James Tissot was one of ‘the artistic set of artists’, including Edward Burne-Jones and James Whistler, invited by Sir Coutts Lindsay to display work at London’s new Grosvenor Gallery, opened in May 1877 as an alternative exhibition space to the Royal Academy. ‘Rightly or wrongly, those who have the control of the annual exhibitions at Burlington House have conceived it to be part of their duty to the public to conform in some measure to a popular standard of taste’, the Pall Mall Gazette stated in August 1876. ‘In the new gallery the more serious kinds of art are to enjoy precedence.’ Invited artists were able to choose what works they would exhibit, without having to submit them to a selection committee. They were also given space to display their works together, instead of mixed among others and dispersed across several rooms. Burne-Jones had not exhibited much in public since 1870 and his pictures filled the south wall of the large West Gallery. Tissot’s work occupied ‘nearly the whole of one long wall’ in the East Gallery and comprised ten paintings, one over a decade old but the rest of them recent, and including a large new showpiece made specifically for the exhibition. The Challenge was described by Tissot as the first of a ‘Poem in five parts’ entitled The Triumph of Will. Ruskin, who praised Tissot’s ‘conscientiousness’ but thought most of his Grosvenor Gallery exhibits ‘unhappily, mere colored photographs of vulgar [ordinary] society’, preferred what he mis-titled the ‘Strength of Will’. It made him ‘think the painter capable, if he would obey his graver thoughts, of doing much that would, with real benefit, occupy the attention of that part of the French and English public whose fancy is at present caught only by Gustave Doré.’ Both national and regional newspaper correspondents described the painting in detail:
''The Will' is represented by a noble figure of a woman in armor,' reported the Ipswich Journal, 'who is attended by two pages, 'Audacity (active), and Silence (passive),' by whose aid she triumphs over vice and temptation. In this picture the armed lady stands with drawn sword over a prostrate figure, which is a marvel of high-wrought conception and masterly execution. The upper part of the form is that of an exquisitely beautiful maiden, in whose expression is represented the refined and highly-wrought luxury of the senses, and the lower portion of the figure is that of a lithe, beautiful, terrible leopard. It is over this wonderfully allegorical creature that the lady in armor, 'The Will,' triumphs. It is an extraordinary work, and will be the talk of the season.' In The Times, Tom Taylor referred to 'the severe symbolism of The Triumph of Will, in which, behind a knotted brood of coiling pythons and vipers – types of human vices and passions, Will, typified by a fair woman with pale cheeks, delicate features, and calmly-resolute blue eyes, strides triumphant, armed, and sword in hand over the vanquished monster… which symbolizes the temptation of carnal lusts'.
Moral tales and the dilemmas of conscience had been themes of Tissot’s paintings in the 1860s, especially ones focused on the female heroine, Marguerite, in Goethe’s tale, and Gounod’s opera, Faust. One of these pictures was shown by Tissot at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877 as Meditation and bought from the exhibition by Sir Richard Wallace. The Challenge refers back to a painting by J.-A.-D. Ingres, Angelica saved by Ruggiero (Paris, Musée du Louvre, fig. 1), which both Tissot and Whistler copied as students in 1857 (the occasion of their first meeting), and which their friend, Edgar Degas, had also copied, and would own as both replica and pencil study. Its helpless young female, and knight in shining armour riding to the rescue, were much admired. Subverting this gender arrangement, Tissot presents a female, Joan-of-Arc-type heroine, wearing blackened armor with a fleur-de-lys (symbolic of France) on her breastplate. Her long reddish-gold hair flows loose from a coral-red garter or girdle ‘trophy’ tied round her head. Draped over her hips is a wolfskin (symbolic of sheep in wolf’s clothing); on her left arm is a red shield decorated with thunderbolts; grasped in her right hand is a sword. The prone ‘monster’ has long blonde hair, entwined with ropes of pearls, like Ruggiero’s Angelica in the painting by Ingres. Ingres had been inspired by Ariosto’s 16th-century poem Orlando Furioso, which recounts the love of several Christian and pagan knights for Angelica, who marries a Moor, causing Orlando (Ruggiero) to become mad with jealousy. Might there have been an autobiographical element to Tissot’s scarlet-shawled temptress, with sharp claws, and black neckband lettered ‘Luxuria’, meaning extravagance, opulence, excess and dissipation? Blue-eyed ‘Will’, with blonde fringe, bears a strong resemblance to Mrs Kathleen Newton, who first modeled for Tissot in autumn 1876 and with whom the artist fell deeply in love. ‘Will’ appears to have triumphed without shedding any blood, perhaps dazzling the enemy with her shield (like Ruggiero the sea-monster), or outwitting like Oedipus the Sphinx (similarly half-human half-feline), which threw itself from rocks. Symbolic of previous victims is the skull that the serpents of Vice entwine. Yet this is only the first skirmish – The Challenge – with Temptation, Rescue, Victory and Reward yet to come.
