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CAITLIN DOLEY // Military Bodies and the Social Body in James Tissot’s The Thames (1876) and Portsmouth Dockyard (c. 1877)


This article attends to the complexities of what the French painter James Jacques Joseph Tissot (1836-1902) does with masculinity in association with the British military in a selection of paintings produced during his London Period (1871-1882).[1] The article’s central proposition is that in The Thames (1876) and Portsmouth Dockyard (c.1877), Tissot constructs a legible project that explores the relationship between military bodies and the larger social body. The findings of this article result in a novel understanding of Tissot as a more subversive creative figure than previous literature has allowed, one who was interested in interrogating and problematising the ability of military association to guarantee respectable masculinity, and who recognised that military men could make or break the social body that hosted them.



When one thinks of military themes in nineteenth-century British art, the works of the French painter James Jacques Joseph Tissot (1836-1902) do not instantly spring to mind as productive examples. In this article, I argue that a selection of the works Tissot created during his London Period (1871-1882) do, in fact, prompt constructive thinking about subversive creative engagement with established Victorian expectations of how the performance of military masculinity should be presented in art.[2]

Ian Thompson noted as early as 1984 that ‘few have accorded [Tissot] adequate recognition when it comes to painting men.’[3] The vast majority of scholarly literature on the artist to date establishes that Tissot, only relatively recently the subject of serious art historical study, is ‘best known as a painter of women.’[4] This focus on the artist’s depictions of women has dominated research into his oeuvre, to the extent that exceptionally few academics have considered the implications of Tissot’s male figures as being capable of conveying significant information about the artist and his contemporary audience’s interests, anxieties, and opinions.[5]

Addressing this neglected area of research, I argue that particular attention must be paid to Tissot’s engagement with a type of masculinity that can be understood as commanding both his and his audience’s attention during his London Period – this type is military masculinity. Military masculinity is an enduring phenomenon born of socio-cultural expectations for men involved with any section of the military to possess specific physical and mental characteristics, typically including strength, courage, and loyalty.[6] Public awareness of military masculinity was widespread in Britain during the second half of the nineteenth century, due in part to a shift in the understanding of the ideal of manliness that both imperialism and Muscular Christianity had earlier played a role in initiating.[7]


Fig. 1
James Jacques Joseph Tissot, The Thames (also known as On the Thames (or How Happy I Could Be With Either?)), c. 1876, oil on canvas, 74.8 x 118 cm, © Hepworth Wakefield Art Gallery.


This article breaks new scholarly ground for a number of disciplines – art history, nineteenth-century studies, war studies – by exploring the complexities of what Tissot does with military masculinity in two paintings produced during his London Period: The Thames (1876, Fig. 1) and Portsmouth Dockyard (c.1877, Fig. 2).[8] Each of these works depicts a British military man in uniform, accompanied by two women, surrounded by a body of water, and, notably, not on active duty. Contrasting these two paintings against Tissot’s far more conventional etchings of French soldiers in action during the Franco-Prussian war (1870-1871) makes it apparent that the artist intends the former to do something highly particular. While the Franco-Prussian works present relatively uncomplicated depictions of soldiers performing their expected duties, be it dying in battle or standing guard, Tissot’s positioning of his British military figures off-duty on British soil inherently suggests that their role extends beyond fighting battles and enables Tissot to visually link military bodies to their social context.


Fig. 2
James Jacques Joseph Tissot, Portsmouth Dockyard, c.1877, oil on canvas, 38.1 x 54.6 cm, London: Tate Britain, ©Tate.


In The Thames and Portsmouth Dockyard, the artist creates a legible relationship and dynamic interaction between respectable masculinity, the military, and the state of society as a whole. In nineteenth-century Britain there existed widespread interest in the relationship between society and individuals, with persevering historical notions of the human body as a social barometer.[9] The premise for Herbert Spencer’s popular physiological model for society as laid out in the Social Statics (1851) and First Principles (1862) was that society and all individuals are inseparably bound, meaning that when one individual succeeds or fails in their role within the organism that is the social body, the welfare of all and the physical state of society itself benefits or suffers accordingly.[10] Linking Tissot’s art to Spencer’s model enables productive thinking about the artist’s interest in this relationship between a single body and the larger world. Tissot constructs a project comparable to Spencer’s in The Thames and Portsmouth Dockyard, but his is intended to specifically consider the relationship between British society and male military bodies.

In the first section of this article, I examine nineteenth-century notions of military masculinity, its perceived relationship to the larger British society, and its representation in art. I consider Tissot’s Frederick Burnaby (1870), an earlier London Period work that engages with military masculinity, in order to illuminate the evolved agenda of the artist’s later military images. This framework contextualises my analysis of The Thames and Portsmouth Dockyard, and enables a more precise understanding of their socio-cultural reception. In the second section I highlight the elements of subversion that Tissot features in each of the canvases, with particular focus given to the artist’s handling of the documented ability of uniforms to varyingly contribute to and undermine masculine attributes and traits.[11] This leads me to show how Tissot employs uniforms and themes of restraint, exercise, and routine to render the popular nineteenth-century theme of a man choosing between two women unsettling in The Thames, yet acceptable in Portsmouth Dockyard. As a consequence of this close visual analysis and socio-cultural contextualisation, I propose that Tissot deliberately features water in both of the canvases to show that the physical and moral states of his painted military figures have an effect on the states of their surroundings.


