National Gallery’s latest acquisition pokes fun at the upper crust

Curator Anabelle Kienle Ponka with National Gallery's latest acquisition James Tissot's Lat Partie Carrée. Photo courtesy National Gallery of Canada.

Much about the National Gallery’s newest European painting is not what it appears to be.

It appears to be a party of well-heeled people celebrating on the grass, but it is not. It appears to be set in the period circa 1795-1799, but it’s not. It appears to be an admiring portrayal of wealth and splendour, but that it most certainly is not.

In fact, it’s a work by a master artist who is gently mocking the upper classes, and — possibly — exposing a disdain for class strictures that will later deem his life to be scandalous.

The painting is The Partie Carée, or “the Foursome,” and it was painted in 1870 by the French artist James Tissot. It was acquired by the gallery from the estate of Canadian expat David Graham, who died recently, and whose collection was impressive enough to be auctioned by Christie’s in London. (The sale was scheduled for Dec. 13, with proceeds going to “a charitable foundation.”)

The oil painting is the largest of three Tissots now at the National Gallery, at 120 by 145 centimetres. “It’s substantial, it’s large, it’s grand,” says Anabelle Kienle Ponka, the gallery’s acting senior curator of European and American art. 

The scene is a grassy lawn beside a lazy river. Two women and two men sit on the grass around a white cloth and bountiful picnic spread — a heaping platter of  langoustines, fancy buns, and what looks like a filet de boeuf en croûte. There are plates and cutlery and an earthen jug, and an empty bottle of wine that will surely be replaced by one of two full bottles poking out of an adjacent basket. A pug sits by one woman. 

Oh, what fun these folks are having, all happy in their finery — though any French person in the 1870s would have immediately recognized that something was amiss, Ponka says. 

“This isn’t about sophistication, it’s about play acting.”  

Despite their apparent wealth and privilege, the subjects are more likely servants who “seem to be donning their masters’ clothes.” Tissot is referencing the hedonistic period of 75 years earlier, in the interregnum between the French Revolution and Napoleon’s empire, to mock the pleasure-seeking elite of his own time.  

“It’s basically a history painting,” Ponka says. 

The evidence abounds. One man’s army-style coat is too large for him, and he leans in sloppily to clink a toast with the other man. One woman has her glass tipped up as she chugs it dry, while the other holds her half-empty glass slightly off balance, a slight signal of her inebriation. She appears to not mind that the man next to her is reaching around to, ahem, cop a feel. Even the pug looks like it’s enjoying itself, albeit probably sober, despite its tiny pink tongue habitually sticking out.

“It’s mocking, it’s awkward, it’s comical,” Ponka says. 

Tissot had little regard for the mores of the upper classes, which would later tsk-tsk when he set up house in London with a divorcée. 

“He didn’t play by the rules,” Ponka says. “He very much forged his own path as an artist and also in his personal life.”

The gallery has coveted the painting for a decade, to hang with its two other Tissots, including The Letter (from 1878, purchased in 1964), and The Japanese Scroll (c. 1872, on long-term, anonymous loan). The Letter is sparse by comparison, with a lone woman standing in a garden. The other painting is an interior, with a woman reclined over an unfurled scroll. 

“It was a painting we had been following for a long time,” Ponka says. “It was one of those paintings we thought belonged in the National Gallery. . . We thought it would fit perfectly.”

It belonged to David Graham, who was born in Ottawa on Valentine’s Day, 1937, made a fortune in cable TV, and lived in London, St. Tropez and St. Bart’s, where he died Sept. 2 after a stroke.

The gallery purchased the painting from the estate, while the rest of Graham’s collection goes to auction. Curiously, on its webpage Christie’s bills the Dec. 13 auction as “anonymous,” and bills it as “an important private collection to be sold anonymously to benefit a charitable foundation.”

Highlights include a painting by Sir Alfred James Munnings, with an estimated price of up to $1.88 million US, and a pair of coquilliers from 1720-30  France estimated at up to $754,000 US. Five more paintings, including works by Signac, Caillebotte and Vallotton, will be sold at Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale in February.

A Christie’s video describes the anonymous collector (who we know to be Graham) as “someone who had a very independent, inquiring mind,” and who had a “life lived well.”

He would, no doubt, have enjoyed Tissot’s party on the grass. 

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.