This masterpiece of subtle color balance is the only known painting from Tissot's London period that focuses on his interest in Japanese objects.
Born in the French port city of Nantes in October 1836, and christened Jacques Joseph, Tissot went to Paris in 1856 to study art. He soon adopted the anglicised version of his name, James, and the elegant, fashionably-dressed persona of a Parisian man-about-town or boulevardier. Friends included Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet and James McNeill Whistler.
Tissot was among the most enthusiastic early buyers of Japanese art. In November 1864, Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote to his mother from Paris that he had 'bought very little - only four Japanese books' because when he had gone to the Japanese shop recommended by his brother, William, he had 'found all the costumes were being snapped up by a French artist, Tissot, who it seems is doing three Japanese pictures, which the mistress of the shop described to me as the three wonders of the world, evidently in her opinion quite throwing Whistler into the shade.' By 1869, when Japanese-collecting mania had reached such a height that shops selling 'Chinoiseries et Japonneries' had their own heading in the Paris trade directory, Tissot had an extensive and important collection installed in his grand new house on the Avenue de l'Impératrice. He displayed it in several paintings of Young Women Looking at Japanese Objects, one of which is now in the collection of the Cincinnati Museum of Art. The oriental items in this picture include a gilded lacquer-work shrine, costumed puppets, a ship model, richly embroidered textile, side table and ceramics. Another version of the subject was exhibited at the 1869 Paris Salon and Berthe Morisot commented, in a letter to her sister, 'The Tissots seem to have become quite Chinese.'
War with Prussia, the siege of Paris and the civil war of the Commune that followed, disrupted life severely during 1870-71 and opportunities for picture sales were very limited. Tissot had been offered work in London and arrived in late May or early June 1871. Initially he focused on portrait commissions but also worked on subject pictures for the thriving English picture market. The combination of his meticulous technique, and excellent sense of color and compositional balance, with observation of contemporary people and places, resulted in paintings that were hugely attractive to Victorian collectors of modern art. Tissot found that he was able to sell work as rapidly as he could paint it. Berthe Morisot, visiting Tissot with her new husband Eugéne Manet (brother of Edouard) in summer 1874, wrote to her mother that Tissot 'is very well installed, and is turning out excellent pictures. He sells for as much as 300,000 francs at a time.' By then Tissot was living in the house he had bought at 17 Grove End Road, St John's Wood, to which he had added an extension with studio and conservatory.
The Japanese Scroll is set in Tissot's London home, either 73 Springfield Road (now demolished), where he lived for a year from March 1872 to 1873, or his new Grove End Road house nearby. The forest of greenery in the St John's Wood garden, beyond the sash window, with blossoming flowers including exotic azaleas, casts a cool light into the room. The blue-and-white-striped fabric, with alternating color flower sprigs, is a type inspired by eighteenth-century examples and very fashionable at the time in France. Tissot's passion for eighteenth-century decorative arts and costume matched his interest in oriental objects, and is reflected also in the small oval table by the settee and in the embroidered yellow shawl worn by the young woman. Furniture, ceramics and glassware in Tissot's London pictures of the early 1870s show that he accumulated an array of eighteenth-century items, continuing a collecting interest he had pursued in Paris. The Japanese scrolls in this painting, and the colorful cloisonné enamel pot holding some of them unopened, indicate that Tissot also continued to pursue his love of Japanese art in London. He also had oriental ceramics, furniture, embroidered textiles, screens, masks and parasols, which appear in various paintings and prints created during his London stay. The Japanese Scroll, however, is the only known London painting to focus on a Japanese object. The colors and contours of the open scroll are painted with deft, assured strokes that suggest detail, but are actually a masterly soft-focus impression, set off by the apparent crispness of the settee-cover pattern.
The figure of the young woman would have been based on a gouache study like that of the Woman Sleeping (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) or Young Woman, Three-quarter Length (sold Christie's, London, 16 October 1981, lot 86), both of which include elements of the same costume worn by the model in The Japanese Scroll and may have been made at the same, or consecutive, sittings. The summer promenade hat reappears in both Thames-side and garden pictures, as does the yellow shawl. The figure in Woman Sleeping wears the same black dress with orange flowers and cream pleated underskirt as in the Japanese Scroll.
Tissot is masterful in using complementary and contrasting colors to great effect, and, rather appropriately, this painting had at one time the title A Question of Colour. The red blooms outside the window, set off by contrasting green, draw the eye to the red of the Japanese figure on the part of the scroll that the young woman is looking at, as do her slightly red lips. The blues of her hat-bow, the settee cover and a book-cover under the table, are subtly different shades to the blues of the scroll and draw the eye down and across, towards and along the scroll. The off-white scroll itself is a fluid, undulating line against the vertical cream stripes of the settee-fabric and the crisp pleats of the model's underskirt, set off by the bright white of her hat and fichu at her neck. Her face is in greenish shadow, the faint sunlight falling on her shawl-clad shoulder and right hand with ringed finger, and the Japanese scroll on the settee. The painting is (as some contemporary Tissots were described) 'one of those refined and highly finished pictures in which this painter has shown so rare an aptitude for mastering the character both of English physiognomy and of English landscapes', with 'more pictorial skill than the unlearned public is ever likely to appreciate'.
We are grateful to Krystyna Matyjaszkiewicz for confirming the authenticity of this work and for researching and preparing this catalogue entry.