We see people at a picnic by a pond. Partly eaten food and empty bottles lie on the cloth, a woman pours carefully from a small silver jug into a man’s cup; he lies on his side, relaxing. Other people sit or stand around. There is a sense of contentment – they are enjoying a sunlit day, in a garden made colorful by the leaves of fall. Light floods the painting and the interplay of light and shadow makes the scene come alive.
James Tissot painted this picnic scene, using the grounds of his home in London as the backdrop. He lived there after he arrived in London, looking for a place that was safer than occupied Paris after the Franco-Prussian war. The scene he painted shows other people, but the backdrop tells us something about him.
We can see that he was financially successful, a result both of his considerable skills and his ability to appeal to people whose wealth was based on their success in commerce and trade. Interestingly, his work was not always popular with critics, who considered it too photographic and his subjects too “common”.
But what we see here does not tell the whole story. To our eyes he looks successful, conventional. And yet he chose to do something considered unacceptable at the time; he chose to live openly in his home with his mistress, even though this meant that he would find himself shut out of the company of all but a small group of friends.
It is, in the end, a scene that conceals as much as it reveals about the artist.
You can learn more about Tissot at jamestissot.org.