James Tissot

The Ball on Shipboard


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James Tissot 1836–1902
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 841 × 1295 mm
frame: 1012 × 1476 × 115 mm
Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1937

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In this work, Tissot paints a modern-life scene in full sunlight. It depicts an August sailing regatta on the Isle of Wight. The scene recalls celebrity parties held on Royal Yachts. The pairing of identical dresses was a fashion established by the royal family. The woman in a straw sailor hat, standing by the railing, has been mistaken for Queen Alexandra. However, others wondered if the revellers were more ordinary. Mass-produced clothing and social mobility were disrupting class boundaries. Tissot’s picture enjoys these playful confusions of the modern crowd.

Gallery label, May 2021

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Catalogue entry

James Tissot 1836-1902

N04892 The Ball on Shipboard c.1874

Inscribed 'J.J. Tissot' b.r.
Oil on canvas, 33 1/8 x 51 (84 x 130)
Chantrey Purchase 1937
Prov: With Thos. Agnew, London (purchased from the artist 1874); H. Philipson, 1874; Mrs Roland Philipson; through Leicester Galleries, London; Sir Alfred Munnings, London, 1937; Chantrey Trustees 1937
Exh: RA, London, May-August 1874 (690) as 'The Ball on Shipboard'; Second James Tissot Exhibition, Leicester Galleries, London, January 1937 (15), lent by Mrs Roland Philipson; RA, London, May-August 1937 (40); The Chantrey Collection, RA, London, January-March 1949 (222); The British Antique Dealers' Association Golden Jubilee Exhibition, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, May 1968 (5, repr.)
Lit: Sacheverell Sitwell, Narrative Pictures (London 1937), pp.92-3, 118, repr. pl.129
Repr: John Rothenstein, Modern Foreign Pictures in the Tate Gallery (London 1947), pl.24; The Tate Gallery (London 1969), p.89 in colour

A scene at Cowes during Regatta Week. It has also been known as 'The Ball on Shipboard, Cowes'.

Sir Sacheverell Sitwell has suggested that it represents a dance given on board the Royal yacht during Cowes week in 1873, and that the young woman standing by the companion-way, wearing a sailor straw hat tilted up upon her forehead, may represent Queen Alexandra, then Princess of Wales, and that the old gentleman next to her may be either the Czar Alexander II or Lord Londonderry. However, the picture is discussed at length in various reviews of the Royal Academy exhibition of 1874 and, contrary to what one would expect, there is no reference to any specific individuals or occasion. For instance, in The Times, July 1874, p.5: '... he has set himself the difficult task of representing the scene on board a man of war at Spithead, converted into a ball-room by an awning lined and fringed with flags ... the grace of the girls, the taste of their toilettes, and the capital characterisation of the gentlemen, young and old, yachtsmen and man-of-war officers, cannot be praised too highly.'

An oil sketch 94.5 x 66cm for the central section of the composition, with considerable variations, was sold at Sotheby's Belgravia on 25 October 1977, lot 174, repr. in colour.

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, pp.719-20, reproduced p.719

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