‘Will’ is well grounded, her unshod right foot firmly planted. Her leg armor is the type worn on horseback and reveals coral-red leggings. Over a matching garment with snakeskin-like sleeves, she wears what looks like theatrical armor, combining historical with imitation parts. Red-leather buckle fastenings enable donning and removal of armor, and are visible also on the back of the cuirass hanging as part of Will’s trophy, top left, perhaps taken from Temptation. The trophy also has an animal pelt and sword, plus oriental-patterned scarf or belt winding to the ground. A half-hidden motto, wreathed in laurel, declares ‘Noscere, Audere, Volle, Tacere’ (To Know, To Dare, To Will, To Keep Silent). These are the ‘Four Powers of the Magus’, attributes needed to practice magic successfully, or the ‘Four Powers of the Sphinx’, indispensable for bringing one to the state of perfection and balance symbolized by the mythical, enigmatic Sphinx. Tissot would later title the portrait of a woman who had rejected him The Sphinx. ‘Silence’ or Reserve, with mouth wrapped, carries the helm of ‘Will’, which also has a fleur-de-lys and is covered with a lambrequin popular with French medieval jousters. ‘Audacity’ or Daring, the second page, has a red tunic with billowing ribbon-cut sleeves, used in Tissot’s 1862 Return of the Prodigal Son and painted from memory or an old studio prop. Another favorite prop, Tissot’s tiger-skin rug – usually found on the studio floor or draped over an armchair – is here worn as a hooded cloak by ‘Audacity’. The pages may have been modeled by the local teenage girls who appear in several of Tissot’s modern-life pictures, with addition of youthful moustache for ‘Audacity’. (Suggestions that this model was Kathleen’s son, Cecil George, are unfounded since he was only one year old when the painting was completed.) In a watercolor study (fig. 2), the right arm of ‘Audacity’ is extended to hold the trophy staff.
So much red in a painting was unusual for Tissot at this time. Most of his London works explored ‘particular effects of light and shade’, whereas here, noted the Pall Mall Gazette, was ‘an unsuspected force in the choice and arrangement of brilliant tints of color’. Intending to create an impact, the painting divided critics, some of whom thought Tissot’s imaginative talents incapable of complicated allegory. It is unclear whether Tissot had originally intended to show the whole series, or more than one, and whether he completed them. Canvases the same size as The Challenge, unusually large for Tissot, were used in 1877-78 to portray Kathleen as October (Montreal Museum of Fine Arts) and in Orphan (Andrew Lloyd Webber Collection). Critics had acknowledged that Tissot’s strength lay in depiction of the contemporary world and it was here that he explored ‘novel ways’ to depict moral tales, most notably The Prodigal Son in Modern Life. At the same time he developed ideas from The Challenge in three-dimensional form through sculpting in wax for bronze casting. A complex allegorical Fortune (Paris, Musée des arts decoratifs) and several other bronze pieces with cloisonné enamel decoration were included by Tissot in his 1882 one-man exhibition at London’s Dudley Gallery. Two large oval jardinières (Paris, Musée d’Orsay, and Brighton Art Gallery and Museums) have handles formed of crouching nudes, covered partly by their long tresses of hair and kneeling on horned monster heads. Tentacle-like ferns clasp rock-crystal feet. The bases for two cloisonné vases are formed of twisted bronze serpents. Numerous serpents curl and writhe above and below the orb of Time in Fortune. The winged deity, seated on a rock-crystal Earth, raises her blindfold. Below Time is Patience, personified by a tortoise, on either side of which are Love, a winged Cupid, and Ambition, cloaked in the favorite tiger-skin rug. A motto, Tout vient à point pour qui sait attendre, is inscribed round the base, with translations in German, Russian, Hebrew, Arabic, Latin and English – Wait and Win. Decorative patterns like those on the serpents in The Challenge are rendered in multiple variations of colored cloisonné enamel on the orb of Time and the tortoise shell. Fortune was described by Tissot as a model for a fountain or monument that he wanted to realize on a large scale with figures of life size – an even more ambitious idea than the Triumph of Will but similarly overtaken by new projects.
We are grateful to Krystyna Matyjaskiewicz for preparing this catalogue entry.
Please note that the present work has been requested for the exhibition James Tissot, 1836-1902, co-organized by The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the Musées d'Orsay et de l'Orangerie to be presented in 2019 and 2020.
(fig. 1): Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Roger délivrant Angélique, 1819. Musée du Louvre, Paris.
(fig. 2): James Tissot, Study for Triumph of the Will: The Challenge, c. 1876.