Tissot arrived in London in the summer of 1871 and was entranced by the complexity and variety of the city, and the sense of seething activity that it conveyed. Almost from the start he was drawn to the river Thames as a subject for his elegant paintings. Perhaps the water and the associated sounds and sights of the bustling docks reminded him of his childhood in the seaport of Nantes, or maybe he realised that painting life at the edge of the river opened a wealth of subjects for him to explore and attract a new audience. In the nineteenth century the Thames was central to London’s growing industrial and commercial successes, both the real and symbolic heart of the nation. Tissot’s choice of the stretch of bustling commercial docksides between Tower Bridge and Greenwich had immediate appeal for an English audience who wanted modern images of the exciting times in which they lived. He was following in the footsteps of his friend James McNeill Whistler who had painted extensively in Wapping and Rotherhithe. He was drawn to the river wharves and docks in search of subjects and in doing so followed the example of Whistler who had also painted in Wapping and in Rotherhithe. Tissot’s painting Emigrants was probably painted c.1873 and the subject is known from an etching and dry-point of 1880. A damaged and cut down composition, which was once in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (present whereabouts unknown), combines sheer delight in the abstract patterns of masts and rigging and the gleam of sunlight through the dense atmosphere, with the human drama of an unknown young woman going aboard ship, with her baby wrapped in a tartan shawl and her few possessions tied in a bundle. There is another version of this composition (Speed Museum, Kentucky) and it is unclear which was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1879.
It must have been as a child in the port of Nantes that Tissot acquired the knowledge of ships and their rigging he later exhibits with spell-binding ease in his paintings, and Nantes may well be the setting for the earliest of his nautical works. Certainly, Emigrants is one of a long series of splendid pictures that use shipping as the background, going back as far as his medieval costume pieces with which he began his career. But whereas Tissot visualised these medieval pictures, and the Directoire subjects to which he turned in the 1880s, in nostalgically pleasurable terms, in works like the present one he addresses contemporary reality more directly. Emigration was one of the greatest Victorian Phenomena, and it had supplied innumerable British artists with a subject for their work: Ford Maddox Brown’s The Last of England of 1855 (Manchester City Art Gallery) is perhaps the most well-known of these images, and may well have served as a prototype for Tissot’s paintings of the subject.
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