oil on canvas
Thomas McLean, London (probably in circa 1898)
Hugo Hanak (and sold: Parke Bernet, New York, February 17, 1944, lot 53, illustrated)
Jacques Helft (acquired at the above sale)
Possibly, Weitzner Gallery, New York (in circa 1955-56)
Acquired in circa 1960
The French born, Tissot fled to London in 1871 after the fall of the Paris Commune. Free from the constraints of France's academic traditions and from the influence of artists rebelling against conventional technique, Tissot took the opportunity to explore England's history of "modern-life" painting (Malcolm Warner, "The Painter of Modern Love," James Tissot, Victorian Life-Modern Love, exh. cat., 1999, p. 11). Consequently, many of Tissot's paintings through the early 1880s depicted the social practices of British and upper-middle class societies. Compositions like The Morning Ride, in which a smartly dressed woman travels in a donkey-led carriage along a path bordered by blooming rhododendrons, were easily identifiable to his patrons, some of them wealthy industrialists who valued such moments of leisure. The popularity of these works restored Tissot's reputation and his personal fortune, allowing him a secure place in the society he painted.
After first living with friends and in rented homes, by 1874 Tissot could afford to move into the affluent London suburb of St. John's Wood, where his home on 17 (44) Grove End Road soon became known for its well-appointed interior and impressive gardens — perfect settings for fashionable parties with friends, including fellow artists George du Maurier, John Everett Millais, Albert Moore, James Abbot McNeill Whistler, Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Giuseppe de Nittis (Warner, pp. 11-3, 61).
In addition to first hand observation, Tissot's London style was informed by several generations of English artists, from the eighteenth century's William Hogarth, through the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood; their paintings employed familiar props and costumes or symbolic elements to depict specific narratives. Tissot's early London compositions, such as Too Early, in which a group of party guests huddles in an empty ballroom embarrassed by their unfashionable promptness, depict a sharp, often satirical eye toward Victorian social practices. However, unlike the intricately allegorical compositions of Millais or William Powell Frith's often didactic descriptions of social disparities, Tissot brought the perspective of an outsider to freshly interpret British subjects (Wentworth, James Tissot, p. 96). Indeed, a critic for the Illustrated London News remarked that it was "strange to say, a foreign artist—M. Tissot—sets our painters an example in choosing English subjects so characteristic that they seem to be neglected only because they are so near at hand" ("The Royal Academy Exhibition," Illustrated London News, May 25, 1872, p. 502 as quoted in Wentworth, p. 96).
While the pleasures of a day's outing in the garden setting of The Morning Ride is relatively recognizable, unlike many British genre paintings, the narrative of the scene and the relationship between the figures are more difficult to decipher. Indeed, the meaning of most of Tissot's work is elusive with compositional elements subtly suggesting a variety of interpretations. The painting's names are often of little help. Tissot suggested that his painting titles had little to no meaning, and he would often change them even after their first exhibition (Warner, p. 16). Indeed, the present work has been known by at least three different names, including its best known title The Morning Ride, the succinct Rhododendrons (reminiscent of Tissot's Chrysanthemums of circa 1875, fig. 1), and The Convalescent — the title used by Percy Bates in his 1899 volume on the Pre-Raphaelites and their "associates," and by a writer for The Athenaeum who likely referred to the present work when seeing a painting of "a lady riding through a garden full of splendid flowers" at Thomas Mclean's in 1898 (p. 445). The third title perhaps corresponds with Michael Wentworth's suggestion that Tissot takes a cue from the pre-Raphaelites in depicting the woman in a carriage as suffering from an illness (perhaps an all-consuming love sickness) but still healthy enough to enjoy the natural beauty of her surroundings on the grounds of an English spa while her male companion, perhaps a suitor, anxiously awaits her potential passing (Wentworth, p. 112). This may be a somewhat romantic or reductive interpretation, particularly when placed among Tissot's other works of "illness" of the period, such as the similarly titled A Convalescent (fig. 2), in which a woman dressed in flowing white fabric dozes peacefully beneath a shady tree wearing a wan smile as she is watched over by her elderly caretaker. According to a Royal Academy critic, the problem plaguing the lady of A Convalescent cannot be deduced by medical science but is evident in "the sentiment in the autumn landscape... [it] harmonizes with the figure, a case of lovesickness, as we infer ("Exhibition of the Royal Academy," The Graphic, May 27, 1876, vol. V, p. 532, as quoted in Nancy Rose Marshall, "Transcripts of modern life": The London Paintings of James Tissot, 1871-1882, Phd. Diss, Yale University, 1997, p. 186). Weather and the seasons were important elements of Tissot's compositions, often serving an allegorical purpose. Perhaps then, The Morning Ride's view of a sunny spring when rhododendrons are at their peak suggests a more optimistic future for the central figure, her lap blanket and fur trim likely worn to ward off the season's morning chill and not due to frail health. Interestingly, the stripped blanket or shawl has been used as a clue in dating the work as it reappears in London Visitors (1874, fig. 3) and (in different color) in Gentleman in a Railway Carriage (circa 1872). Therefore while the work has previously been dated circa 1880, (and as late as 1885 when The Morning Ride's 1944 auction was noted by Art Prices Current) it is likely of the period between 1872-1876 (Matyjaskiewicz, p. 73; Wentworth, James Tissot... Prints, p. 54, note 5; Wentworth, James Tissot, pl. 100). In his 1971 dissertation Willard Misfeldt theorized that the painting was produced slightly later in the 1870s, inviting the possibility that the woman in the carriage may be Tissot's companion Kathleen Newton, who moved into his house in 1876 and whose later illness was the subject of many of the artist's compassionate portraits in 1880-1 (Misfeldt goes on to suggest the male companion resembles the model of Uncle Fred of 1880, pp. 197-8, sold in these rooms on February 16, 1995, lot 175, illustrated). Yet another clue as to the period Tissot executed The Morning Ride is that it does not appear in the artist's photographic albums of his oeuvre, suggesting it may be included in the still missing second volume covering the years 1871-1878 (see: Willard E. Misfeldt, The Albums of James Tissot, Bowling Green, Ohio, 1982).
