In 1882, after eleven successful years painting in London, Tissot returned to Paris and chose pastel as his new medium, recognizing an opportunity to develop new patronage. Public interest in pastel was revived by a widespread interest in eighteenth century art, and the innovative work of contemporary artists like Edgar Degas and Édouard Manet. Always cognizant of fashionable trends, Tissot submitted eight new pastel portraits for exhibition at the Palais de L’industrie in 1883, and critics immediately praised the artist for their “freshness” of touch and artistic vision. Following the accolades, Tissot executed virtually all of his portraits of parisiennes
in pastel — the exact number still unconfirmed because so many remain unlocated (Michael Wentworth, James Tissot
, Oxford, 1984, pp. 156-7). Indeed, for over a century the present work was known only by an image in Tissot’s photographic albums, and was misidentified as “a portrait of an unidentified lady, possibly a niece of the artist.” The subject was only recently revealed to be Clotilde Briatte, Comtesse Pillet-Will, the wife of the noble Frédéric Pillet-Will (1837-1911), a banker and owner of the Château Margaux vineyard. Clotilde’s lifestyle resembled that of many of Tissot’s most fashionable models, yet she stood apart from the princesses and other wealthy women who sat for the artist because of her interest in the occult; in the early 1900s she authored several books on the subject under the pseudonym Charles d’Orino. Tissot was similarly fascinated by spiritualists, and had attended séances since the death of his beloved companion and model, Kathleen Newton, in 1882. The “otherworldly” association of model and artist is subtly suggested in the comtesse’s portrait, where she is a spectral (and highly fashionable) vision in her shimmering white dress with gold bracelets gleaming against a fur-lined wrap with a celestial blue outer lining. Pastel allowed Tissot to experiment both with color and new ways to convey texture—from the luxurious, fluffy fur of the cloak to the cloud-like heads of the hydrangeas held in the ceramic glazed jardinière, its Asian decoration pointing to the continued vogue for all things Japonisme
. Tissot often painted women in garden or conservatory settings, and the present work may have been executed in the artist's home where he has placed the Comtesse in front of a mirror, her coiffure
cleverly detailed in the reflective surface. As the Portrait of Clotilde Briatte, Comtesse Pillet-Will
evidences, pastel brought Tissot new inspiration, and elevated his subjects from mere fashion plates to innovative, expressive visions of compelling personalities.
We would like to thank Cyrille Sciama for providing additional catalogue information.