Legion of Honor Legion of Honor
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
San Francisco, CA
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Museum image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Legion of Honor
100 34th Avenue (at Clement Street)
San Francisco, CA 94121
Phone: 415.750.3600

James Tissot: Fashion & Faith
October 12, 2019 - February 9, 2020

“A painting by Mr. [James] Tissot will be enough for the archeologists of the future to reconstruct our era.” —Élie Roy, “Salon de 1869,” L’Artiste 40 (July 1869)

James Tissot (1836–1902) was one of the most celebrated French artists during the 19th century, yet he is less known than many of his contemporaries today. Presenting new scholarship on the artist’s oeuvre, technique, and remarkable life, James Tissot: Fashion & Faith provides a critical reassessment of Tissot through a 21st-century lens. The exhibition, co-organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the Musées d’Orsay et de l’Orangerie, Paris, includes approximately 60 paintings in addition to drawings, prints, photographs, and cloisonné enamels, demonstrating the breadth of the artist’s skills. The presentation at the Legion of Honor is the first major international exhibition on Tissot in two decades and the first ever on the West Coast of the United States.

“The work of James Tissot provides a fascinating lens onto society at the dawn of the modern era. Long recognized as a keen observer of contemporary life and fashion, this exhibition brings new light to his narrative strengths and his skill in portraying the emotional and spiritual undercurrents that exist below surface appearances,” states Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “Continuing the Fine Arts Museums’ tradition of contributing original scholarship around key works in our collection, we are thrilled to introduce the perspective of this enigmatic, prolific artist in the first exhibition of his work to take place on the West Coast.”

Tissot’s works have been highly sought after for US collections, and, as such, James Tissot: Fashion & Faith draws from the rich holdings of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; and numerous private collections, in addition to private and public collections throughout Europe and Canada, including those of Tate, London; the Musées d’Orsay et de l’Orangerie; the Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris; the Musée d’Arts de Nantes; the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; and the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal. In addition, new findings on Tissot’s materials and painting technique—resulting from an extensive, unprecedented study of Tissot paintings and led by the paintings conservation department at the Fine Arts Museums—are revealed in the exhibition. The study was undertaken in collaboration with the Northwestern University/ Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts (NU-ACCESS) and the Centre for Research and Restoration of the Museums of France.

Arranged chrono-thematically, James Tissot: Fashion & Faithwill trace the extraordinary turns of the artist’s life, as he consistently defied traditional conventions, both professionally and personally. A Frenchman who started out painting medievalized scenes from history and literature, Tissot maintained a complicated friendship with mentee Edgar Degas, went on to adopt an Anglicized version of his name; Jacques, and spent a decade as an expatriate in London, immersing himself in and chronicling modern society. For a time, he ventured into a love affair with the young divorcée Kathleen Newton, who became his model and muse, but, after her tragic premature death, he returned to Paris and spent long periods of productive retreat at his family estate in the French countryside, nurturing a growing, deep commitment to religion.

Tissot’s career spanned the English Channel, garnering commercial and critical success both in London and Paris. Though invited by Degas to exhibit with the Impressionists, Tissot declined. He turned to social events and balls, painting metropolitan life with great attention to detail, humor, and pathos. Upon close study, even his most ebullient society pictures reveal rich and complex commentary on Belle Époque culture, religion, fashion, and politics. The exhibition will include many key modern-life works from his time in London and Paris, such as The Ball on Shipboard (1874), London Visitors (ca. 1874), Holyday (also known as The Picnic; 1876), The Prodigal Son in Modern Life suite (1882), and examples from the La Femme à Paris series (1883–1885).

“James Tissot was technically gifted across a variety of media and he experimented with major trends in art, including Aestheticism and Japonisme, yet his work defies classification and traditional labels,” notes Melissa Buron, exhibition curator and Director of the Art Division at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “For the past few years, my colleagues and I have been on the trail of Tissot, re-examining works and uncovering previously unpublished information that provides insight into his career, including his sales notebook (carnet de ventes) and hundreds of photographs. Drawing from our findings, James Tissot: Fashion & Faith provides new perspectives on where and how Tissot should be considered in the 19th-century canon.”