A common component in the considerations of The Morning Ride are its bountiful floral blooms. Some art historians have considered the garden setting of the composition a south England spa, likely due both to interpretations of the central figure's health and the vehicle in which she rides which resembles a "Bath chair." Named after the city where it was invented, by the mid nineteenth century the light carriage (which could be pushed by hand or mounted on four wheels to be drawn by a donkey or pony) was popular transport in spa resorts from Buxton to Tunbridge Wells. Yet, the Bath chair and pleasures of a carriage ride could be witnessed in many of London's parks as well. During the period following the Napoleonic wars, London entered a building boom which included an astonishing allocation of public royal space including Victoria Park, Battersea Park, and the expansive Kew Gardens, opened to the public officially as the Royal Botanic Gardens in 1841 (despite royal opposition as the Queen was fond of exercising there) with approximately seventy-five acres of pleasure grounds. Among Kew's finest features were the expansive rhododendron plantings of Joseph Hooker, garden director from 1865-85. Hooker brought more than twenty-eight new species of rhododendrons from his expeditions to the Himalayas in 1848 and 1851 and a craze for the flower soon swept through Britain. Kew Garden's Rhododendron Dell, set within an area of woodland and planted with laurels was by 1850 a popular spot to enjoy the sensory pleasures of flowers and the health benefits of fresh air and sunshine.
The carriage rider's companions on the path further suggest the pleasure of the outing. On the horizon a woman rides a donkey side-saddle, while the male figure (who may be a suitor or spa attendant) sports a colorful bloom as a casual boutonnière as he patiently props himself against the animal's saddle, switch under arm. The garden holds a healthy promise for all, from woman of leisure to working man as, according to Victorian social critics such "open spaces" were "not merely useful in maintaining the health of the population and as affording space for recreation; but they also open out new fields of industry for those who earn their living out of doors" (J. Thompson and Adolphe Smith, Street Life in London, n.p., 1877, n.p.). Indeed, gardens were seen by the Victorians as evidence of God's abundance, and were places to worship nature and temporarily escape from the industrialized demands of urban life. Set either in a spa grounds or inspired by the cultivated abundance of Kew, certainly Tissot's composition exemplifies the pleasures of such garden spaces.
Tissot followed contemporary British artists' lead in portraying modern life but developed his own pictorial approach. In so doing he resists the snide summaries of Victorian era critics like John Ruskin who derided the artist's work as "mere colored photographs" ignoring Tissot's employment of aesthetic strategies shared by Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas (friends and colleagues from his days in Paris). In The Morning Ride Tissot uses carefully organized arrangements of form, pattern and color to provide compositional complexity rather than to slavishly record the fashion and habits of the day. The solid form of the black cab stands in contrast to the breezy brushstrokes of the rhododendron blossoms, their shifting tones from bright reds to saturated yellows to softer pinks and purples carrying the eye to the horizon line and the darker stand of trees. Interestingly a similar affect is achieved in Manet's Venice - The Grand Canal of 1874 (fig. 4), a picture Tissot acquired from the artist soon after their shared travels to Italy. As with the black and dark-costumed rider and attendant of The Morning Ride, Manet's gondoliers and his watercraft stand in tension between the still boat and the ever-moving waters. Further, The Morning Ride's cropped and skewed perspective suggests the influence of Degas and his radical cropping of figures, as if the viewer has stumbled across a scene "as it happens" with more to discover beyond the composition's borders. Tissot places his figures slightly off center with the suggestion of the garden path snaking into the distance and the rider on the horizon line, while the overall focus is placed on the abundant and vibrantly hued rhododendron shrubs. Such an exuberant use of color may have been in response to London critics labeling the artist "too French" in his frequent use of white and black to create a unified appearance (Warner, p. 61).
Degas advised Tissot to be wary of "the English art that appeals so much to us as it often seems to be exploiting some trick. We can do better than they and be just as strong" (from a letter dated February 18, 1873, in Edgar Germain Hilaire, Degas: letters, ed. Marcel Guerin, trans. Marguerite Kay, Oxford, 1947, p. 31). Indeed the strength of The Morning Ride comes in its accomplished incorporation of late nineteenth century English and French innovations in art (making it a particularly important choice for inclusion in The Metropolitan Museum of Art's landmark Impressionist Epoch exhibition of 1974-75). In this work Tissot created a masterful hybrid of subject and technique that would influence Tissot's friends like Giuseppe de Nittis, a fellow Continental artist who also found inspiration in London's daily life.
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