James Tissot’s Waiting for the Train (Willesden Junction) is one of the small treasures of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery in New Zealand. It’s a panel painting depicting a young woman at a London station about to depart for a long stay somewhere. Most viewers are immediately struck by her gaze: not haughty exactly, but direct and self-assured. She seems an early version of the New Woman, the independent female who would appear in the stories of Henry James and plays of Henrik Ibsen in the coming decades.
The exact date of the painting is uncertain, but it was produced soon after Tissot immigrated to London from Paris in 1871. He was a friend of Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, and other painters associated with Impressionism, but he was leaving behind a homeland suffering deprivation and disorder after the humiliating Franco-Prussian War. In London he honed a style and subject matter that distanced him from those artists and those political concerns—images of glamorous people in stylish, expensive settings. As an outsider, he noticed idiosyncrasies of British society that his homegrown colleagues overlooked, and many of his works contain subtle critiques of his second home. Dunedin’s painting seems an interesting transitional work—set in London, but in a thoroughly unglamorous setting, still preserving the slightly rougher brushstrokes of his French contemporaries.
Willesden Junction is in northwest London. The station would have been less than a decade old when Tissot painted this image. It was a junction for two train lines: the West Coast Line, taking travellers to Birmingham and on to Scotland; and the North London Line, running east-west across northern London. You can see the latter line in the middle distance; a stairway leads up to the North London Line’s station. Our traveller is going further afield. Her many bags suggest a long stay away; her plaid shawl suggests a Scottish destination. Perhaps she is returning home.
We may want to read Tissot’s painting with a hint of nostalgia, but in fact it’s an image of circa-1870 modernity. Long-distance train travel began in Britain in the 1830s and became widespread in the 1850s, allowing a wider range of humanity to move more easily around the island. The image’s modernity also comes across in the industrial manufacturing on display: the steam trains, the decorative wrought iron of the station, but also the machine-made black lace wrapped around the traveller’s neck. It’s apparent in her expression, the look of a moment, as if caught by a camera, another technology only a few decades old. Even the cropped figure on the left suggests a photographic accident. But we shouldn’t stop there. Tissot intimates the modern world even in the painting’s own design: the lines of the railroad, picked up playfully in the central figure’s jaunty hat and in her neighbour’s dress; the rectangles iterated in her bags, the stairway, and even the rubbish bin; the red and black squares in her plaid echoed in the machine-made perfection of the paving.
So everything around the young woman is new, less than a decade old. But what about the young woman herself? She isn’t poor: the ruching on her black skirt suggests a certain level of wealth, as do the number and variety of her bags (including a box for two hats). She has personal style: her simple, rather masculine hat—something like a straw boater—stands out among the more decorative (and therefore more expensive) hats of the three other women in the painting. She’s not terribly worried about how she looks—her cream overcoat will keep her warm, but it also keeps her from looking too elegant. And she’s well equipped for her trip: besides the plaid shawl for extra warmth on board, she holds an umbrella, a paperback volume, a large black purse, and a larger bouquet of flowers, which provide a variety of colour in an otherwise bland image. We’ve caught her eye, or she’s caught ours; but who are we? A friend? A lover? Or a porter? Whoever we are, she isn’t cowering.
So: an image of the modern woman, journeying home or on a holiday, alone and comfortable in her aloneness. A model for women of her time and today. But there are other aspects of the painting that suggest less comforting themes: the tyranny of travel, the challenges of mobility, perhaps the challenges of going home.
First, there’s the way she seems cut off from movement. Her baggage stops her from moving forward; the train tracks cut off her left. The strong diagonal of the roof closes her in. And then there’s that armful of belongings—how independent can one be without a free hand? In fact, I wonder if her belongings are more the subject of this painting than she is. After all, what has Tissot placed at the centre of this painting? Not so much his female model, but rather all the things she carries: a still life of the travelling woman’s necessities.
Similarly, the four bags are grouped together in such a way that they almost seem a continuation of her. They take up a lot of space; practically as much as she does. They also form a barrier between her and us.
Why include the rubbish bin? Today its dalek appearance is kind of wonderful, and its repetition of squares echoes the walkway. But surely its closeness, nay its visual attachment to the baggage is purposeful: here’s another modern traveller’s receptacle. You’ll find a whole lot of rubbish in each one. In fact, its narrowing shape almost seems to mock the form of our traveller.
Tissot was known as a social critic of his era; it wouldn’t be unusual for him to create an image that celebrates the freedom of travel but also critiques all the accessories that get in the way, that keep us from seeing each other as we are, that keep us from moving with ease.
He has (at least) one more trick up his sleeve: his name. Tissot has placed the initials JJT on the foremost piece of luggage, as if to say: you may think these bags are hers, but think again. We might take this as a bit of cleverness (ceci n’est pas une valise, anyone?), or a useful reminder that even the most independent travellers owe a debt to the kindness of others: generous parent, friends with cereal and spare sofas. But Tissot has also initialed his painting in a second place—difficult to see if you’re not viewing in person. JJT appears again in gold, forming the clasp on the woman’s black shoulder bag. Suddenly an image of (qualified) independence becomes something else: a statement about the inequalities of coverture.
Despite that trace of unironic patriarchy, I like the ambiguities of Waiting for the Train. And I can understand why the art collectors of Dunedin wanted it in their collection back in 1921, fifty years after its creation. True, in an era of Cubism and collage, Tissot’s unfashionable works could be purchased on the cheap. But the image of an independent woman must have spoken to a nation that granted women suffrage in 1893, three decades before the United States or United Kingdom. And the painting must have spoken to the Scottish immigrant core of Dunedin, who would have admired and understood a Victorian image of departure in ways that we do not. Earlier I noted the painting’s photographic qualities; if this were a photograph, the article in sharpest focus would be the plaid. And surely Dunedin’s ageing earlier settlers would have seen her plaid (and by extension, her) as a sign of a beloved, abandoned homeland. They might have appreciated her state of transit as well: eternally frozen in that liminal space, the train station platform, no longer in London, never reaching Scotland. She would join the other European immigrants (if a painting can be considered an immigrant) that made up the Art Gallery, works that would have eased or sharpened their viewers’ thoughts of a former home.
Today Waiting for the Train continues to connect us to the past, but it also connects us to the present. A recent study tells us that New Zealanders are the most peripatetic people in the world; we know all about waiting to go elsewhere. Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, Willesden Junction may look quite different today. That strip of green in the distance is probably gone, but the Junction still serves travellers departing for the north who today might well be Polish, Indian, or Australian.