Although it is not known whether Tissot visited London in the 1860s, the French painter had already oriented his subjects and style to suit British taste by the time he moved there in 1871. Like many fellow artists—for example, Monet, Pissarro, and Degas—he sought to escape the tumult and aftermath of the civil war in Paris that followed the Prussian defeat of France. He immediately immersed himself in the London scene, with work for Vanity Fair and genre paintings with the Thames as backdrop. Hoping to bank on the success he had in France with historical genre pictures peopled with fancifully costumed Incroyables and Merveilleuses (young Parisians of the Directoire period who paraded in extraordinary and exaggerated dress), he painted several anecdotal scenes set in late-eighteenth-century London.
Bad News (National Museum of Wales, Cardiff), shown to great acclaim at the 1872 London International Exhibition, was one of the first and most successful of Tissot's British genre scenes. It shows a young ship's captain and his girlfriend absorbing the news of his imminent departure while a companion prepares tea. Evidently encouraged by the positive reception, Tissot made two further pictures. An Interesting Story (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne) was perhaps conceived as a pendant to Bad News, and was exhibited at the Royal Academy the same year, 1872 (the figures are different but they are located in the same interior, with a new view through the window). The third in this group of related subjects is the present work, Tea.
Tea is essentially a replica of the left-hand side of Bad News. Nevertheless, there are numerous differences between the two pictures, some notable. Indeed Michael Wentworth characterizes such works of the early 1870s as "variations" rather than "replicas" (1984, p. 20). The table-leaf, dropped in Bad News, is here extended to reveal more of the young lady’s dress, and thus the entire table is moved to the right. The view beyond the windows is here more decidedly urban and recognizably London. An Interesting Story and Tea seem to share the same view of the Thames; the bay window seen here and in other paintings may be the same one shown from the exterior in The Captain’s Daughter (1873; Southampton Art Gallery) and The Three Crows Inn, Gravesend (ca. 1873; National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin). The silver tea service (but not the porcelain, which shows coffee cans rather than tea cups) and the play of light, especially on the face, are different as well. There are other, less obvious small discrepancies in the hat ribbons and the ruff of the apron along the back, and the young woman has lost her earring.
While Bad News and An Interesting Story could conceivably be hung as pendants, Tea is too similar to both to be exhibited together with them. Hence, it must have been an independent work designed to entice a collector through its association with the first two well-regarded exhibition pictures. For this variant, Tissot reveled in the variety of surfaces—brilliant silver, polished mahogany, matte silk, and flawless skin—and in the complex play of patterns—venetian blinds, slotted shutters, striped silk, and the masts and rigging of the ships at port. Nevertheless, it seems that all three works were made within a short span. A drawing (private collection), formerly in the collection of Edgar Degas, has a study for An Interesting Story on one side, and a study, perhaps made after rather than for Bad News, on the reverse. This drawing may well have been used in the creation of Tea, which is dated 1872.
This procedure is identical to that used by Edgar Degas at approximately the same time. For example, Degas's two pictures of The Rehearsal of the Ballet on the Stage (MMA 29.100.39 and 29.160.26) are very close variants of the same composition, for which the same drawings were used, but the resulting compositions have important differences—perhaps improvements—nonetheless. (See Michael Pantazzi in Degas, exh. cat., New York, 1988, pp. 225–30.) Not only were Degas and Tissot good friends before and after the Franco-Prussian War, but Degas often sought advice from Tissot and hoped to emulate his success with commercial illustration and genre pictures. Degas hoped that Tissot could help him sell The Rehearsal on the Stage as a commercial illustration, and his Portraits in an Office (New Orleans) of 1873 was specifically conceived to lure a client along the lines of Tissot's British clientele, as suggested by Degas's letter to him from New Orleans: "And you, what news is there since the 700 pounds? You with your terrible activity would be capable of drawing money out of this crowd of cotton brokers and cotton dealers, etc." (In 1878, this would become the first work by Degas to enter a public collection, the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Pau, which acquired it for 2,000 francs; Degas’s letter to Tissot is dated November 19, 1872: see Marcel Guerin, ed., Edgar Germain Hilaire Degas Letters, Oxford, 1947, p. 18).
[Tinterow and Miller 2005; updated by Asher Ethan Miller 2014]