The Gallery of H.M.S. Calcutta, by James Tissot (c. 1876)

Written by Jan Baetens

Last month a major retrospective of the work of the nineteenth-century French painter James Tissot (1836–1902) opened in the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco. The exhibition will travel to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris in the spring of 2020 and will undoubtedly be one of the highlights of the French cultural spring season. Working on a brief essay for the exhibition catalogue, I could revisit the work of an artist who has fascinated me for years.

Tissot is the chronicler par excellence of nineteenth-century modern life, but his work is generally allowed into the canon only reluctantly. Contrary to his avant-garde artist friends, Tissot maintained a decidedly academic style throughout his career. As a result, he has often been rejected as an unadventurous and commercial painter. Regardless of Tissot’s style, however (which is brilliant in its own way), his scenes of everyday
bourgeois life are often extremely clever. They excel in subtle psychology,
social satire and a sharp sense of humour.

A point in case is The Gallery of H.M.S. Calcutta. The painting depicts a young naval officer and two women on the stern balcony of a navy training ship, entangled in what appears to be a love triangle. The woman on the right hides her face, and thus her left ear, behind a fan, possibly asking the young man, in Victorian fan language, not to betray her secret. The shadow on the window panes in the back of the painting, in the meantime, suggests the man’s closeness to the other woman. The conspicuous heart shapes discernible in the metal railing fencing off the balcony leave little doubt about what is going on.

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James Tissot, 1876, The Gallery of H.M.S. Calcutta

Tissot’s choice to locate his scene on this particular ship, moored in Portsmouth dockyard at the time, and to include the ship’s name in the title, can hardly be accidental. It has been suggested that he used the
name of the ship as a pun, giving an unexpected twist to the meaning of the painting. ‘Calcutta’ would then refer to the French ‘Quel cul t’as’, or ‘what an ass you have’, and would thus direct our attention not so much to the stern of the ship as to that of the woman on the right, whose languid pose and hourglass figure are echoed in the ship’s undulating forms and simultaneously mirrored by the shape of the chairs on the balcony.

The author Henry James called the painting banal and vulgar, but Tissot’s joke seems less rude once we realise that it does not just make fun of the woman but is also made at the expense of the young officer, whose mind we may be reading in the phrase ‘Quel cul t’as’, or even at the expense of
ourselves, who may have been thinking the same thing before suddenly grasping Tissot’s play on words. The joke can also be seen as a satirical comment on the excesses of contemporary fashion, for the woman is probably wearing a dress with a so-called cul de Paris, a padded undergarment designed to emphasise the back of the dress (and thus the woman’s backside). Finally, the combination of ‘Quel cul t’as’ with ‘H.M.S.’, or ‘Her Majesty’s Ship’, may even be read as a disrespectful nod to the Queen.

Tissot’s joke, whether we appreciate it or not, comes strikingly close to the pun in Marcel Duchamp’s much more famous L.H.O.O.Q. of 1919. This work is a simple photographic reproduction of the Mona Lisa to which Duchamp added a moustache and five letters. When spelled out in full, in French, the letters read as ‘elle a chaud au cul’ or ‘she has a hot ass’, the underlying suggestion being that this observation may explain the Mona Lisa’s mysterious smile.

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Marcel Duchamp, 1919, L.H.O.O.Q.

Duchamp’s iconoclast gesture questions the western art historical canon and even the very concept of art in ways that Tissot would never have thought possible – or permissible for that matter – but his pun is crude in comparison with Tissot’s more ambiguous double entendre. There are many ways in which Tissot is the more conservative artist and person of the pair, but his sense of humour seems at least as advanced and sophisticated as Duchamp’s. An unbiased reassessment of his art, made possible by the exhibitions in San Francisco and Paris, seems only fair.

Read more in:

– Nancy Rose Marshall and Malcolm Warner, James Tissot: Victorian Life/Modern Love, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1999.

– Melissa Buron (ed.), James Tissot: Fashion and Faith, exhibition catalogue, San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Franscisco and Paris: Musée d’Orsay, Munich: Prestel, 2019.

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