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The art of James Tissot

The Captain's Daughter, James Tissot

Recently I have become interested in the art of James Tissot.  His art is realistic, but there are otherworldly qualities, too. His work fixes on the rare, otherworldly moments we find in our own lives.

In "The Captain's Daughter," a father is glancing back at a shipmate. The younger man's clothing probably describes his station exactly, but I can tell the captain considers him a significant prospect for his daughter. The younger man has an animalistic look evoking the realistic and naturalistic subjects in late nineteenth-century literature, like those of Eugene O'Neill.

The cool, detached look of the young woman implies she has not concerned herself with the nearby presence of the men. Her collected bearing and binoculars suggest she is intellectual and probably interested in her father's work at sea. There is something very similar about the father and daughter, and the red-haired man is different. Tissot emphasizes this similarity by giving their black clothing white accents, and their relationship is revealed by his arm opened toward her.

Every detail in the painting becomes important with study. The spectators behind are perhaps like those in an art gallery. The rope neatly knotted beside the woman suggests her future, like the rope in Waterhouse's Destiny, or maybe her methodical mind. Also, like Waterhouse's La Belle Dame Sans Merci, and I know I should stop here, the suitor's telescope is pointing like the knight's lance. It also suggests a relationship in interests between the suitor and the captain's daughter.

The picture at first seemed menacing and bleak, but with further study I developed a much different conclusion; it is as though an entire story unfolded as I noticed the details. It may be that works of art like this are in fact a kind of nonlinear story.

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