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You Better Shop Around

The Shop Girl

One of the revelations for many visitors to Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity has been James Tissot and his luminous, finely rendered, enigmatic portraits. Raised in Nantes by his drapery-merchant father and hat-designer mother, Tissot was steeped in fashion from an early age, and, like many aspiring artists, sought fame and fortune in Paris. However, unlike many artists, he actually succeeded, having paintings shown at the Salon in 1859, just a few years after his arrival. For reasons not entirely clear, he left Paris for London in 1871 and there quickly replicated his Parisian success. Friendly with many of the Impressionists, Tissot was asked by Degas to exhibit his work in their public debut, but he refused, preferring to remain immersed in London society and his lucrative commissions.

Tissot’s Shop Girl was painted in 1883–85, upon his return to Paris from London after the death of Kathleen Newton, an Irish divorcée who had been, somewhat scandalously, Tissot’s companion for most of his London years (it is suspected that the son she gave birth to in 1877 was Tissot’s). Most likely reeling from her death, Tissot embarked in Paris on an ambitious series called The Women of Paris, from which Shop Girl comes. Unlike his previous paintings of wealthy, beautiful subjects at elaborate balls or in seaside cottages, the series represents women of different stations and classes, like the young and inviting female who opens the door of this Parisian store.

Here Tissot has represented the “modern” Paris, signified of course by the presence of the young and attractive shop girl but also by the shop itself—plate glass windows, freely displayed merchandise, a tumult of ribbons and accessories on the table. These new Parisian shops, working off the model of the new department stores, were a far cry from the dim, family-run retail hovels of the previous generation that Émila Zola depressingly depicted in his novel, Au Bonheur des Dames: “the ground-floor shop, crushed by the ceiling, surmounted by a very low storey with half-moon windows, of a prison-like appearance . . . two deep windows, black and dusty, in which the heaped up goods could hardly be seen. The open door seemed to lead into the darkness and dampness of a cellar.” Tissot’s bright, clean shop is an emblem of the modern Paris, fully reveling in the art of retail.

And so too does the shop girl. She is fashionably dressed, inviting yet assertive, and as much on display as the merchandise to her right. To underscore that point, Tissot has created a vignette in the upper left of the canvas where a man in a top hat appears to be making direct eye contact with another shop girl reaching for a package on an upper shelf. The visual and social dynamics of Shop Girl is a lesson in ambiguity, reflecting the conflicted status of the “new woman”: a consumer force at the center of a revolutionary and lucrative new industry but yet still a confection, a display, as sensuous and inviting as the silks she has packaged for us, the customers for whom she opens the door.

Image Credit: James Tissot, The Shop Girl, 1883–85. The Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.