The Nineteenth-Century Military Man

Tissot’s engagement with military bodies aligns the artist’s interests with large sections of mid- to late-nineteenth-century British society. The extensive attention this society paid to the general appearance, character, and motivations of the male body has been widely noted.[12] The appearance and temperament of military men received particular attention, due to the established idea that they were perceived in nineteenth-century civilian society to be the crucial indicators of the state of the overall social body.[13] In his study of British society’s relationship with the army, Gwyn Harries-Jenkins observes that there was a prevalent desire for the conduct and appearance of members of the military to provide ‘a reflection of dominant social values.’[14] If a man was to be trusted with ‘the preservation and continuation of [British society’s] basic norms and standards’, an alignment of values was an essential prerequisite, and one which must be demonstrated by a willing and thorough adaptation of the body and its behaviour.[15] Nineteenth-century bodies associated with the military were therefore expected to appear and behave in a very exact manner.

In his 1865 treatise Sesame and Lilies John Ruskin summarised the nineteenth-century expectations of a healthy, respectable normative masculinity, prescribing men’s expected duties and their attitudes towards their country and themselves. He says:

The man’s power is active, progressive, defensive. He is eminently the doer, the creator, the discoverer, the defender. His […] energy [is] for adventure, for war, for conquest, wherever war is just, wherever conquest is necessary. The man […] must be […] always hardened.[16]

The words ‘might’, ‘hardiness’, ‘energy’, ‘determination’, ‘honour’, ‘tidiness’, ‘pride’, ‘straightforwardness’, and ‘courage’ repeatedly appear throughout a range of other nineteenth-century advisory writings on what was expected from military men.[17] This list of requirements makes it apparent that if a man was to be capable of serving and representing his society, his body had to be strong, durable, adaptable, and well-presented, and his character energetic, resilient, hard-working, and aligned with the aims of his country. Both elements were required to unite in order to make a useful, desirable whole.


Fig. 3
William Hardie Hay, Field Marshal HRH Edward Augustus, Duke of Kent and Strathearn, 1885, oil on canvas, 238.5 x 147.5 cm, © Museum of Freemasonry, London


The focus given to and importance placed on the state of military bodies resulted in artistic conventions around the depiction of men associated with the military.[18] Orthodox paintings of military men, such as William Hardie Hay’s Field Marshal HRH Edward Augustus, Duke of Kent and Strathearn (1885, Fig. 3), Sir Francis Grant’s General Sir James Hope Grant (1853, Fig. 4), and Henry Tanworth Wells’s Volunteers at the Firing-Point, 1866 (1866), presented them standing, often in an external setting designed to allude to the travel and robustness required by a military career, and frequently using, holding, or at least visibly near weapons to attest to their strength, bravery, and willingness to use violence in the defence of their country.[19] Some of the male figures in Wells’s work are sitting, leaning, and even lying down, but their attention is ultimately on the preparation and firing of the weapons surrounding them, indicating that they are committed to performing their duty. While it must be acknowledged that Hay and Grant’s works are commissioned portraits that therefore carry particular expectations, it is impossible to overlook the fact that Tissot’s The Thames and Portsmouth Dockyard do not adhere to and, indeed, subvert the majority of the contemporary expectations for how the performance of military masculinity should be presented in art.


Fig. 4
Sir Francis Grant, General Sir James Hope Grant, 1808-1875. Soldier (As Lieutenant-Colonel of the 9th Lancers), 1853, oil on canvas, 223.4 x 132.1 cm, Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland. Out of Copyright, National Galleries of Scotland.


It is significant that Tissot had already demonstrated an atypical approach to depicting military bodies with his 1870 portrait of Captain Frederick Burnaby (Fig. 5). The rarity of nineteenth-century images of military figures in a state of rest instantly renders Frederick Burnaby an unusual painting. The presentation of the work on a landscape-oriented canvas also inherently sets Frederick Burnaby apart from traditional nineteenth-century portraiture. The sitter is presented leaning against the raised back of a chaise longue draped in white fabric, his legs stretched out before him and his left arm holding a cigarette aloft. The full dress uniform of Burnaby’s cavalry regiment, the Royal Regiment of Horse Guards, rests beside him on a sofa with a sleek floral cover. In place of this official uniform, Burnaby wears a standard so-called ‘undress’ uniform of dark blue with gold and scarlet linings and accessorised with a white cross-belt. The colours of these scattered elements of uniform are the strongest in the composition, visually dominating the other softer colours of white, beige, and green present throughout what has been described as a feminine interior setting.[20]


Fig. 5
James Jacques Joseph Tissot, Captain Frederick Gustavus Burnaby, 1870, oil on panel, 49.5 x 59.7 cm, © National Portrait Gallery, London.


As is the case across the majority of Tissot’s oeuvre, this setting is as highly detailed and realistic as its featured figure.[21] Where and what this space is, resists precise identification. Given that Burnaby is presented lounging slouched with crossed legs and smoking, a natural presumption is that the room is an exclusively male space as this was a series of behaviours expressly forbidden to a respectable late-nineteenth-century man when ladies were present.[22] Burnaby seems to be engaged in conversation with a figure on the right, beyond the boundary of the canvas – possibly a man, as the context would suggest. Yet although both occupants of this room may be male, the floral wallpaper and delicate furnishings support a reading of the space as being a domestic sitting or drawing room rather than a club or a mess room. Positioned away from expected and acceptable masculine settings such as these and presented instead relaxed in a domestic one, Burnaby’s masculinity might initially be read as being compromised. However, further focus on Tissot’s subversive creative choices of canvas orientation and setting, and their relationship to Burnaby’s body and implied character reveals the artist’s aim to attest to both Burnaby’s masculinity and his military capabilities.

