Artist Stories

A Perfect World of Perfect Women in James Tissot’s Paintings

Magda Michalska 15 October 2021 min Read

This title might be a little controversial. In fact, critics find the term demimondaine to be more accurate when describing Tissot’s series of paintings of women called La Femme à Paris. This is because the “perfect” women in James Tissot’s paintings were not so perfect for their contemporaries…

Demimondaine by Dumas

demimondaine: James Tissot, The Traveller (The Bridesmaid), 1885, The Leeds Museums and Gallery, Leeds, UK.
James Tissot, The Traveller (The Bridesmaid), 1885, The Leeds Museums and Gallery, Leeds, UK.

What does the term demimondaine mean at all? In French it means “half-world”, a term, as you can imagine, closely linked to the world of prostitution. The term was first used by Alexander Dumas in his play Le Demi-Monde (1885). To elite men, it described the world of exquisite courtesans. However, the adjective quickly entered the daily vocabulary to describe women who moved in elite circles. It also applied to women who had a social standing high enough to defy the convention and enjoy a hedonistic lifestyle.

Disliked by Perfect Women

demimondaine: James Tissot, A Political Lady (A Woman of Ambition), 1885, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY, USA.
James Tissot, A Political Lady (A Woman of Ambition), 1885, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY, USA.

A woman who chose to live her live to the fullest was lost in the eyes of her contemporaries. Her social class rejected her, hence the term déclassée. Consequently, such a woman soon became isolated from other women, those who lived a more “traditional” lifestyle as wives.

Famous Demimondaine

demimondaine: James Tissot, Spring, c.1878, Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH, USA.
James Tissot, Spring, c.1878, Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH, USA. Bonjour Paris.

Demimonde women became one of the characteristics of the historical Belle Epoque, which lasted from 1871 until World War I. Two famous demimondaine that you can read about in our magazine are Sarah Bernhardt and Virginia Oldoini.

The Series

demimondaine: James Tissot, The Letter, 1878, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Canada.
James Tissot, The Letter, 1878, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Canada.

Tissot exhibited a series of 15 large-scale paintings called La Femme à Paris (The Parisian Woman), which he had created between 1883 and 1885. This exhibition took place on his return to Paris after an 11-year stay in London. Among the 15 works shown were The Bridesmaid, The Political Lady, and The Circus Lover (shown below). The circus portrayed is Molier Circus in Paris. Here, members of the aristocracy could demonstrate their amateur skills. The man on the trapeze in the centre is the French noble Duc de la Rochefoucauld. According to his contemporaries, he had “the biceps of Hercules.”

The Flop

demimondaine: James Tissot, The Circus Lover (Les femmes de sport), 1885, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA, USA.
James Tissot, The Circus Lover (Les femmes de sport), 1885, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA, USA.

Each of the paintings in the series was meant to have a short-story or an essay associated with it, written by a Parisian author. However, only a few of the authors seem to have responded to the invitations sent out by Tissot’s friend, the novelist Alphonse Daudet. Sadly, the critics did not praise the “perfect women” in James Tissot’s paintings. They found them awkward, looking like “gracious puppets”; others complained that they always depicted “the same Englishwoman.” This referred to their resemblance to Kathleen Newton, Tissot’s lover who had died of tuberculosis. Thus the project with which Tissot intended to re-establish himself in Paris turned out to be a flop.

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