A Theatrical Evening at Prince Napoléon's House
indistinctly signed 'Tissot' (lower right) and inscribed 'Une soirée theatral chz/le Pce Napoleon/Ave de Veuves' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas laid down on panel
17 x 25 in. (43.2 x 63.5 cm.)
Private French Collection.
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Named Jacques Joseph Tissot at his birth in Nantes, north-west France, in 1836, he was called James by the time of his registration in 1847 at a Jesuit college in Flanders, and thenceforward was known as James Tissot, though he continued to use the double initials ‘J J’ for many of his signatures on artworks, as here. Tissot arrived in Paris to study art in 1856 and first had works accepted for exhibition at the Paris Salon in 1859. His early sale successes were portraits and historical-dress compositions. From 1863 he focused on the painting of modern life besides continuing portrait commissions.

The inscription on this painting’s backboard identifies the depicted subject as a theatrical evening at Prince Napoleon’s [Parisian] house in the ‘avenue des Veuves’. Tree-lined and shady, the Avenue or Allée des Veuves [of Widows] was so called because widows came there to promenade out of the public eye. It had previously been called Allée des Soupirs [of Sighs], and in 1850 was renamed Avenue Montaigne. Running south-east from the Place de l’Étoile to the river Seine, the Avenue Montaigne is today renowned for couture fashion houses. In the early 19th century it was a deserted area, where a temporary pavilion was built to house Fine Art for the 1855 Exposition Universelle. Prince Napoléon was closely involved in the Exposition as President of the organising Imperial Commission. He decided to have a Pompeian-style house built on part of the site, at 18 avenue Montaigne, where he hosted theatrical and literary evenings for select guests from 1860 to early 1865.

Napoléon-Joseph-Charles-Paul Bonaparte (1822-1891), known as Prince Napoléon, or by his nickname Plon-Plon, was the younger son of Jérome Bonaparte and nephew of Napoleon I. His early years were spent in Rome then Florence, Jérome and his family being exiled in Italy. Training at a military academy was followed by travel in Europe. Prince Napoléon developed a great interest in the arts, sciences, and modern social and economic ideas. He amassed important collections rich in Greek and Roman antiquities, as well as including French paintings. The idea of building a Pompeian-style house was inspired by one of his mistresses, the actress Rachel, known for playing roles in Classical tragedies. She died in 1858, before the house was completed. After Prince Napoléon’s marriage in 1859 to Princess Clotilde, he lived with his wife at the Palais-Royale but entertained guests from his literary, artistic and scientific circles, as well as a succession of mistresses, at the Avenue Montaigne house. Its Pompeian atrium and Classical aspirations were famously captured by the artist Gustave Boulanger in a painting commissioned by Prince Napoléon (and bequeathed to the Louvre by Prince Napoléon’s sister, Princesse Mathilde), Répetition du ‘Jouer de flûte’ et de ‘La Femme de Diomède’ chez le prince Napoléon (1861, Musée d’Orsay, Paris).

The setting in Tissot’s painting is not the Atrium but the adjacent Library (Bibliothèque), which had a narrow gallery supported along the room’s length by slender columns, as seen in the painting’s background. Tissot was likely working from memory, as the gallery and columns in his oil are slightly different to those in photographs of the Library taken in 1865 and later. A backdrop may have covered the end wall for the performance, and Japanese and Chinese-style lanterns have been hung from the ceiling. They may be part of decorations for the performance, along with the round shield, sword and gauntlet visible on the gallery railings, which are likewise not present in photographs of the Library as fitted out by 1865.