The atypical landscape orientation of Frederick Burnaby’s canvas results in longer horizontal measurements which assist Tissot in depicting a body which can convey a sense of power and physical might even while reclined in a state of rest. If Burnaby had been painted in this pose on a traditional portrait orientated canvas, his body would have seemed confined, resulting in a sense of the space as possessing more control over him than he over it. Tissot’s horizontally aligned composition allows the seated male body to stretch out and be displayed, as it visually occupies nearly the full width of the work. The composition centres on the strong lines of the sitter’s long legs, the thick, vivid scarlet strip running down the side of the uniform trousers encouraging the viewer’s eye to follow them all the way across the canvas to the sitter’s feet.

That the eye has to travel a length likened to the width of the globe in order to see this body in its entirety is noteworthy. The receding lines of the chaise longue and the rug Burnaby’s feet rest on encourage the eye to link and compare his form with that of the world map on the back wall, leading to considerations about the relationship between world order and the military body. Thinking back to the aforementioned effects that imperialism had on the nineteenth-century understanding of the ideal of manliness, it is noteworthy that this map does not show the whole world but is cropped to display primarily colonial territories of the British Empire in Asia. Even in a state of casual relaxation and without his legs fully extended, Burnaby’s body is broader than the map’s entire width. This implies a causal relationship between the physical prowess of the military body, reclining before the map, and the political and geographical power of British imperialism.[23]

While Burnaby’s ease in this domestic space might at first be perceived as problematic to his integrity as an active soldier, it is important to consider that British soldiers were expected to transition seamlessly between the battlefield and domestic life.[24] Adjutant-General Sir John MacDonald was quoted in The Times in 1840, describing British military men not only as physically capable but also ‘gentlemen by education, manners, and habits…conduct[ing] themselves as ought gentleman in every situation in which they may be placed.’[25] This emphasis on the need for the behaviour of military men both on and off the battlefield to be tightly controlled affirms that they were thought to influence the state of their surroundings at all times and in all places. Tissot’s decision to place Burnaby at leisure in a domestic space can be understood as allowing the artist to demonstrate the malleability of his body, in terms of adapting to drastically varying situations.

The artist’s presentation of Burnaby’s uniform also reassures the viewer that he is a man who uses, adapts, and presents his body for the benefit of the people. In Frederick Burnaby, uniform acts as a successful ‘extension of the bodily self’, an accomplishment enabled only by the body fully ‘embodying’ the connotations of the uniform.[26] The tight fit of both Burnaby’s trousers and jacket adheres to the contemporary desire for uniforms to ‘be distinguished by a certain stiffness, tightness, or severity of line’, and allows the viewer to be confident that all they see is Burnaby’s own muscled body.[27] The body independently expands into and matches the ideals of strength, energy, and trustworthiness represented by the cloth of the uniform, and the uniform, in turn, is able to assist in the construction of the body’s respectable image.

These interconnected ideas about military bodies expanding into uniforms and uniforms as requiring particular bodies to fill them carry across the canvas to the appearance of Burnaby’s full dress uniform. The highly polished cuirass resting on the floor before the sofa is positioned on a diagonal from and at exactly the same angle as Burnaby’s torso, encouraging the eye to link and compare the two, and providing the viewer with a second opportunity to observe the breadth of Burnaby’s chest. The bright material of the cuirass contrasts with the opaque blue of the undress jacket, but both attest to the solidity and impenetrability of Burnaby’s powerful torso. The highly structured, unalterable metal of the armour represents the unchanging expectations required of military men. Tissot’s compositional alignment of the cuirass with Burnaby’s corporeal form demonstrates that in this instance there is a successful match.

Burnaby’s jackboots of rigid leather stand up stiff to the right, in guise of another partial body double. Their vertical positioning provides even further evidence of Burnaby’s size, enabling the viewer to conceive of the captain’s full height when standing upright. That these boots are positioned halfway out of the canvas with the right one cocked forward as if ready to stride off at any moment implies Burnaby’s perpetual readiness to travel for his military work, an idea enforced again by the presence of the map.

So, despite initial detrimental impressions, Tissot’s creative decisions regarding setting, posing, and uniform result in a socially desirable image of Burnaby as a military man who is capable not only of occupying both the battlefield and a domestic drawing room, but of dominating both too. He is presented as physically powerful and capable of force, but, importantly, can also successfully adapt himself to fit into a peaceful domestic setting, in the process demonstrating the control he possesses over himself and his surroundings. The setting is saturated with elements designed to pay homage to Burnaby as a man who has succeeded in synchronising and maintaining his dual roles as honourable gentleman and valiant, capable soldier. Far from damaging the credibility of Burnaby’s military masculinity, this space demonstrates his successful embodiment of all that the role requires.

Frederick Burnaby disregards conventional expectations for how a painting of a military man should look but, undoubtedly in part due to its being a commissioned portrait, Tissot’s subversive creative decisions across the composition ultimately serve to ensure that the sitter is presented in a highly flattering light. Keeping this subversive approach to military bodies and the spaces around them in mind, turning attention to The Thames and Portsmouth Dockyard reveals that Tissot has a different agenda for these canvases.


