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'Not mere mannequins'

It is not too difficult to appreciate the reasons for Tissot's fashionable popularity and success in the Paris of the 1860s and (after a move) the London of the 1870s: He painted the beautiful rich of the day as they saw themselves. He took particular delight in the most elaborate costumes worn by young women at that period and the pleasure the wearers derived from such fancy dress. It looks like fancy dress to us today, and even then it clearly belonged to the charm and show of special public - and rather theatrical - occasions.

Tissot made notable paintings of parties, balls, and concerts. He was also a perfectionist stylistically: He did not allow his hand to intrude but put it at the almost slavish service of his realism and finish.

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This appealed to his Victorian clients. It also brought about the critic Ruskin's dismissal of his paintings as ''mere coloured photographs.''

Oddly, such scrupulous depiction of objective appearances did not always faze Ruskin. He admired meticulous realism in the painting of rocks and flowers and birds' eggs. Probably what he disliked in Tissot's work was not its truth to things seen but what he considered a frivolity in this French artist's choice of subject matter. ''Obeying fashion,'' Ruskin wrote in 1863, ''is a great folly, and a greater crime.'' And: ''Rightness of mind is in nothing more shown than in the mode of wearing simple dress.''

The young lady in Reading the News does not meet Ruskin's standards, either in simplicity or indifference to fashion. Yet it seems rather absurd to see her as either a great fool or a great criminal.

On the other hand, it is not possible to be certain that Tissot entirely approved of her. There seems to be hidden meaning in many of his pictures. His people are not mere mannequins. He observes manners and attitudes.

He does not, however, like many Victorian painters, lard his pictures with moralizing sentiment. The anecdotal is understated and even enigmatic.

As an artist, Tissot falls interestingly between two attitudes. He was a friend and contemporary of Degas and Manet, and like them painted ''modern life.'' Though he never allowed himself their technical experimentation, and declined to take part in the first ''Impressionist'' exhibition, he did have a sensitivity to light, a kind of cool, silvery light, or an intensity of sun filtering into a shaded place, which sometimes approaches the Impressionists' tonal truthfulness. His work is in a minor key compared with theirs, but it is equally French.

His other attitude is much closer to England - though it comes from an admiration for English art of the period that was shared by other French painters. This broadly constitutes the storytelling or illustrative side of his vision.

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Each aspect of sensibility tempers the other, so that he is neither a purely objective student of light effect nor a thoroughgoing narrative painter. Reading the News is beautifully observed, but at the same time it is very carefully contrived. It can be seen as a still life with figures, or it could be an illustration to a novel.

The aloof-and-pretty girl is a type who appears more than once in his pictures, as does the dress she wears: a studio costume provided for the models who posed in his little dramas or tableaux. The white bearded man, here playing the part of an ''old soldier,'' also shows up in various corners of his works, and is also a ''type.'' But the relationship between these two, what they share and don't share with each other, remains enough of a mystery to intrigue the viewer.

Tissot was fairly careless about titles, changing them at will. His paintings were to stand on their own without verbal props. Reading the News gives little away.

The obvious contrast between the two figures in this painting is in their mode of dress. She is turned out with expensive taste and refinement. He wears the rather coarse uniform of a Chelsea pensioner, his shoes worn, his woolen socks wrinkled round his ankles. One can imagine a 17th-century Dutch genre painter enjoying a similar difference.

But the space between Tissot's two figures, worthy in its calculation of interval of Utamaro or Degas, symbolizes something subtler than the distinction between wealth and poverty - or even youth and age, and female and male. What this is that hangs in the air becomes a game for the imagination to play.

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