As was popular during the late 19th century, Tissot dabbled in mysticism and attended Spiritualist séances. His famous mezzotint from the Fine Arts Museums’ collection, The Apparition (1885), depicts the ghost of Kathleen Newton with a spirit guide as they reportedly appeared to Tissot during a séance. This work and the painting on which it is based—long thought to be lost or destroyed until it was rediscovered in the course of researching this project—are both on view in the exhibition.

Though less is known about the last two decades of Tissot’s life, new scholarship has recently shed light on the final 20 years of his career. During that time, he made three trips to the Holy Land and produced hundreds of watercolors to illustrate the Bible. Wildly popular during Tissot’s lifetime, these religious images became known as the “Tissot Bible” and have since influenced filmmakers from D. W. Griffith (Intolerance, 1916) to William Wyler (Ben-Hur, 1959), as well as Steven Spielberg and George Lucas (Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981). A selection of biblical watercolors have been lent to the exhibition from the Brooklyn Museum and the Jewish Museum, New York.

Tissot also utilized the relatively new medium of photography by painting from photographs and recording many of his works as well as his home, family, and friends in carefully arranged albums. Photographs from the Fine Arts Museums’ collection in the exhibition, along with recently discovered, never-before-published photographs and a sales notebook published for the first time in the exhibition catalogue, provide a window into Tissot’s life and career, rendering him an artist worthy of reexamination in the 21st century.

James Tissot: Fashion & Faith is on view at the Legion of Honor from October 12, 2019, through February 9, 2020. The exhibition is organized by Melissa Buron, Director of the Art Division at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and Paul Perrin and Marine Kisiel, Curators of Paintings at the Musées d’Orsay et de l’Orangerie, Paris, where the exhibition will be on view from March 23 through July 19, 2020, and Cyrille Sciama, Director of Musée des Impressionnismes Giverny.

James Tissot: Fashion & Faith is accompanied by a 300-page catalogue, published in collaboration with DelMonico Books / Prestel. Edited by Melissa Buron, the lavishly illustrated volume spans Tissot’s life and career from his early period in Nantes to his later years when he made hundreds of religious illustrations. The catalogue also includes essays that introduce new scholarship and redefine Tissot’s life and career.

Alexandre Singh: A Gothic Tale
September 7, 2019 - April 12, 2020

A Gothic Tale, a newly commissioned film and installation for the Legion of Honor by Alexandre Singh, draws inspiration from the Gothic literary tradition of 19th century Europe, as well as San Francisco’s place in the cinematic history of film noir (such as Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai, 1947, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, 1958). Opening on September 7, A Gothic Tale is Singh’s first solo presentation in a West Coast institution.

Staged in the Legion of Honor’s galleries of medieval art, A Gothic Tale introduces Singh’s imaginative universe through his debut short film, The Appointment, a playful thriller that unfolds with the fatalism of film noir. Embracing the twisted and fantastical traits of Gothic literature from E. T. A. Hoffmann to Roald Dahl, the film is a darkly comic tale of doubling and mistaken identity. Henry Salt, an enfant terrible of letters, wakes from a nightmare to find a disturbing entry in his diary: "12 o’clock at the restaurant La Folie”. But whom is Henry meeting, and why doesn’t he remember making this appointment? When no one shows, Henry becomes obsessed with solving the mystery. Charging through a series of surreal encounters, he discovers that the truth is more disturbing than he could have possibly imagined.

Conceptualized and designed by Singh with art historian Natalie Musteata, A Gothic Tale begins with a selection of works from the Fine Arts Museums’ encyclopedic collection that embody one of the key tropes of the Gothic tradition: the doppelgänger. In this eerie presage to the film, works that appear to be duplicates, such as prints of Roman tombs by Giovanni Battista Piranesi and biblical scenes by Albrecht Dürer, will be exhibited in a striking scenography of mirrored walls, in which the works of art, and viewers alike, are endlessly reflected. Together, these works resonate with the founding and history of the Legion of Honor, itself not only a copy of the Palais de la Légion d’Honneur in Paris but also a funerary structure, located atop a former cemetery, and built to commemorate the fallen soldiers of the First World War.