The Thames and Portsmouth Dockyard

The Thames and Portsmouth Dockyard have broadly been understood as connected, with past academic studies offering readings of Portsmouth Dockyard as being a relatively uncomplicated attempt to restore Tissot to public favour following the rather negative criticisms The Thames received when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1876.[28] A close analysis of the two canvases as a pair further confirms their interconnectedness, but also allows their scholarly reception to be challenged: it shows that their pairing was a deliberate and complex attempt to provoke comparisons and critical assessment of the power conferred to the male military body. The Thames and Portsmouth Dockyard adhere to at least one of the previously listed nineteenth-century expectations for depictions of military men in that Tissot has positioned his figures in external settings. Each canvas takes a trio of figures depicted at leisure on a boat as its central subject matter. In each painting, this trio consists of two young women and a man whose uniform marks him as being a member of the British military.

In contrast to the obscure interior setting of Frederick Burnaby, here the two military figures are both depicted at distinctly British sites, their locations confirmed by the paintings’ titles. Contemporary reviewers understood The Thames as showing a particular section of the Pool of London, a trade hub where the city’s Custom House was contained.[29] The Pool held a special significance in the minds of Tissot’s British contemporaries, with Charles Mackay proudly declaring that it contained a ‘congregation of men, ships, and commerce of all nations, [and] warehouses’ which held ‘the stimulus and the reward of those men who have made England the Queen, and London the jewel, of the world.’[30] Portsmouth Dockyard was also a significant site in the British social conscience as it played host to the majority of Britain’s naval forces and, at the start of the nineteenth century, could lay claim to housing the largest industrial complex in the world.[31] These spaces were therefore construed as being vital barometers for analysing the health of the British social body, with Tissot’s contemporaries desiring them to possess favourable connotations of order, activity, and empire.[32]

Tissot’s decision to depict men with military associations near these nationally recognisable and valued sites, and also on bodies of water evidences the artist’s intent to test the influence of military figures over the social body. Whilst Frederick Burnaby’s composition featured a map to imply that the military body present has influence on a global scale, Tissot’s choice of an interior setting means that the viewer cannot judge the ultimate effect that Burnaby has on the social body. The Thames and Portsmouth Dockyard’s exterior settings allow for this judgement to occur. In this close reading of the two canvases, The Thames represents the need for the military body to be perpetually on-duty, even when at rest, and Portsmouth Dockyard exemplifies the benefits to military individuals and society as a whole of performing this duty.

The composition of The Thames revolves around the three figures reclining against the railings on the stern of a steam launch. At first glance, the man’s military status is not apparent, though we can identify him as a ‘navy officer’ or ‘naval officer’ through an analysis of his dress: the man sports a dark blue jacket and a cap badge with golden edges which match accounts of the uniforms worn by the Royal Navy that appear in contemporary newspapers.[33] Behind the dark umbrellas of the ladies on the scene, we observe the billowing flag of the Royal Naval Reserve. The potential for ambiguity about this figure’s job is troubling, particularly when considered against contemporary discourse that emphasised the need for military men to exhibit their uniforms proudly.[34] This ambiguity becomes more concerning when contrasted with the markedly unambiguous uniform of the military male in Portsmouth Dockyard. This second male figure is portrayed seated upright between his two female companions in a more traditional rowing boat, the tilted position of his head providing a clear view of his silver cap badge positioned above his left ear in his feather bonnet. This badge and the rest of his uniform enable the viewer to easily identify him as a member of the 42nd Royal Highlanders, a prominent and popular British infantry regiment with a sound contemporary reputation for order, courage, and, crucially, success.[35]

The appearances and colours of these two uniforms respectively problematise and assist the viewer’s attempts to interpret the bodies beneath them. The dark blue of The Thames’s naval officer’s jacket proves problematic, with the initial issues of legibility pertaining to the figure’s job extending over attempts to gain a comprehensive understanding of the condition of his body. The setting of The Thames contributes to the illegibility of the naval officer’s physique: despite being set during daytime, the canvas is dimly lit, with masses of grey, brown, and black smoke rendered through hazy brushstrokes dominating the background. These bleak colours are matched by the visually clearer but almost yellow-hued water in the fore and mid-ground. The Illustrated London News made a particular point of criticising the ‘mud-stained tormented water, reflecting a sky almost as sullied with smoke.’[36] There is no visible blue in the skyline, nor any sign of a natural source of light. This depiction of the Thames does not allow it to serve as the symbol of purity and vibrant source of life that certain contemporary writers suggested as they praised its nurturing, life-enabling qualities.[37] Instead, it appears better aligned with the opposing discourse of the Thames as problematically polluted and, thus, a potential pollutant itself.[38]

If the viewer understands Tissot as intending military body and space to be read as linked, they can begin to make sense of the unhealthy appearance of this work’s setting. As the details of the vessels and forms in the mid to far background of The Thames cannot coherently be observed, neither can the appearance of the naval officer’s body. The heavy blue of the uniform jacket causes the majority of his upper body to blend into the dark mass of blankets spread out between him and his companions. As the eye attempts to trace the lines of the jacket, it is distracted by swells of fabrics which match its colour. The result is a sense of the uniform failing to hold either its own shape or the body within it. Instead, these forms disintegrate and spill out and across the grated deck and, most troublingly, over the edges of the steam launch. The overall effect is that the man’s body appears to be degrading, leaking into and contributing to the notably unhealthy appearance of both the water and the larger space around it. Contemporary writings on the subject establish that the conditions of British water resources, particularly in the form of the Thames, were perceived as being a key indicator of the overall country’s health.[39] By visually suggesting that a flawed military body could result in the infection of one of ‘the most important […] elements for human existence’, Tissot renders manifest the control such bodies possess over the state of their surroundings.[40]

If the eye does succeed in tracing just the shape of the naval officer’s jacket, it is revealed to be an ill fit, creasing, swelling, and bulging with too much excess fabric to be able to convey any of the desired information about the body beneath it. As demonstrated in Frederick Burnaby, in the mid-to late-nineteenth century there was a recognised need for uniforms to display  ‘stiffness, tightness, [and] severity of line’, something which requires a distinct type of body.[41] Whilst an ideal military body should, like Burnaby’s, be the correct shape to fill out a uniform to a visually satisfying and socially desired point of tightness, The Thames’s officer’s form fails to match and absorb his uniform like a second skin. Instead, his torso appears to dissolve into it, his body’s inability to assist the fabric in holding its shape contributing to the sense of the very material of the uniform becoming corrupted.

