James Tissot

The Wounded Soldier

c.1870

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Not on display

Artist
James Tissot 1836–1902
Medium
Watercolour on paper
Dimensions
Support: 355 × 252 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 2016
Reference
T14636

Summary

This fairly large watercolour by James Tissot represents a young convalescing soldier during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1, casually seated on his cot. His left arm in a sling, he is wearing the uniform of the Mobile National Guard (a militia that played an important role in the defence of Paris), his overcoat and cap discarded at his side. The carved details of the cream and gold wood panelling in the background of the watercolour, together with the large gilded mirror to the left, suggest that it was executed in the then-requisitioned Comédie Française. Indeed The Wounded Soldier closely relates to Tissot’s The Lobby of the Comédie Française (Le Foyer de la Comédie Française), one of a set of etchings entitled Souvenir du Siège de Paris and executed in London between 1875 and 1878, which shows wounded soldiers convalescing on their hospital beds in the famous Parisian building.

Tissot himself fought in the National Guard during the conflict and sustained a wound in action (as reported in The New York Times, 29 January 1871, p.3). The Wounded Soldier counts amongst a number of on-the-spot drawings and watercolours executed by Tissot during the events of the war. Some of these were etched to illustrate Thomas Gibson Bowles’s book The Defence of Paris: Narrated as it was Seen (1871), but the Wounded Soldier was not developed into a print. As well as being editor of Vanity Fair, to which Tissot contributed caricatures from 1869, Bowles was war correspondent for the Morning Post during the Franco-Prussian War. He gave shelter to Tissot for a few months when the artist migrated to England in 1871, possibly because he was involved in the Commune and thus had to leave France for political reasons, although the circumstances behind Tissot’s move to London remain unclear.

The Wounded Soldier exemplifies Tissot’s skills as a watercolourist and his technical confidence. Executed with economy of means, it maintains the freshness and spontaneity of a study carried through to completion. Tissot paid attention to the detail of the wood panelling behind the soldier’s head, and the red and gold highlights of his uniform, which lift the neutral colour scheme of the watercolour. The bravura of Tissot’s technique in this medium contrasts with the high-finish of his oil paintings, which in London took fashionable society as a subject matter (see, for example, The Ball on Shipboard c.1874, Tate N04892).

The Wounded Soldier remained in the artist’s possession until his death. The fact that Tissot was wounded during the Franco-Prussian came to light relatively recently and could substantiate speculation as to why he inscribed his name on one of the convalescents’ beds in The Lobby of the Comédie Française, as if it had been his. The relaxed, natural expression of the young soldier here could indicate that he was a comrade of the artist.

Further reading
Krystyna Matyjaskiewicz (ed.), James Tissot, Oxford 1984.
Nancy Rose Marshall and Malcolm Warner, James Tissot: Victorian Life/Modern Love, New Haven and London 1999.
Cyrille Sciama (ed.), James Tissot et ses Maîtres, Nantes 2005.

Caroline Corbeau-Parsons
May 2016

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