The Ball on Shipboard by James Tissot (1836-1902). c.1874. Oil on Canvas. 33 1/8 x 51 (84 x 130). Collection: Tate Gallery, London. Ref. no. N04892; presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest in 1937, and kindly made available under the Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported) licence. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]

Carol Jacobi writes that this painting of a social occasion on board a yacht at Cowes, on the Isle of Wight, was "Tissot's most ambitious modern-life drama, assembling over twenty figures into elegant groupings divided by the boat's deck" (196). It may depict a particular dance attended by the then Prince and Princess of Wales, and some of the figures have been identified as important personages of the time. The man in the boater on the upper left side of the painting, his face only just visible, may even be a tiny self-portrait of the artist himself.

Could this dazzling, detailed scene be one of those "unhappy mere colour photographs of vulgar society" that John Ruskin complained about (qtd. on the gallery label)? Or does it convey delight in the mores of high society? Notice the rows of sailors and two red-coated soldiers looking at the spectacle from between the bunting at the top right, as if they are an audience at some spectacular performance. Or does Tissot convey some criticism of his own through the painting (Jacobi also tells us that Tissot had come to Cowes to find good subjects for his Vanity Fair caricatures)? Commentators regularly point out that a number of the women are wearing exactly the same costumes (e.g. see Lambourne 274). This may reflect the fact that, once back in his London studio, Tissot was working with limited clothing props; but it may also be a comment on the slavish following of fashion: true haute couture provides uniquely styled apparel for the individual customer. — Jacqueline Banerjee


Gallery label, Tate, 2016. "James Tissot: The Ball on Shipboard." Tate. Web. 18 January 2018.

Jacobi, Carol. In The EY Exhibition: Impressionists in London: French Artists in Exile, 1870-1904. Ed. Caroline Corbeau-Parsons. London: Tate Enterprises, 2017. 196.

Lambourne, Lionel. Victorian Painting. London and New York: Phaidon, 1999.

Created 18 January 2018