At the same time as the dark fabrics on the launch’s deck problematise the figure’s torso and suggest a sense of infectious leakage of failed masculinity into the wider surroundings, they also serve as a backdrop against which the pale form of his legs can be judged. Disappointingly they are, like his chest, evidently not rounded enough with muscle to straighten out and pleasingly strain the material of the uniform trousers. The viewer is therefore unable to gain an overall coherent image of the body beneath these clothes. Uniforms can only effectively assist in the construction of respectable masculinity if the bodies inside them can achieve what is required by the dimensions of their preassigned mould.[42] As this particular body is incapable of doing this, the naval uniform is unable to fulfil its task of presenting this figure as a physically capable individual who can be trusted to efficiently perform his duty for Britain.

There is a link between this ambiguous body and the unidentifiable dark-haired dog sleeping beside it. Scholars like Diana Donald and Steve Baker have explored the representation of animals in art as subservient to providing information about the humans they accompany; through this line of analysis, the presence of the dog in Tissot’s painting further problematises the reading of the naval officer.[43] The utter disinterest exhibited by the dog echoes the languid, lounging pose of the officer, reinforcing his contemptible idleness.

In contrast to the highly problematic military figure and setting of The Thames, Portsmouth Dockyard presents a desirable, more mutually beneficial relationship between the man and the space around him. The painting’s bright, visually coherent setting indexes a healthier social body, the sunlit blue waters of the harbour conveying pleasing ideas about purity and cleanliness. The vivid imperial red of the soldier’s jacket is the brightest colour in the painting, a bold statement of his military status and a fulcrum of the composition, to which the viewer’s eye is repeatedly drawn. The man’s kilt reveals bare skin – unusual, but still within the bounds of propriety – allowing Tissot to explore the musculature of his legs in detail, their protruding, rounded curves of muscle visually emphasised by the broad, forward-cupped motion of the soldier’s hands around his upper knee. The fact that the skin is bare confirms that all the viewer sees is real and not the effect of clever tailoring: there is no wadding or stuffing present to create ‘an egregiously false impression of superior form’, a deceitful aspect of nineteenth-century male fashion which contemporary writers about masculinity decried.[44] One writer at the time complained of men who were:

Covered with the triumphs of [the tailor’s art] – very much improved in shape […], but presenting an unmistakable appearance of unreality withal – [certain men] come forth great in their own estimation […] Pshaw, my friends, they are only walking clothes-screens […][T]heir dress fail[s] to make them manly […][Tailors are guilty of] padding you into shape and proportion, and then palming you on the world under false pretences.[45]

Portsmouth Dockyard thus provides a pleasingly contrasting image of natural masculinity to the excesses of man-made fabric present in The Thames.[46] The robust nature of this soldier’s corporeal form is further showcased by his upright positioning beside two women, juxtaposing his appearance to their more delicate forms.

The general positioning of all three of these figures is far more socially acceptable than that of the reclined trio in The Thames. In fact, the pose adopted by the naval officer in The Thames is one which was explicitly critiqued by Samuel Orchart Beeton, who stated that: ‘Crossing the legs, elevating the feet, lounging on one side […] though quite excusable in the abandon of bachelor seclusion, should never be indulged […] in the company of ladies [where] too much care cannot be exhibited in one’s attitudes.’[47] In such company, a man must ‘sit upright with the feet on the floor and the hands quietly adjusted before one’ and focus the ‘entirety of their attention’ on the wellbeing of their female companions. Although the soldier in Portsmouth Dockyard has his legs and hands crossed, he is quite clearly focusing the entirety of his attention on the lady to the left, which can be read as providing a visual indicator of his respectability.

The behaviour of military men whilst in the presence of women was particularly attended to in the nineteenth-century, with psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing asserting that it was ‘a well-known fact’ that their uniforms might prove dangerously attractive to females.[48] The relatively high rate of seductions of young women by men associated with the military led William Tait, a surgeon investigating the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, to state that ‘Soldiers are more frequently guilty of the crime of seduction than any other class of the community. [They are] dangerous enemies to the female portion of the population.’[49] Given the widespread nature of this belief, visual representations of military men were required to avoid any ambiguity in the purpose of a soldier’s proximity to a woman if their figures were to be deemed respectable.[50]

As is arguably the case throughout the majority of his oeuvre, Tissot does not entirely adhere to these contemporary requirements for narrative clarity. However, the proximity of his military figures to women conveys very significant and very different information about each of their characters. In The Thames, the naval officer’s proximity to femininity further damages the viewer’s already compromised opinion of him. He not only lounges before these women in a careless and discourteous manner expressly forbidden by contemporary social regulations, with his feet close enough to impolitely disturb the edges of their dresses, but also lacks the socially required ability to attend to and, implicitly, care for them.[51] Despite the fact that the female figure directly behind him attempts to converse with him in an animated manner, he has his face turned so far away from her direction that the eyelashes of his left eye are visible to the viewer. This positioning reveals that his expression is markedly blank. The viewer is left with an uneasy sense of his disinterest in his female companions. Nineteenth-century viewers would have registered this as shockingly ill-mannered, likely concluding, in the words of Cecil B. Hartley that ‘a man […] who looks bored […] is an ill-bred man.’[52]

