Joy of Museums

Museums, Art Galleries and Historical Sites

Flirtation and Attraction by James Tissot

"The Gallery of HMS Calcutta" by James Tissot

“The Gallery of HMS Calcutta” by James Tissot

“The Gallery of HMS Calcutta (Portsmouth)” by James Tissot depicts a man with two women. All three subjects are used by the artist to explore the subtlety of flirtation and attraction through body language and facial expression.

In this painting, the chaperone separates the young naval lieutenant from, the woman hiding her enjoyment of his flirtation behind her fan. Tissot explores the boundaries of Victorian propriety and social conventions. Tissot’s portrayal of the young woman’s fashionable hour-glass figure, led to criticized of this depiction when it was first exhibited.

Each woman is wearing a fashionable gauzy white dress decorated with bows and ribbons, with a tightly fitting bodice over a corset and full skirts below the hips. The hourglass figures echo the curves of the gallery’s railings.

The painting is set on the quarter gallery at the stern of the Royal Navy warship HMS Calcutta.

The Gallery of HMS Calcutta (Portsmouth)

  • Title:                              The Gallery of HMS Calcutta (Portsmouth)
  • Alternative:                   Officer and Ladies on Board HMS Calcutta
  • Artist:                            James Tissot
  • Year:                              1876
  • Medium:                       Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions                   Height: 68.6 cm (27 ″); Width: 91.8 cm (36.1 ″)
  • Museum:                       Tate Britain


"Portsmouth Dockyard" by James Tissot

“Portsmouth Dockyard” by James Tissot

“Portsmouth Dockyard” by James Tissot depicts three people sitting in a rowing boat. In the center is a man wearing the uniform of a sergeant in a Highland Regiment, with redcoat, kilt, and feather bonnet. He sits with his legs crossed, and his hands clasped around one bare knee. He is turning away from his sullen-looking companion, and towards the smiling woman to his right.

The painting’s story is about a man trying to choose between two women. Based on the body language and facial cues, he appears to have made his choice.

In the background of this scene, among the towering naval vessels in Portsmouth Dockyard, is another rowing boat crewed by maritime personnel passing in the background before the bows of two old-fashioned square-rigged ships of the line. Further in the background is a modern ironclad warship.

A similar painting by Tissot shocked audiences when it was shown at the Royal Academy in 1876 because of the questionable sexual morals of its characters. One critic described it disparagingly as “more French than English.” This painting has a similar theme.

Portsmouth Dockyard

  • Title:                             Portsmouth Dockyard
  • Alternative:                  How Happy I Could Be with Either
  • Français:                      Entre les deux mon coeur balance
  • Artist:                           James Tissot
  • Year:                            1877
  • Medium:                      Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions                 Height: 54.6 cm (21.4 ″); Width: 38.1 cm (15 ″)
  • Museum:                     Tate Britain


"October" by James Tissot

“October” by James Tissot

“October” by James Tissot depicts the artist’s Irish lover Kathleen Newton who was twenty-two years old and the mother of two children when Tissot met her. From 1876 Tissot lived with her, a divorced woman, which violated the moral standards in Victorian England. Kathleen Newton became Tissot’s muse and preferred model.

Tissot referred to his years with Newton as the happiest of his life. Unfortunately, she died in 1882, and five days after her death Tissot moved back to Paris.


  • Title:                            October
  • Artist:                          James Tissot
  • Year:                            1894
  • Medium:                     Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions                 216 × 108.7 cm (85 × 42.8 in)
  • Museum:                    Montreal Museum of Fine Arts


James Tissot

Jacques Joseph Tissot (1836 – 1902), anglicized as James Tissot, was a French painter and illustrator. He was a successful painter in Paris before moving to London in 1871. He became famous as a genre painter of fashionably dressed women.

Tissot left Paris after the Franco-Prussian War and resided in London from 1871. He knew James McNeill Whistler and Edgar Degas, but turned away from Impressionism and focused mainly on portraits and genre paintings of the Victorian upper classes in a more polished academic style. These pictures are typical of Tissot’s work, depicting his subjects with almost photographic realism. He composed ambiguous narratives that hinted at risqué behavior among the wealthy classes and the boundaries of propriety.

Late in his career, Tissot had a revival of his Catholic faith, which led him to spend the last fifteen years of his life painting Biblical events. At a time when French artists were working in impressionism, pointillism, and heavy oil washes, Tissot was moving toward realism in his watercolors.

To assist in his completion of biblical illustrations, Tissot traveled to the Middle East in the late 1880s to make studies of the landscape and people.

James Tissot


French Artists you should Know


“There is something of the human soul in his work, and that is why he is great, immense, infinite.”
– Vincent van Gogh on James Tissot


Photo Credit: 1) James Tissot [Public domain]; James Tissot [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]