Girl in a Conservatory dates from 1867-1869. It represents a marked shift from Tissot's earlier Faust and Marguerite pictures, which owed their inspiration to the Belgian history painter Henri Leys. Girl in a Conservatory may have been influenced by the works which Tissot saw alongside those he sent to the Salon of 1859. The Salon of 1859 was considered to be a seminal Salon. Many of the pictures exhibited that year revealed a radical break with the strictures of academic art and a mounting acceptance of everyday life as appropriate subject matter in painting. The Salon of 1859 also marked the debut of Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro.
Tissot had begun to execute paintings based on la vie moderne as early as 1863. His earliest compositions of modern life depicted elegant women and young children against the backdrop of a conservatory. Regrettably, many of these paintings have been lost and are known to us only through contemporary photographs. In the Conservatory and The Young Botanist are examples of these lost pictures. In another work, Jeune femme tenant des objects japonais (fig. 1), Tissot combines this genre with his interst in japonisme by depicting his model in Japanese dress. Other artists such as Manet also chose to pose figures in contemporary costume against a backdrop of palm trees and exotic plants (fig. 2).
Michael Wentworth writes that Girl in a Conservatory "fits comfortably into the splendid series of genre portraits [Tissot] painted at the time which are informed with modernité and the desire to portray his sitters in typical attitudes and settings" (quoted in The Frances and John L. Loeb Collection, op. cit., no. 23). The painting shows Tissot's mastery in conveying mood through the studied arrangement of compositional elements and careful choice of palette; it is a text to be deciphered. The model's stance, the clothing she wears and the accessories she carries, all convey a sense of self-confidence. She is dressed in a fashionable taupe overcoat trimmed with ribbons and fur, with a bright pink scarf around her neck that echoes the color of the flowers to her right. She clasps a book and a parasol tightly in her hand. Tissot captures her while in motion, the weight of her body stepping forward. She looks over her shoulder as if caught by surprise and acknowledges the viewer with an intelligent gaze. She is independent, self-assured and at ease in her world. It is this view of the modern woman that Tissot continued to promote well into his career.
(fig. 1) James Jacques Joseph Tissot, Jeune femme tenant des objets japonais
(fig. 2) Edouard Manet, Dans la serre, 1879
Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Nationalgalerie, Berlin