The presence of three champagne bottles in the well of the steam launch exacerbates these concerns. The figure’s uniform marks him as a member of the British navy, implying that he should be alert, adept, and in control of vessels on water. He fails to fulfil these expectations and lounges disinterestedly in what is effectively his workplace, possessing seemingly no control over, or interest in controlling, where the steam launch is going. The implication that he has surrendered his physical and mental control to alcohol intensifies these concerns. His failures are presented as spreading outwards to damage his surroundings, his neglect and indifference visually linked to the compromised appearance of the background by the blankets on the deck. He might have succeeded in donning a uniform, but all this visual assignment of power has done is to enable his flaws to spread at an alarming rate to his surroundings.

This problematic vision of military masculinity is wholly juxtaposed by the soldier in Portsmouth Dockyard. Tissot presents this figure as being entirely attentive to and considerate of his female companions in all respects. There is certainly an atmosphere of admiration and, potentially, flirtation, but it is all entirely appropriate, with the carefully constrained posture of this male form designed by Tissot to assure the viewer of his good character. For instance, although the slightly bunched appearance of the arms and shoulders of the soldier’s red jacket might initially appear problematic in the context of previously discussed uniform regulations, an alternative interpretation is that Tissot is depicting a male form which is aware that it must not entirely dominate a space when female figures are present and adjusts itself appropriately in response.[53] It was widely recognised that a respectable man would adapt his body and its behaviour in order not to impose upon and potentially harm ladies, perceived as delicate presences.[54] Military men were perceived as particularly physically large and capable of inflicting damage, requiring them to control their bodies in the presence of ladies. The soldier in Portsmouth Dockyard adheres to this requirement, altering his commendable body by lowering his broad shoulders, folding his legs, and closing his form inwards by clasping his knee to prevent his physique from excessively imposing on his companions, or his hands from potentially touching something they should not. At the same time, he rocks up slightly and tilts his curved form backwards, enabling the woman on his right to be able to speak to her companion on his other side without having to strain her own body.

This position demonstrates the soldier’s physical control, which is also evidenced by the presence of the rowing boat in the background and the fact that the trio is seated in such a boat themselves. The activity of rowing was understood by British society as involving and encouraging physical exertion, teamwork, and discipline, all qualities required of military men.[55] A. T. W. Shadwell praised the effects rowing had on the male body and mind, asserting that the discipline required from the activity:

[…] involves in itself the notion of principles, and these, when carried into practice, enter into men’s ways of thinking and feeling […] and become [their] hereditary guides […] a wholesome pervading system of tradition and a standard which each man endeavours to act up to. Discipline, in truth, has an immense moral effect, and that an enduring one.[56]

The soldier might not be depicted in the act of rowing, yet his physical prowess, proximity to the activity, and situation in a similar vessel suggest to the viewer that he is entirely capable of partaking in it. By contrast, The Thames’s mechanised steam launch further harms its naval officer’s respectability and masculinity, particularly when the late nineteenth-century belief in a direct correlation between the rising popularity of steam power and deterioration in the quality of sailors is noted.[57]

This article has interpreted Tissot’s composition in The Thames as a metaphor for what might happen to the British social body when the physical body of a member of its military fails to dress or behave appropriately. The male body depicted in this canvas cannot successfully fill the physical material of the naval uniform, nor demonstrate the strength, mental activity, chivalry, and trustworthiness it is meant to represent. These failings raise concerns for the safety of his companions and, by extension, the health of society as a whole. Portsmouth Dockyard directly contrasts this canvas by presenting the benefits that occur for both military individuals and British society when a military body adheres to all aspects of what is required of it, even off-duty. The featured soldier demonstrates that his self-control is a permanent feature of both his corporeal form and his character, adapting his body via exercise and manners to serve his female companions and, by analogy, to contribute to the healthy state of the British social body. The two nationally recognisable exterior settings of The Thames and Portsmouth Dockyard demonstrate deliberate artistic decisions designed to highlight the extent of the power British military men possessed. Both of the works’ positioning on water further emphasises the idea that influence, be it good or bad, travels, with The Thames’s unhealthy appearance demonstrating the damage that a single flawed military figure can bring about.



 Although Tissot is an artist traditionally studied for his depictions of women, investigating his handling of the military body in works created during his London Period enables a new understanding of the artist as interested in exploring the implications of a connection between a certain type of male body and the space around it. Tissot’s interest in such a connection arose with his portrait of Frederick Burnaby and evolved in The Thames and Portsmouth Dockyard to become a legible investigation into the relationship between respectable masculinity and the military, and into the state of British society as a whole. Tissot’s decision to depict his later two military bodies off-duty and positioned on bodies of water at distinctly British sites enables the artist to suggest that a military figure’s ability to influence the state of their surroundings extends beyond the battlefield and never truly ceases.  A close examination of these depictions of British military masculinity suggests that although the artist perceives this connection between military body and social body as potentially beneficial to both parties, both he and his contemporary audience are simultaneously aware of the risks that come with imbuing one type of body with so much power.

Moving forward, this case study demonstrates that the visual vocabulary of war and militarism in nineteenth-century Britain is fertile ground for study; prioritising military themes when researching paintings from the period leads to an enhanced awareness of previously unconsidered potentialities. At its most relevant, it can shed new light on how militarism operates in civil society and has the potential to highlight and challenge its failures.



