticks and top hats. The cut and lines of men’s clothing were far more important than color, emphasizing a wide torso, narrow waist, and flat stomach—particularly important as the male corset was no longer considered part of the wardrobe as it had been in previous eras. And clearly much more research needs to be done on facial hair of the era; not one of our 12 gentlemen is clean-shaven.
Image Credit: James Tissot. The Circle of the Rue Royale, 1868. Musée d'Orsay, Paris, RF 2001 53.