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.
1 day 1 hour ago The Art Institute of Chicago CLOSING SOON—Invisible Man: Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison in Harlem
Two major figures in American art and literature aim to make the black experience visible in postwar America.
Closing August 28—http://bit.ly/2aQrnYd
1 day 6 hours ago The Art Institute of Chicago It is believed Van Dyck never intended for the early stages of his etchings to be circulated and was surprised by their immediate popularity in the art market. Finding success at a time when artists didn’t usually show works in progress, these “unfinished” prints helped set the stage for the more recent popularity of works that reveal the creative process. See the prints that altered conventions in Van Dyck, Rembrandt, and the Portrait Print—closing August 7.
2 days 56 min ago The Art Institute of Chicago #TBT 1983: The museum held an exhibition for the collection of Jalane and Richard Davidson, Chicago collectors of contemporary American realist drawings. Acknowledged at the time for collecting against prevailing art world trends, they amassed a comprehensive collection of work spanning the careers of both well-known artists—like Jack Beal, pictured here with Jalane herself and a portrait he made of her—and lesser-known Midwestern artists. The entire Davidson collection was bequeathed to the museum and saw another exhibition devoted to it in 1999.