Caitlin Doley is a PhD candidate working under the supervision of Professor Elizabeth Prettejohn at the University of York. Her doctoral thesis examines the intersection of old age and art in late nineteenth-century Britain. In 2016 Caitlin completed an MA at The Courtauld Institute of Art that focused on the Victorian and Edwardian interior between 1851 and 1910. She previously completed a BA in History of Art at the University of East Anglia. 


[1] This article is an edited section of my MA dissertation. See Caitlin Doley, Military Bodies and the Social Body in the British Art of James Tissot, 1870-1878 (MA diss., Courtauld Institute of Art, 2016).
[2] See Joan Winifred Martin Hichberger, Images of the Army: The Military in British Art, 1815 –1914 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991); Matthew Paul Lalumia, Realism and Politics in Victorian Art of the Crimean War (Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research press, 1984).
[3] Ian Thomson, ‘Reviewed Work: James Tissot by Michael Wentworth’, Oxford Art Journal 7, no. 2 (1984), 69.
[4] Nancy Rose Marshall in James Tissot: Victorian Life/Modern Love, ed. Nancy Rose Marshall and Malcolm Warner (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999), 51.
[5] On gender in Tissot’s works, see Tamar Garb, ‘James Tissot’s “Parisienne” and the Making of the Modern Woman’, in Bodies of Modernity: Figure and Flesh in Fin-de-Siècle France (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, 1998), 80-113 (see also Garb, ‘Painting the Parisienne’, in Seductive Surfaces: The Art of Tissot, ed. Katherine Lochnan (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999), 95-110); Lauren E. Ambielli, Reframing the Parable: An Analysis of Gender and Subjectivity in James Tissot’s ‘The Prodigal Son in Modern Life’ (MA diss., Courtauld Institute of Art, 2015).
[6] See Gwyn Harries-Jenkins, The Army in Victorian Society (Oxford: Routledge, 2007); Paul Higate, Military Masculinities: Identity and the State (California: Praeger, 2003).
[7] See Herbert Sussman, ‘The Study of Victorian Masculinities’, Victorian Literature and Culture 20 (1992), 366-377; John Rosh, A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).
[8] Some literature refers to The Thames as On the Thames (or How Happy I Could Be With Either?).
[9] See Christopher E. Forth, Masculinity in the Modern West: Gender, Civilisation, and the Body (New York and Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 3-7 and 99-116; Bruce Haley, The Healthy Body and Victorian Culture (Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press, 1978), 2-20.
[10] Herbert Spencer, Social Statics; or, The Conditions Essential to Human Happiness Specified, and the First of Them Developed (1851; New York: Appleton, 1888) and First Principles, 4th ed. (1862; New York: DeWitt Revolving Fund, 1880).
[11] J. C. Flugel, The Psychology of Clothes (London: The Hogarth Press Ltd, 1950), 33-35; Paul Russell, Uniforms: Why We Are What We Wear (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002), 5.
[12] See James Eli Adams, Dandies and Desert Saints: Styles of Victorian Manhood (New York: Cornell University Press, 1995); John Tosh, Manliness and Masculinities in Nineteenth-Century Britain: Essays on Gender, Family, and Empire (London: Pearson Education Ltd, 2005).
[13] See Harries-Jenkins, 1-6 and 21-23; Peter Karsten, ‘Volume Introduction’ and Stephen Wilson, ‘For a Socio-Historical Approach to the Study of Western Military Culture’, in The Military-State-Society Symbiosis, ed. Peter Karsten (New York and London: Garland Publishing Inc., 1998),  ix-xiii and 193-218.
[14] Harries-Jenkins, 10; Jeremy Black, War in the Nineteenth Century: 1800-1914, (London: Wiley, 2009), 19-27.
[15] Harries-Jenkins, 9-10.
[16] John Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies, ed. Deborah Epstein Nord (1865; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002), 77.
[17] See, for example, James Hinton, ‘Health’, Cornhill 3, no.1 (1861), 332-341; William Landels, How Men are Made (London: J. Heaton and Son, 1859); Anon., ‘Mens Sana in Corpore Sano’, Baily’s Magazine of Sports and Pastimes 7, no.1 (1864), 330-334; Reverend Harvey Newcomb, Youth and its Duties: A Book for Young Gentlemen, Containing Useful Hints on the Formation of Character (London: Gall and Inglis, 1873), 9-14; Samuel Smiles, Character (London: John Murray, 1871) and Self-Help; with Illustrations of Conduct and Perseverance, rev. ed. (New York: Harper, 1899).
[18] See Tim Barringer, Men at Work: Art and Labour in Victorian Britain (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005), 16 and 28-29; Joseph A. Kestner, Masculinities in Victorian Painting (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1995), 92-140 and 189-234.
[19] For an image of Volunteers at the Firing-Point, 1866 please visit:
[20] Jan Marsh, ‘Frederick Burnaby: Extended catalogue entry’ (Published: n.d., Last accessed: 30 August 2019,
[21] See Katherine Lochnan, ‘The Medium and the Message: Popular Prints and the Work of James Tissot’, in Seductive Surfaces, 1-22; Nancy Rose Marshall, ‘James Tissot’s “Coloured Photographs of Vulgar Society”’, in Victorian Vulgarity: Taste in Verbal and Visual Culture, ed. Susan David Bernstein and Elsie B. Michie (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing, 2009), 201-222.
