- James Jacques Joseph Tissot
- Study for 'Le Sphinx' (Woman in an Interior)
- oil on panel
- 43 3/4 by 27 in.
- 111.1 by 68.6 cm
The Bénédite Family, Paris (by descent)
Ferrers, Inc., London (by 1972, as Portrait of Mlle. Riesener)
H. Shickman Gallery, New York
Joey and Toby Tanenbaum (acquired from the above in 1973 and sold: Sotheby's, New York, February 17, 1993, lot 55, illustrated)
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
Louise d'Argencourt and Douglas Druick, The Other Nineteenth Century: Paintings and Sculpture in the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph M. Tanenbaum, Ottawa, 1978, p. 192, no. 69, illustrated
Michael Wentworth, James Tissot, Oxford, 1984, pp. 160, 163, 166, 167, 169, pl. 190
Christopher Wood, Tissot: The Life and Work of Jacques Joseph Tissot, Boston, 1986, pp. 129, 130, 136
M. Darby, "The Conservatory in St. John's Wood" in Katharine Lochman, ed., Seductive Surfaces: The Art of Tissot, New Haven, 1999, p.176
Study for "Le Sphinx" is the only known preparatory work for one of James Tissot's extraordinary series, La Femme à Paris, an ensemble of fifteen large-scale paintings that presented beautiful young parisiennes in all their elegance and glory. Tissot's principal project from 1883 to 1885, the series depicted attractive, commanding young women against backgrounds as diverse as the milliner's shop, the amateur circus, and the most exclusive public and private interiors of the very haute monde. With generalized titles such as L'Ambitieuse, La Plus Jolie Femme de Paris, or Le Sphinx, the paintings mixed portrait-quality figures with a vast amount of fashionable detail and a high quotient of novelistic intrigue. And in Study for "Le Sphinx" it is quite likely that Tissot wove in significant strands of his own complicated biography as well.
In the troubled wake of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1, the French-born, Paris-trained Tissot had decamped to London, where he established a critically and financially successful career as a portraitist and shrewdly observant painter of modern life. A decade later, following the death of his chief model and beloved mistress Kathleen Newton, Tissot returned to Paris. In 1882, the city was unquestionably the world's capital of art and fashion; its women defined chic for a rapidly modernizing international audience. It is no surprise that in throwing himself back into his homeland, Tissot -- always a superb colorist and an appreciative admirer of feminine style--should choose to re-acquaint himself with this changed milieu through the lives of women. For two years, he devoted himself to a series of large scale scenes united around moments of personal display in the lives of a remarkably wide variety of young women: an extravagantly gowned young woman entering a crowded salon on the arm of a white-haired companion (L'Ambitieuse, Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery) an impoverished young woman, dressed in drab mourning, seated primly amid the flurry of the Luxembourg gardens (Sans dot-Without Dowry, Private Collection) or a revealingly costumed tight-rope walker high above an admiring audience (L'Acrobate, location unknown).
Among the group, Le Sphinx (for which the present work constitutes a fully realized study) holds a particularly intriguing place. This is the only image in the Femme à Paris series where the protagonist holds her space entirely alone, lounging self-assuredly across a low settee that largely blocks our view of her. Half-open doors to a conservatory beyond and the intruding corner of an oriental screen establish the substantial wealth that maintains this decor, but only a top hat on the chair in the background (a top hat and jeweled walking stick in the final, now lost, image) suggests the father, husband, or protector who has provided the setting for this beauty. Where other paintings in the Femme à Paris campaign forthrightly interweave the masculine forces for which the featured parisiennes perform, Le Sphinx sets the power equation askew. She appraises the viewer, not vice-versa.
It's very possible that Le Sphinx held a particular personal resonance for Tissot. An old label attached to the painting described the picture as a portrait of Mlle. Louise Riesener (information provided by Lady Jane Abdy, a British dealer and Victorian painting authority, to Tissot scholar Michael Wentworth). Louise Riesener was the daughter of French painter Léon Riesener, and for some time around 1885, Tissot was engaged to marry her. However the engagement was unceremoniously cancelled -- according to the acerbic critic and diarist, Edmond de Goncourt, when Mlle. Riesener caught sight of her older fiancé, removing his overcoat. Comparisons of Le Sphinx with two portraits of Louise Riesener painted by her father (see G. Viallefond, Le Peintre Léon Riesener, 1955, pls. IX and XI), suggest there is validity to the identification, as the long nose, strong eyebrows, and centrally parted hair of Le Sphinx are all apparent in Mlle. Riesener's images; and Study for "Le Sphinx" belonged for many years to Léonce Bénédite, a French museum authority well placed to know the background of a picture he had received directly from the artist.