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

James Tissot, Partie Carrée (detail), 1870, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Canada. Wikimedia Commons.

Artists' Stories

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

This title might be a little controversial. In fact, critics find the term demi-mondaine 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…

Demi-mondaine by Dumas

demi mondaine; perfect women in james tissot's paintings, James Tissot, The Traveller (The Braidsmaid), 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 demi-mondaine 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

demi mondaine: perfect women in james tissot's paintings, James Tissot, A Political Lady (A Woman of Ambition)
James Tissot, A Political Lady (A Woman of Ambition), 1885, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, USA. Wikipedia.

A woman who chose to life 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 demi-mondaine

perfect women in james tissot's paintings, James Tissot, Spring, c.1878 demi mondaine
James Tissot, Spring, c.1878, Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, USA. Bonjour Paris.

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

The series

perfect women in james tissot's paintings, James Tissot, The Letter, demi mondaine
James Tissot, The Letter, 1878, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Canada. Wikipedia.

Tissot exhibited a series of fifteen 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 eleven-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

James Tissot, The Circus Lover (Les femmes de sport); demi mondaine
James Tissot, The Circus Lover (Les femmes de sport), 1885, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts, USA. Wikimedia Commons.

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 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.

Mesmerized by the beautiful fashion in Tissot’s paintings? You might enjoy:

Magda, art historian and Italianist, she writes about art because she cannot make it herself. She loves committed and political artists like Ai Weiwei or the Futurists; like Joseph Beuys she believes that art can change us and we can change the world.


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