[22] On the behaviour expected from gentlemen around ladies, see Anon, Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen (London: Frederick Warne, 1876); Samuel Orchart Beeton, All About Etiquette; or The Manners of Polite Society for Ladies, Gentlemen and Families (London: Ward, Lock and Tyler, 1876), 29-34.
[23] I am aware that there is a discourse behind Frederick Burnaby’s colonial context. However I have a limited word count and this discussion would exceed the scope of this paper. See Tim Barringer, Geoff Quilley, and Douglas Fordham, eds., Art and the British Empire (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2007).
[24] See Stephen McVeigh and Nicola Cooper, eds., Men After War (New York and London: Routledge, 2013), 2; Alan Ramsey Skelley, The Victorian Army at Home (London and Montreal: Croom Helm, 1977), 50-55.
[25] Adjutant-General Sir John MacDonald quoted in The Times (24 October 1840).
[26] Flugel, 34.
[27] Ibid., 97. See also Adjutant-General’s Office, The Queen’s Regulations and Orders for the Army (London: John W. Parker and Son, 1859), 148-154.
[28] This reading of the canvases is suggested in Nancy Rose Marshall, “Transcripts of Modern Life”: The London Paintings of James Tissot 1871-1882, (PhD diss., Ann Arbor: UMI Dissertation Services, 2005), 57; Wentworth, James Tissot, 107-109 and 141.
[29] ‘The Royal Academy’, The Athenaeum (13 May 1876), 670; ‘Royal Academy, Third Notice’, The Times (22 May 1876), 6.
[30] Charles Mackay quoted in Edward Walford, Old and New London: A Narrative of Its History, Its People, and Its Places, Volume III (London: Cassell and Company, 1892), 287.
[31] R. C. Riley, The Evolution of the Docks and Industrial Buildings in Portsmouth Royal Dockyard: 1698-1914 (Portsmouth: Portsmouth City Council, 1985).
[32] See Anon, The Royal River: The Thames, from Source to Sea (London, Paris, and New York: Cassell and Co., 1885); Routledge’s Popular Guide to London and its Suburbs (London: George Routledge and Sons, 1879, 168-171).
[33] ‘The Royal Academy’, The Echo (3rd June 1876), 4; ‘Royal Academy Exhibition, Third Notice’, The Illustrated London News (13th May 1876), 475. For more information about nineteenth-century naval uniforms and cap badges, see Miller.
[34] See Adjutant-General’s Office, 14-29 and 148-154, and also the 1899 version of this text (London: Harrison and Sons, 1899), 39-44. See also Flugel, 34.
[35] Percy Graves, Illustrated Histories of the Scottish Regiment, Volume III (Edinburgh and London: W. and A. K. Johnston, 1893), 13-16. The Royal Highlanders, also known as the Black Watch, were commended for their bravery in the Indian Mutiny (1857) and also in the battle against the King of the Ashanti (1873). See Victoria Schofield, The Highland Furies: The Black Watch 1739-1899 (London: Quercus, 2012).
[36] ‘Royal Academy Exhibition’, Illustrated London News, 475.
[37] For example, Aaron Watson, Godfrey Turner, Charles Kingsley, and T. G. Bonney, The Royal River: The Thames from Source to Sea (London: Cassell and Co., 1885).
[38] See Henry Charles Burdett, Thames Water: Its Impurities, Dangers, and Contaminations (London: Sanitary Institute, 1870); Alexander Glen, Rivers Pollution Prevention Act (London: Knight and Co., 1876).
[39] See Burdett; Glen; Watson et al.
[40] Abel Wolman, Water, Health, and Society, Selected Papers by Abel Wolman, ed. Gilbert F. White (Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1969), 3.
[41] Flugel, 97.
[42] Russell, 11.
[43] Steve Baker, Picturing the Beast: Animals, Identity, and Representation (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1993), 4-13 and 78-81; Diana Donald, Picturing Animals in Britain, 1750-1850 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007), 3-7.
[44] Beeton, 39.
[45] Landels, 11.
[46] See Beeton, 39; Landels, 11.
[47] Beeton, 31.
[48] Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Psychopathia Sexualis: A Medico-Legal Study, 12th Edition (First published, 1886; New York: Bantam Books, 1969), 17.
[49] William Tait, Magdalenism: An Inquiry into the Extent, Causes, and Consequences of Prostitution in Edinburgh (Edinburgh: P. Rickard, South Bridge, 1840), 161-162.
[50] Hichberger notes that devoted childhood sweethearts, wives, and mothers were the favoured choices to bypass this hurdle of ambiguity. See Hichberger 176-179.
[51] Anon, Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen, pp. 11-15; and Beeton, 29-31.
[52] Cecil B. Hartley, The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness; Being a Complete Guide for a Gentleman’s Conduct in All His Relations Towards Society from the Best French, English, and American Authorities (Boston: Locke and Bubier, 1875), 100.
[53] Ibid., 31.
[54] See throughout Anon, Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen; Hartley.
[55] Eric Hallady, ‘Of Price and Prejudice: The Amateur Question in English Nineteenth-Century Rowing’, in Sport-Loving Society: Victorian and Edwardian Middle-Class England at Play, ed. J. A. Mangan (London and New York: Routledge, 2006), 239-254.
[56] A. T. W. Shadwell, The Principles of Rowing and Steering (London and Oxford: Slatter and Rose, 1846), 25.
[57] George Dunlop Leslie, Our River: Personal Reminiscences of an Artist’s Life on the River Thames (London: Bradbury, Agnew and Co., 1881), 255-257. See also Herbert L. Sussman, Victorian Technology: Invention, Innovation, and the Rise of the Machine (California: ABC-CLIO, 2009), 81-91.

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