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Tissot often painted a man with two women in order to explore the subtle nuances of flirtation and attraction through body language and facial expression. Here a chaperone separates the young naval officer from the object of his attentions, the woman hiding her enjoyment of his flirtation behind her fan. Tissot focuses here on the boundaries of Victorian propriety and social convention, and their transgression. The languid pose of the nearest woman, and Tissot’s frank concentration on her fashionable hour-glass figure, inevitably led to the picture being criticised when it was first exhibited. The author Henry James dismissed it as ‘hard, vulgar and banal’.

August 2004