London Visitors (c.1874)

Tissot, James (1836-1902)

London Visitors
Oil on canvas, 160 × 114.3 cm
Toledo Museum of ArtToledo

Outside the National Gallery in London a fashionable tourist couple decides what to see next. The woman points her umbrella imperiously in the direction of Trafalgar Square while her oblivious companion consults a guidebook. Meanwhile, a young guide from Christ’s Hospital School stands by, bored, his services unengaged. The painting seems a straightforward, rather humorous look at sightseers in London. But is there more going on here?

The woman breaks some important Victorian social rules. Her dress is too ostentatious for a day spent touring the city. Furthermore, her forthright gaze—apparently locking eyes with someone on the steps (or with the viewer of the painting)—is a breach of feminine propriety. A proper Victorian lady never made eye contact with strangers. The abandoned cigar on the steps provocatively suggests an unseen male presence.

French artist James Tissot moved to London in 1872. A keen observer of the fashion and manners of the newly wealthy British middle class, many of his paintings suggest narratives of social “mistakes,” both innocent and deliberate. (TMA)

See also:

• National Gallery (London)