The Crusader's Wife by James Tissot, 1836-1902. Pencil, wash, and scratching out, on gesso panel. Signed with monogram. 8 3/4 x 7 3/4 inches, 22 x 19.9 cm. Provenance: Possibly Dante Gabriel Rossetti, to whom Macmillan gave either this drawing or the one for the frontispiece.
Commentary by Hilary Morgan
La Villemarque's Barzaz-Breiz, Chants populaires de la Bretagne had reached their fourth edition in France by 1846, and in 1865 they received their first translation into English by Tom Taylor. Taylor was art critic of the Times and as a playwright had translated and adapted a number of French dramas for the British stage. The book was illustrated by two steel engravings after Tissot on the frontispiece and title page and included several wood engravings in the text after Millais, John Tenniel, Charles Keene, Edward Courbould and Hablot K Browne. It is unclear how Tissot became involved as an illustrator, but the present illustration represents virtually his first appearance before the British public.
In 1865, Tissot had only just begun to produce the modern life paintings for which he was to become so Eamous. Until this period his characteristic works were historical scenes in fifteenth or sixteenth century dress. His Faust series from the early 1860s indicates his interest in legendary subjects, and suggests why lie might have been chosen. It is noticeable that for an illustration the artist felt free to adopt an elegant elongated style, in contrast to the down to earth realism of his contemporary paintings.
The present drawing is an illustration to the poem, the Crusader's Wife. A knight goes away to the Holy war, leaving his wife in the care of his brother, who sets her to tend the sheep. Seven years later the knight returns:
'Light down, light down, my little page, and hold my bridle-rein,
Up yonder, on the hillside, I hear a silver strain,
A Little voice like silver upon the hill I hear,
The last time that I heard that voice was this day seven year.
'Now tell me, pretty maiden, who guard'st the silly sheep,
If I may find a lodging in yonder castle keep?'
'Yes, of a sooth, good gentleman, within that castle hall
You'll rind fair lodging for yourself, and for your steed a stall
'And soft and warm the feather bed spread for your rest will be
Such as I had in days gone by, when a husband cared for me.
'Twas not in fold, among the sheep, that then I slept for need
I ate not then from out the trough wherein the dogs do feed.'
The knight then makes himself known to his wife and they go together and surprise his brother. The poem is also illustrated by a wood engraving after Millais in the text.
Rossetti was deeply impressed by the present work, writing to his friend Alexander Macmillan:'I have seen the frontispiece & vignette to Tom Taylor's Breton Ballads designed by Tissot, which are admirable things. Could you as their publisher let me have a proof of each separate from the work?"" Macmillan responded with the gift of a drawing, possibly the present one.
Burne-Jones, The Pre-Raphaelites And Their Century. Peter Nahum, 1989. Catalogue number 133.
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Packer, Lona Mosk (ed.). The Rossetti -- Macmillan Letters, University of California Press, 1963, page 41, letter number 33, 3rd February 1865.
Theodore Viscomte de la Villemarque: Ballads and songs of Brittany, translated by Tom Taylor. London and Cambridge: Macmillan & Co. 1865.
Last modified 5 December 2001