April 21, 2012


An intimate warmth predominates James Tissot’s The Shop Girl (1883-1885). The shaded interior makes the viewer feel like an elite insider. The black-clad girl opening the shop’s door onto a lively Paris street is the focus of the work. Inside, a hushed serenity is achieved through the muted light and the gentle shadows on the girl’s face. The world outside the shop is hustling and bustling and is depicted as such through Tissot’s slapdash brush strokes, whereas his work on the young lady is barely decipherable.

The viewer’s eye first alights to the central shop girl and the pink package she holds and is then drawn to the recurring black figure on the left. This repetitive design element bounces us back from the edge of the frame to the busyness in the window and the pile of ribbon on the counter. The open door seems less important than what has just transpired in the shop.

This nineteenth century slice of life is as accurately detailed as a photograph. However, Tissot used a palette of oil paints to subtly blend colours necessary for warm skin and ribbons. Slow-drying oil paint was a necessity for Tissot, who took two years to complete this work. Unlike a photo, the painting is large, about 1x1.5 metres. From the perspective of a gallery goer standing about a metre away,  Tissot’s  shop girl seems almost life-sized.

Tissot places the viewer into the shoes of a male who has just purchased something for a woman.  Men are gazing at the shop girls through the window, as if they too were commodities or confections. A woman from a higher place in society passes with her eyes demurely averted. There is a lot of masculine attention going on. The central girl has met the male gaze of the viewer and is intensely maintaining it. She’s about to hand the gentleman shopper his package as he joins his chauffeur and horses outside. 

The somberly-clad shop girl contrasts with the tumble of pink ribbons on the countertop revealing, perhaps, that the high-buttoned girl could just as easily become “undone” as the pink mess left on the counter. Tissot’s painting contains other elements that could allude to hidden pleasures: the cupped “V” of the rosy package pointing to the girl’s lap where there lays a barely decipherable pocket; the wooden gargoyle lasciviously pointing his tongue; and the ribbon artfully fallen into a heart shape on the floor. 

To me, The Shop Girl is reminiscent of Manet’s A Bar at the Folies Bergere (1882). In both, a black clad server with something to offer locks eyes with the viewer. Each contains a disconcerting back view of another in black: in Tissot’s, an identically-dressed assistant; in Manet’s, a skewed reflection. These strange dopplegangers may be alluding to the fact that even though these working girls give the illusion that they are of the same class as the men they are serving, in reality, they are removed from it. Here the similarity with Manet’s Impressionistic style ends as Tissot’s small, mannered brush strokes realistically portray the shop girl’s face and the shop’s interior. Although completed at the height of Impressionism, Tissot’s work does not reflect the style of the day.

Copyright Hazel Smith, 2011
Proviso -FAH 245 should probably not copy this.


Hels said...

Great painting!

I love A Bar at the Folies Bergere, even though as you point out Manet was never really an impressionist himself. But as a bit of social history, it is unbeatable. Ditto Tissot’s The Shop Girl, only more so.

I recognise a lot of Tissot paintings, but not this one. For the period in which Tissot was painting society scenes, The Shop Girl fitted in style-wise but not necessarily content-wise. You are suggesting the women in the shop are working gals, far from fancy society women. I agree.

Did Tissot every credit Manet with influencing him? Even though the two artists were close in age, Manet may have been seen as the more experienced artist.

[Sorry about the English in this comment. I have been working all night].

Kathy Bischoping said...

I like the doppelgangers & "hidden pleasures" part of your analysis especially. I hadn't noticed the gargoyle or even the heart ribbon. Let me add that the awning of the shop looks like tongues and now that I've thought that I can't get it out of my mind.

The Clever Pup said...


I've been studying for 12 days for a final art history exam. I have semiotics on the brain!

I've always loved the painting. Hels, it's here in Toronto at the AGO. I had to describe it in less than one page. The TA gave me a lousy 68%. I had a word with the prof and he raised it to 78.

G said...

What a great read. Thank you for this. I visited a Tissot exhibit (at the Tate I think) in the 80s in London... many interesting facets of life at the time. I love reading you! As for needing a word with your prof... Blimey!

Ingrid Mida said...

What fun to read part of your essay here. It is a complex work - filled with subtexts. I read somewhere that the man looking in the window is believed to be Emile Zola, the author who was commissioned to write the short story to accompany this work.
Hope you did well on your art history exam. Will you take the summer off?