Love lost: tales of loss and despair

James Tissot, The Letter, c. 1878. Oil on canvas, 71.4 x 107.1 cm National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Photo: NGC

It is fitting that Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina and James Tissot’s painting The Letter debuted in the same year, 1878. The Russian writer’s piercing opening line, “Happy families are all alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” may come to mind upon seeing The Letter for the first time, for its narrative power comes not from happy love, but from unhappy love, which as drama is the more appealing of the two.

In The Letter, a young, elegantly dressed woman stands in an English garden. She is alone, but for a tuxedoed waiter clearing a table in the background. In her hands is a letter and, with a resigned and faraway expression on her face, she tears the paper to pieces that drop to the ground. The painting’s emotional power – hinged on that sharp moment when a love formally dies – supports a variation on Tolstoy-ian truth: Happy paintings are all alike, unhappy paintings are each unhappy in their own way, and are much the better for it.

Detail of James Tissot, The Letter, c. 1878

Fiction, on page or on canvas, is open to interpretation, but Tolstoy’s great beginning spoke to one unavoidable point about fiction: if you want to create a compulsively engaging story, avoid happiness, for it is barren of drama. And drama is what the people want. This is even true of daily life. When speaking with friends you may mention happy people briefly — “Oh, they seem so in love!” — before moving quickly onto the problems of others, because dilemma and misfortune make for drama, and drama is the more interesting narrative. In a painting, being a single scene, the drama must be especially succinct, and Tissot focuses on that moment when love dies, which might be the most dramatically compelling moment in any relationship.

Consider, by comparison, another work – Abraham Solomon’s 1854 painting First Class: The Meeting . . . And the First Meeting Loved, also in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada. A young man and woman ride in a train, she bonneted and sewing primly, he besotted and leaning in with a moony expression. 

Abraham Solomon, First Class: The Meeting ... and at First Meeting Loved, 1854. Oil on canvas, 69 x 97 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Photo: NGC

Technically, it is an accomplished painting, but there is no narrative drama to hold your attention for long. Perhaps that’s why the elderly man seated next to the woman has fallen asleep. Were that young couple at the moment of breaking up, the old boy would be wide awake and witnessing a story to chortle about later at his club, over port and cigars.

Other works in the Gallery's collection are also powered by the end-of-love moment, although none as dramatically successful as Tissot’s. Antoine-Jean Gros’ 1821 Bacchus and Ariadne shows the despair of Ariadne, comforted by the god Bacchus, as her lover Theseus abandons her and sails away, but mythological figures aren’t real humans experiencing real human emotions, so the tragic moment of failed love seems less relatable. 

Antoine-Jean Gros, Bacchus and Ariadne, c. 1821. Oil on canvas, 90.8 x 105.7 cm.; and Pierre-Paul Prud'hon, Love Seduces Innocence, Pleasure Entraps, and Remorse Follows, 1809. Oil on canvas, 98 x 81.5 x 2.5 cm. Both National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Photo: NGC

There are hints of doomed love in Pierre-Paul Prud’hon’s 1809 painting Love Seduces Innocence, Pleasure Entraps, and Remorse Follows, and they come from that sad figure of remorse, with forehead in hand, trailing on the left behind the group. What a lesser painting it would be without the harsh reality of remorse. 

Sometimes the story of broken love goes beyond compelling drama into darkness, as in Eugène Delacroix’s 1847–49 painting of Othello entering his marriage chamber and, believing his bride to have been unfaithful, murdering Desdemona.

Eugène Delacroix, Othello and Desdemona, c. 1847–49. Oil on canvas, 50.8 x 62.2 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Photo: NGC

Tissot’s take on the end of love depicts no violence nor comparable darkness. His, perhaps, was not even a moment of sadness, for that too is open to interpretation. What is clear is that the artist understood the feeling of the moment when a person knows that love is gone. The exactitude of his brush speaks to the clarity of the instant when love is dead, when everything familiar suddenly, briefly looks different, and somehow more acute. His lady looks around the garden and, though it’s surely known to her, the details are heightened – the sudden crispness of the fall air, the earthy odour of rotting foliage. Every sense is suddenly sharpened and all is seen, heard, felt in a new way, as if a multi-sensory lens has been changed.  

Detail of James Tissot, The Letter, c. 1878

As the gallery label states, Tissot has rendered "every fold and ruffle of the woman’s clothing, down to the highlighted edges of her leather gloves, with vivid and exacting precision".  That attention to precise detail is the painting’s power. The torn shreds of the letter drift from the woman’s delicately gloved hands and flutter to the grass among the dying and dead leaves. Even the season is perfect, for autumn is the season of dying, followed by rebirth. For although she is dressed in black, as if mourning the death of love, her expression shows a stolid resignation, and that beneath that finery is a core of strength. 

So much drama in one static scene, created with nothing more than the strokes of Tissot’s brush, and the artist's awareness that, indeed, unhappy couples are the better part of drama.



The works are on view in the European and American Galleries of the National Gallery of Canada. Share this article and also subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.​

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