“On the Thames” (ca. 1876) is among the masterworks in “James Tissot: Fashion & Faith” at the Legion of Honor. (Courtesy Hepworth Wakefield Museum/Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Resplendent James Tissot works at Legion of Honor

‘Fashion & Faith’ covers 19th century painter’s illustrious career

By Lawrence Helman

On view at the Legion of Honor through February, “James Tissot: Fashion & Faith,” a retrospective showcasing the 19th century French artist whose contemporaries included Claude Monet and Édouard Manet, is a gift to the Bay Area and not to be missed.

Organized by curators Melissa Buron of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Paul Perrin and Marine Kisiel of the Musées d’Orsay et de l’Orangerie in Paris (the show’s site from March-July 2020) and Cyrille Sciama of Musée des impressionnismes in Giverny, it’s the first major exhibition of the artist’s works in two decades and the first on the West Coast.

Though Tissot (1836-1902) was vastly celebrated during his lifetime, he is lesser known today than many of his peers, such as Edgar Degas, with whom he had a long association.

Around 1863, he shifted focus from a medieval style to painting modern life in portraits, earning both critical acclaim and commercial success.

His attention to detail with adept and controlled brushwork technique is palpable, particularly his depictions of elaborately ruffled skirts, intricate wallpaper designs, upholstery fabric and caning weaving in furniture.

On resplendent display in lower level galleries are nearly 70 paintings, most quite large (and many from San Francisco collections), in addition to drawings, prints, photographs and cloisonné enamels,

The works are arranged thematically, in categories including paintings of his family and women of high society (created while he resided in London for a decade) and works reflecting his interest in decorative objects from Japan. The exhibit’s last gallery offers an absorbing collection of watercolors illustrating the New Testament of the Bible, which are on loan from the Brooklyn Museum and the Jewish Museum, New York.

Tissot, who made three trips to the Holy Land, produced hundreds of such works later in his career. Popular during his lifetime, they became known as “Tissot Bible,” and went on to influence filmmakers from D. W. Griffith in 1916’s “Intolerance” to Steven Spielberg’s 1981 “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

Tissot paintings depicting French aristocratic women were the inspiration for the lush costume design in Martin Scorsese’s 1993 “The Age of Innocence.” Four Tissot paintings are in the movie, including 1873’s “Too Early,” also in this exhibition.

“La Femme à Paris: The Bridesmaid” (1883-85) exemplifies Tissot’s practice of painting fashionable women. (Courtesy Leeds Museums and Galleries/Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Other standouts include: “La Femme à Paris: The Bridesmaid” (1883-85), a woman dressed in lavender at the center of an elaborate street scene, and “On the Thames” (1876), a somewhat suggestive jaunt in which two women and a man recline on a boat, next to bottles of Champagne. In the background, the crowded river replete with ships spewing smoke exemplifies Tissot’s adroit technique in creating a haze to depict polluted air.

Most mesmerizing is “The Japanese Scroll” (1872-73), an image of a young woman on an upholstered couch viewing a Japanese scroll, with a lush garden in the background.

IF YOU GO

James Tissot: Fashion & Faith

Where: Legion of Honor, Lincoln Park, 100 34th Ave., S.F.

When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; through Feb. 9

Admission: $13 (ages 6-17); $19 (students); $25 (65 and older); $28 (general)

Contact: (415) 750-3600, (888) 901-6645, www.famsf.org

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