“A Gothic Tale’s installation of works from the collection pays tribute to the legacy of the Legion of Honor’s groundbreaking curator Jermayne MacAgy,” states Claudia Schmuckli, Curator in Charge of Contemporary Art and Programming at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “In the 1940s, MacAgy revolutionized the practice of exhibition making through her innovative installation designs, that emphasized transcultural and transhistorical narratives.”

The film’s captivating score, written by the Dutch composer Gerry Arling, will be performed at scheduled intervals on the Legion of Honor’s historic Spreckels organ, filling the museum’s halls with the film’s haunting melody.

A Gothic Tale is on view at the Legion of Honor from September 7, 2019, through April 12, 2020. The exhibition is organized by Claudia Schmuckli, Curator in Charge of Contemporary Art and Programming at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. It will coincide with the exhibition James Tissot (October 12, 2019 through February 9, 2020), which explores, in part, the 19th-century obsession with mysticism and connecting with the departed through séances.

About Alexandre Singh

Born in 1980 in Bordeaux, France, Alexandre Singh works in a wide range of media, including installation, performance, literature, collage, and video. His theater play The Humans was developed and premiered as part of Performa 13, 2013. Singh’s work has been the subject of solo presentations at White Columns, New York; Palais de Tokyo, Paris; and The Drawing Center, New York, as well as numerous group exhibitions throughout Europe, Asia, and North America, including the Whitney Biennial, Lyon Biennial, and Manifesta 8. Singh’s collaborations include Hello Meth Lab in the Sun at the Ballroom, Marfa, Texas, and UNCLEHEAD, with Rita Sobral Campos, at the Museu da Eletricidade, Lisbon.

About Natalie Musteata

Born in 1986 in New York City, Natalie Musteata is an art historian and curator whose work focuses on the history of artist-curated exhibitions, film, and performance art. She holds a doctorate in art history from The Graduate Center, CUNY. Recent publications include essays on Andy Warhol’s 1969 exhibition “Raid the Icebox 1” in The Journal of Curatorial Studies, and the 1972 installation-cum-exhibition “Womanhouse” in The Artist as Curator: An Anthology. In collaboration with EMU Films, she produced Singh’s surreal mystery The Appointment (2019).

Contemporary Art at the Legion of Honor

Overseen by Claudia Schmuckli, the Fine Arts Museums’ Contemporary Art Program launched in 2016 to present the work of living artists in dialogue with the Museums’ unique buildings and encyclopedic collections. In its first three years, installations by Carsten Nicolai (known as Alva Noto), Hilary Lloyd, Leonardo Drew, the art collective DIS, and Ranu Mukherjee transformed the de Young’s Wilsey Court. At the Legion of Honor, Urs Fischer, Sarah Lucas, Lynn Hershman Leeson, and Julian Schnabel each presented exhibitions in dialogue with the unique building and the landmark collection of works by Auguste Rodin.

Curious & Wonderful: Selections from the Achenbach Vault
Through March 22, 2020

Of the treasures in the Museums’ 115,000 works on paper, many have never been on exhibition. Drawn mainly from the collection of artist-illustrated books, this installation in the Logan Gallery is a sampling of intriguing objects chosen by Debra Evans, the Fine Arts Museums’ head of paper conservation, who has cared for these objects for nearly four decades.

“In my thirty-seven years as a paper conservator at the Fine Arts Museums, I have never had a boring day at work,” says Evans. “My position has given me unlimited access to examine, both as an experienced conservator and a delighted observer, an extraordinary collection of treasures, works on paper ranging in origin from the thirteenth-century to the present.”

Hands-on engagement with the works of art has afforded Evans a valuable perspective. “The variety of creative techniques used continually amazes, delights, and moves me. Unlike most paintings, many works on paper are light-sensitive, which precludes their long-term display. Nor is there enough gallery space for so many works. This small exhibition presents an opportunity to share with visitors a sampling my favorites, never or rarely shown, that I find especially curious and wonderful.”

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