Thursday, August 4, 2011

Tissot’s Passing Storm

Since we were looking at moon and candle light yesterday, I thought we might move on to that interesting light that occurs just before a storm breaks.
A Passing Storm was painted by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (1836-1902).  He was a French painter who spent much of his life in Britain.  Like many artists of his generation he studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, exhibiting in the Paris Salon.  Like James Abbott McNeill Whistler (who was also a friend), Tissot became enamored of Japanese objects and costumes, and incorporated them for some time into his work.  (When Degas painted his portrait of Tissot, he depicted him near a Japanese screen.)
Tissot left France following the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, settling in London.  His painting evolved further, and Tissot spent the next several years depicting beautifully dressed society women. 
Though never really an Impressionist (his brushwork and drawing ability were too precise for that categorization), Tissot had many ties to the Impressionist community.  He stayed in London until 1882 when his lover, Mrs. Kathleen Newton, died of consumption.
Like many people who lose a loved-one, Tissot reacted by becoming more interested in faith.  He spent much of the remainder of his career painting religious pictures – one of which, What Christ Saw From the Cross, is a masterpiece of foreshortening.  However, I have never cultivated a taste for his religious work: like many born-agains, Tissot’s religious vision is cloudy and somewhat ossified.
Tissot painted several pictures where the action takes place in front of windows.  It was his signature device, and a very effective one, too, as his control of light was remarkable.  (Looking at many of these pictures at once the viewer can see the same windows, and sometimes the same costumes on the models, used to differing effects.)
A Passing Storm was painted around 1876.  The title is a clever joke on Tissot’s part: in the background, storm clouds gather while in the foreground, young lovers have obviously just quarreled.
Let’s look at the figures first.  The man in the painting stands on the terrace separated from his lover, brooding.  (One might say that his face has clouded over.)  She lies inside on the divan and though her body assumes the attitude of one who has recently been upset, look at her face.  She clearly is enjoying her power to manipulate him – in fact, she is happy to let him stew.
But of particular interest is that special brown-gray quality light has just before a storm.  There are patches of bright, cool light cutting through darker, muddier illumination.   Tissot manages to capture the quality of “glare” from the water, as a result of moisture in the air, and one can almost feel the cool rain about to come.  Think of the onset of storms you have witnessed yourself, and remember that quality of light.  Has not Tissot managed to capture it with is brush?
Tissot managed to create a picture that not only dazzles with his control of light and color, but matches the exterior atmosphere with the emotions of his subjects.  We have much to learn from him.

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