Prince Napoléon had his portrait painted in 1860 by Hippolyte Flandrin (1809-1864), in whose studio Tissot was a pupil in 1857-9. It may have been through Flandrin, or mutual acquaintances in literary and dramatic circles, that Tissot was invited to a theatrical evening at Prince Napoléon’s house, which he subsequently captured on canvas. The painting is a private work, perhaps a commission (although not listed in his notebook of sales), and does not have the finish Tissot gave to oils intended for exhibition and sale to art dealers. Figures on the left are only sketched in outline. Their fluid brushstrokes reveal the facility with which Tissot caught poses, expressions, clothing, and gestures. His usual technique was to sketch figures and setting in thin brown paint onto a canvas or panel prepared with overall tone, then to work in colour, as seen here and for example in his Self-portrait, c.1865 (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco), or a Study of Kathleen Newton, c.1879 (Fondation Custodia / Collection Frits Lugt, Paris). Highlights have been added in scribbles and dashes of thicker paint. Bright, pigment-rich colours, with little added thinner, have the visual quality here of oil pastel, especially in the blue-clad dancer. There is Tissot’s characteristic interest in, and detailed knowledge of, male and female dress, hairstyles, and comportment. Similar figures appear in his later depictions of society evenings, such as Hush! (1874, Manchester Art Gallery) and Too Early (1873, Guildhall Art Gallery, London), Evening (1878, Musée d’Orsay, Paris) and Political Woman (1883-5, Albright Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo).

The Pompeian-style house had been inaugurated in February 1860 with a lavish reception for 200 guests, headed by Prince Napoléon’s cousin, Emperor Napoleon III, and Empress Eugénie. The cousins differed greatly in their political views: Prince Napoléon was a supporter of liberty, and they clashed frequently. Despite siding with the Emperor rather than her younger brother, Princesse Mathilde Bonaparte (1820-1904) was a frequent guest at Prince Napoléon’s social evenings. She may be the woman in profile on the far left of Tissot’s painting. Other figures may also be identifiable, though none of the men closely resemble Prince Napoléon. Dating of the theatrical evening can be conjectured from the women’s hairstyles and gowns. Their severe centre partings, with hair drawn back to reveal ears and large drop earrings, and gathered in understated low chignons, were fashionable around 1860-1. Full sleeves and boat-shaped necklines to evening gowns date from the early 1860s. The event is therefore likely to have taken place about 1860-1 but might have been painted a year or two later. Inclusion of Japanese-inspired costumes for two of the actors would have been topical for a performance in 1860-2, and their fudged detail suggests they were painted before Tissot had acquired a good knowledge of authentic items through his collecting of Japonaiserie. It could not be later than early 1865, as in May that year Prince Napoléon gave a speech in which he championed liberty, condemned the Pope’s temporal powers, and praised the United States, so enraging Napoleon III that he rebuked his cousin publicly, and Prince Napoléon had to leave Paris immediately for his country residence. In early 1866 he sold the Pompeian house, and in 1891 it was demolished.

Performing to the invited audience in Tissot’s painting are dancers and actors in the roles of stock Commedia dell’Arte characters. Centre left is Harlequin, wearing his signature multi-coloured, diamond-patterned costume and black mask. Beside him is Columbine, with makeup and powdered hair but no mask, and dressed in a pale-blue tutu decorated with black ribbon. Standing near them, in greatcoat and bicorne hat with a military drum at his feet, is the cowardly braggart Captain, wearing a mask with exaggerated large nose. To his right sits a figure in green and red kimono-type costume and the mask of old blind sage Tartaglia, beside whom is someone in bright-red clothing and Japanese-inspired hairdo. Behind them is a person dressed as the goddess Athene or Minerva, with red-crested helmet and sword, a character probably included in honour of Prince Napoléon’s collecting interests and the Pompeian-house setting. While Tissot’s friend, Edgar Degas, would later depict many theatrical scenes and dancers (including Harlequin and Columbine), these are not subjects that Tissot took up much in other works. However, in 1867-8 he painted a series of single actors (comédiens) in various roles and costumes, one of whom has a pierrot-style outfit and stands near a military drum.

We are grateful to Krystyna Matyjaszkiewicz for confirming the attribution and for her assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.

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