Les Demoiselles de Province is a striking example of the painterly talent and subtle humour that gained James Tissot international renown and popularity for his modern life compositions. It has remained unseen for over a century, known only from contemporary descriptions and a photograph in Tissot’s record albums.
Born Jacques Joseph Tissot in Nantes, northwest France, the artist was an enthusiast for all things English and styled himself James by 1855, when he went to study in Paris. He had considerable artistic talent and rapidly became successful, selling work from at least 1857, exhibiting at the Paris Salon from 1859, and having a large painting bought by the French state in 1860 – a rare accolade for an emerging artist. Most of his early compositions emulated the ‘primitive’ style of the German Nazarene painters and British Pre-Raphaelites, as well as the historical pictures of the Belgian Henri Leys (1850-69). In 1863 Tissot exhibited two stunning modern life paintings, and went on to establish himself as a foremost painter of contemporary Parisians, especially women. In the late 1860s he conceived a series of compositions focusing on women’s daily lives, from widowhood to flirtation, boredom in the countryside to belle of the ballroom, theatre to confessional. Some of these he worked up into paintings, such as Une Veuve, 1868 (fig. 1, sold in these Rooms, 12 June 1992, lot 116), which were snapped up by American collectors. Following a decade in London, Tissot revisited his earlier idea upon returning to Paris, and painted a series of ‘Parisian Women’ (1883-85), one of which was our picture, Les Demoiselles de Province.
Standing in the corner of a ballroom is an elderly gentleman with three young women, his daughters, all in evening dress. Musicians on the distant podium are not yet ready, and it is clear these guests have arrived before others. Their discomfiture and uncertainty are palpable, and would have been well understood by Tissot, who was himself, as Cyrille Sciama has pointed out, a 'provincial' in Paris and an 'outsider' in England. Papa holds his hat, and looks a little overwhelmed and bemused. One daughter, in white, hangs on tightly to his arm while trying to look confident, with head erect. Another, in pink, appears more self-assured, holding in her left hand an invitingly open fan. The tallest of the three, in blue, holds her fan closed and looks directly at us with a faint smile, perhaps relieved to see more arrivals, or someone she has been waiting for. Her long neck is emphasised by a blue choker matching her hair ornament, fan, and filmy tulle gown. The pink and white dresses have fashionably long ‘cuirass’ bodices, emphasising waist and hips. Tissot delights in the detail of seams, tucks and fabric; the pink bodice’s decorative lacing leads down to a ‘fishtail’ of pleated muslin and rustling silk, while buttons trim the white’s front. So detailed does the costume seem that one might think it painted with a tiny brush, yet closer viewing reveals bravura impressionistic brushwork, not only in the swathes of fabric but also in the plants and mirrors. Tissot cultivated exotic hothouse plants, and the deftly painted array here includes geraniums, orchids and palms. A wall mirror behind the group reflects and multiplies the ballroom’s mirrored walls and banners, with flags on the left secured by a gilded figure holding cornucopias, and swags of French banners above carrying heraldic and sculptural medallions.
Tissot returned to the subject of one of his most acclaimed London works, Too Early (fig. 2, Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London), which had caused a great sensation when exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1873. Reprising in mirror image the central group of figures, Tissot updates their costumes and sets them in an opulent French ballroom rather than an understated Adam interior. Both have an expanse of polished parquet inviting dance, and orchestra members getting ready to play. A glimpse of servant girls peeking through a doorway adds a humorous touch in Too Early, while a complete comic scene plays out in the background of Les Demoiselles de Province: the orchestra’s elderly cellist has dropped his music, and a colleague is delving beneath the stage to retrieve it, assisted by a violinist. This deft little gem demonstrates Tissot’s remarkable painting skills, as well as his acute observation of human behaviour, and love for performing arts. Near the musicians sits a black cat, one of the many felines that can be seen strolling, stretching or sleeping in Tissot’s paintings. The overall composition is tightened, with a focus on the key protagonists, as seen in other canvases of the Femme à Paris series. This included L’Ambitieuse (Political Woman) (fig. 3, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo); Ces Dames des Chars (The Ladies of the Cars) (fig. 4, Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence); Sans Dot (Without Dowry) (sold Sotheby’s, New York, 31 October 2000, lot 133); La Plus Jolie Femme de Paris (The Fashionable Beauty) (private collection); La Mondaine (The Woman of Fashion) (formerly Tanenbaum Collection, Toronto); La Demoiselle d’Honneur (The Bridesmaid) (Leeds Museums and Galleries); Les Femmes d’Artiste (Painters and their Wives) (Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, Virginia); Les Femmes de Sport (The Amateur Circus) (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston); La Demoiselle de Magasin (The ‘Young Lady’ of the Shop) (Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto); and five currently unlocated canvases – La Mysterieuse (The Mystery), L’Acrobate (The Tight-Rope Dancer), La Menteuse (The Gossip), Le Sphinx (The Sphinx) and Musique sacrée (Sacred Music).
Accompanying the London exhibition at Tooth’s in 1886 was a descriptive catalogue. Political Woman, her dress 'a marvel of the dressmaker’s art,' has 'made what she believes to be a fair exchange of her beauty against her white-haired husband’s position.' If not a Minister 'he will be so one of these days' through her management of political salons. Provincial Woman leaves Paris for 'the salon of some prefecture, say at Caen or at Dijon… when M. le Préfet is giving a ball. If the invitations were at 9 o’clock, why not come at 9 o’clock? So, at least, thought M. Prud’homme and his three daughters.' Papa 'is simply lost in open-mouthed admiration; while his daughters, in home-made dresses… a little distressed at being the first arrivals are still sympathetically supporting him in his astonished survey of the gilding and the mirrors.' Gowns were updated at home through addition of new decorations and the profusion of fabric flowers is the give-away here. The Times critic thought the painting 'a very amusing rendering of a scene that is common enough in actual life' and thought the group' well worth seeing,' with 'all the elements of a popular success'.
Tissot’s plan was to produce etchings for La Femme à Paris that would be published with stories created by contemporary French writers. Such etchings could be exhibited and sold more widely, at more accessible prices, than paintings. The latter were exhibited in Spring 1885, at the plush new Galerie Sedelmeyer in Paris, to generate subscriptions for the proposed etchings, as was common practice. A reviewer for the New York Times set out Tissot’s publication plans: there would be fifteen etchings accompanied by texts, of which five-hundred copies would be printed; the images and stories would be divided into three groups of five; the third group, scheduled to appear in December 1886, would 'give the ‘Demoiselles de Province’ to Guy de Maupassant, who will therein find a royal opportunity for a good novelette. ... The hesitating, yet proud papa, with his big hands, unhappy in their white kid restraint, is inimitable. The three girls standing near … seem to wait for some Prince Charmant.' Guy de Maupassant (1850-93) is considered the greatest French writer of short stories, many of which explore fashionable life in Paris. But Tissot’s project never came to fruition, as his energies became directed into illustrating the life of Christ after a visit to the Holy Land. He created etchings for only five of the ‘Parisian Women’, including L’Ambitieuse and Ces Dames des Chars but not Les Demoiselles de Province. However, a small version of the latter in pastel en grisaille (sold Sotheby’s, New York, 24 April 2003, lot 6) was probably made in preparation for the etching. A study of heads (sold in these Rooms, 8 June 2000, lot 17) appears to be a supplementary work for sale rather than a preparatory sketch.
We are grateful to Krystyna Matyjaszkiewicz and Cyrille Sciama for their help in providing this catalogue entry.