Having enjoyed considerable success in Paris during the 1860s, James Tissot fought in the Siege of Paris, and after the fall of the Commune in 1871 went to London, where he stayed for the next ten years. He was able to sell a lot of work there but also met the love of his life, Kathleen Newton, a divorcée, with whom he lived from about 1876 until her death from tuberculosis in November 1882. Following her death, Tissot returned to Paris, where he had kept the home and studio he had built on the Avenue du Bois de Boulogne (or Avenue de l'Impératrice, as it was during the Second Empire). He brought back work he had made in London, displaying it in a one-man exhibition at the Palais de l'Industrie in 1883, alongside new works made in Paris. Among the latter was a group of eight pastels.
The sitter in the current work appears to be the same woman who modelled for at least two of the Palais de l'Industrie pastels - Le Journal (fig. 1), reproduced as an etching by Tissot, and Promenade du matin (location unknown). In the latter she appears alongside a young girl, who also features in two other pastels, one of which (Musée du Petit Palais, Paris) was reproduced as an etching entitled Berthe. It is likely that Admiring a portfolio dates from around the same time as these works, 1883.
This drawing is a beautiful example of Tissot's skill at using pastel, and his ability to capture subtle qualities of light and shade. The main light source is behind the sitter, highlighting her left cheek, finely-shaped long nose, and auburn tints in her hair. The light reflecting from the white paper of the portfolio pages lends a glow to her right cheek. The background has been left uncluttered by detail, so that the viewer is drawn to her face, the focus of the picture, and round her extended arm to take in the portfolio, then back to her face. The pose is an informal one, as if the woman has been distracted while looking through the portfolio of drawings or prints and become lost in thought. She holds a pair of glasses in her right hand, which she has presumably been wearing to look at the portfolio. In the pastel and print, Le Journal, she is wearing glasses, half hidden by her hat, to read the newspaper she is holding.
Collectors of prints and drawings had mounted their prized possessions on portfolio sheets for centuries, to be looked at in close detail or shown to others. During the second half of the nineteenth century, works on paper by contemporary artists became very popular among collectors for portfolio display. There is an intimacy to looking at works in a portfolio that is very different from looking at works framed and displayed on a wall. Etchings, in particular, need careful study to appreciate their fine workmanship and detail. Many etchings were published in limited-edition portfolios. The revival of interest in etching was particularly marked during the 1870s and 1880s in London, and Tissot was a key figure among promoters and creators of etching. He had experimented with the medium in the early 1860s, and returned to it wholeheartedly in the mid-1870s as a means of making original works at prices that would be accessible to a wider range of people than was possible with oils. The 1883 Paris exhibition included fifty-eight of Tissot's etchings.
Pastel is a medium that combines drawing and color in one. The greatest exponent of pastel drawing in the late sixteenth century was Federico Barocci. His studies of figures showed how subtle a medium pastel was, and how well it could capture the colours and modulation of skin. During the eighteenth century, pastel became a very popular medium for portraiture. It retained the freshness of a drawing while being painterly, and was more easily portable than pigments and oils. With the French academic battles between 'disegno' and 'colore', it became less used, but was rediscovered with the renewed interest in eighteenth-century fine and decorative art during the late nineteenth century. Tissot's friends, Edgar Degas and Edouard Manet, both used pastel, and it may have been their example that inspired Tissot to turn to this medium after his return to Paris. In the case of both Degas and Manet, the use of pastel may have been linked to difficulties with eyesight and illness: drawing with soft colors was much quicker and easier than using paint, and for Degas the tactile nature would also have been important. For Tissot, the speed with which work could be completed would have been a key advantage. Paul Helleu, another friend of Tissot, similarly liked pastel for this reason. The use of a colored ground, as in the current work, provided a base of tone that could be left to show through, and was also favored by Tissot for his oil painting. A number of Tissot's pastels are on linen, as here, or on fine canvas, rather than paper.
Tissot was an early member of the Société de Pastellistes Français, founded in 1885,as well as a member of the Société d'Aquarellistes Français, which he joined in 1883. Both societies held exhibitions at the Galerie Georges Petit in Paris and Tissot's work was included in several of these shows during the 1880s.
We are grateful to Krystyna Matyjaszkiewicz for confirming the authenticity of this work and for researching and preparing this catalogue entry.
(fig. 1) J. J. J. Tissot, Le journal, Musée du Petit Palais, Paris