James Tissot, Partie Carrée (detail), 1870. Oil on canvas, 120 x 145.8 x 2 cm. Purchased 2018. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

The Frivolity of the Directoire Period: James Tissot's "Partie Carrée"

James Tissot was among the most prominent, successful and critically acclaimed artists of his generation. Celebrated for his elegant scenes of fashionable life in Paris and London, the artist has recently been the subject of a retrospective exhibition shown at the San Francisco Legion of Honor and currently at the Musée d’Orsay Paris, to which the National Gallery of Canada lent two works by the French painter.

Born Jacques Joseph Tissot in Nantes, the son of a linen draper and a milliner mother, the artist's predilection for all things English led him to change his first name to James. Around 1856 he moved to Paris to enrol at the École des Beaux-Arts, where he joined the studios of Louis Lamothe and Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin, who had trained under the Neo-classical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. From 1859 onwards Tissot exhibited in the annual Paris Salon, the most important annual exhibition for artists. Following the example of the popular Belgian painter Henri Leys, he presented genre scenes set in the Middle Ages before gradually abandoning historical fiction for modern subject matter.

James Tissot, The Letter, c.1878. Oil on canvas, 71.4 x 107.1 cm. Purchased 1964. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

The artist's genre painting Partie Carrée, acquired by the National Gallery of Canada in 2018, was among the last paintings Tissot made in Paris before leaving for England in 1871 and one of approximately seven works that recreate the atmosphere of the Directoire. Established in 1795 under a five-member Committee governing France and overthrown by Napoleon Bonaparte five years later, the Directoire period was a relief after the so-called Reign of Terror, the most violent year of the French Revolution. The new regime saw the emergence of a pseudo-aristocratic subculture, identified as the Incroyables (men) and the Merveilleuses (women), who led an extravagant, luxurious lifestyle, expressed above all in dress and behaviour.

James Tissot, Partie Carrée, 1870. Oil on canvas, 120 x 145.8 x 2 cm. Purchased 2018. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

For his painting, Tissot was possibly inspired by two publications by the brothers Edmond and Jules de Goncourt – Histoire de la société française pendant la Révolution (1854) and Histoire de la société française pendant le Directoire (1855) – that helped shape the 19th-century appraisal of that period. The artist dressed his characters in costume evoking this period. The atmosphere is deliberately awkward and comical. The contemporary critic P. de Saint-Victor saw the work at the 1870 Salon and was repelled by what he saw as the characters’ vulgarity, calling them a debauched party of servants, who appear to have robbed their master’s pantry and donned their clothes. These historic garments, which may well have been part of the artist’s wardrobe of props, are ill-fitting and dwarf the sitters. Tissot’s gregarious foursome would have indeed suggested a reversal of the social order, a kind of “play acting” that elicited laughter. The effect echoes the Goncourts’ description of the Directoire as a society upside down, of people enriched by a roll of the dice, who “went to bed as servants and woke up as lords … what was the Directoire if not a masquerade?” This sense of dislocation must also have resonated with contemporary concerns over rapid economic change and the corresponding social tensions. The jolly party raises their glasses in a republican toast, as noted by Tissot scholar Cyrille Sciama, and viewers would have understood the implied criticism of the Second Empire and the fashion-conscious court of Empress Eugénie.

The picture is not a simple critique, however: Tissot’s meticulous technique and close observation invites us to take sheer sybaritic pleasure in the attentive description of things, of surfaces and colours. Tissot’s exquisite treatment of the garments, which he rendered with obsessive detail – from the silks and gauzes, to each delicate pleat and fold – is characteristic of the artist.

James Tissot, The Japanese Scroll, 1873. Oil on canvas, 38.7 x 57.2 cm. Private collection, on loan to National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. 

Tissot’s Partie Carrée references Déjeuner sur l’herbe, the major painting by his friend Édouard Manet shown at the Salon des Refusés in 1863 as well as Claude Monet’s version, painted two years later as both an homage and a challenge to Manet. By comparison, Tissot’s picnic party drowns in their costumes, and the sexual allusions are conveyed through openly flirtatious details such as a tipsy glance, a revealing ankle, or flower pinned right next to the décolletage. 

Within Tissot’s Directoire series, The Partie Carrée occupies a prominent place as a historic genre scene with contemporary relevance. The woman on the left reappears in several other of works from the series – Young Lady with a Fan, On the River, and Young Lady in a Boat – and the Gallery owns a preparatory drawing for the latter. None of these paintings, however, have the complexity of The Partie Carrée in terms of referencing both history and art history.

James Tissot, Study for "Young Lady in a Boat", c.1869–70. Graphite on buff wove paper, 25.3 x 24.3 cm. Purchased 1976. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

The work joins two paintings by Tissot at the Gallery – The Letter (1878) and the long-term loan Woman with a Japanese Scroll (c.1872). Painted in London, The Letter differs from Partie Carrée, painted eight years earlier in Paris, by being a contemporary subject, the popular Victorian narrative of unrequited love or the end of a liaison. The acquisition enables us to link his work in France and Britain.

The exquisitely painted Partie Carrée ranks among the most refined and ambitious works from Tissot’s first Paris period and is the undoubted masterpiece of his Directoire series, embodying references to history and art history with visual intelligence, wit and humour. The three paintings will be back on view at the Gallery from this fall onward.


The works by James Tissot will be back on view at the National Gallery of Canada from fall 2020 onward. Share this article and 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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