ART MARKET / Tissot: a ladies' painter: Manhattan hostesses see him as the next best thing to an Impressionist, but will they pay dollars 2m for one of his works? asks Geraldine Norman

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JOHN RUSKIN, the Victorian art critic who championed Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites, described James Tissot's paintings as 'mere coloured photographs of vulgar society'. Tissot, a Frenchman from Nantes, got caught up with the Communards in Paris and fled to England in 1871. There he lived in St John's Wood with a beautiful Irish mistress, Mrs Kathleen Newton, and did not mix with London's high society.

While British critics dismissed his scenes of everyday life, in which Mrs Newton appeared in one fine dress after another - beautiful women in beautiful dresses are the hallmark of his paintings - the British public bought them enthusiastically.

Today the British can no longer afford them; it is the rich hostesses of Manhattan who find his paintings irresistible. 'I can think of 10 to 20 Tissots within a few blocks of each other in New York,' Christopher Wood says. He is a Bond Street dealer in Victorian pictures and the author of a book on Tissot.

The market will be tested with a vengeance on Wednesday and Thursday, when Sotheby's is offering four major Tissot paintings in New York, and Christie's two. Sotheby's ideas on the value of the artist's work are roughly double those of Christie's. Three of its paintings are estimated at dollars 1.2m-dollars 2m ( pounds 800,000- pounds 1.3m) while the best of Christie's two pictures is labelled dollars 600,000- dollars 800,000 ( pounds 400,000- pounds 530,000).

These very steep prices underline the Americans' perception of Tissot as the next best thing to an Impressionist. In fact, he was a friend of Degas and was invited to exhibit at the first Impressionist group show. Always careful of his reputation, he declined to show with the outsiders. As a result the French do not regard him as a serious painter; he hardly gets a mention in scholarly books on French painting.

Tissot's market rating is a fascinating example of how buyers do not always follow the accepted canons of art history. His work feeds the universal fascination with the Impressionist era and catches the timeless allure of pretty women. He is also an artist with an interesting personal life: he lived with Mrs Newton, the beautiful divorcee, from 1876 to 1882 when she died of consumption; in an agony of sorrow he immediately left London for Paris where he attempted to conjure up Mrs Newton's ghost at spiritualist seances.

His first artistic undertaking on his return to France was a series of large paintings exploring the role of women in French society, known as La Femme a Paris - three of the 17 pictures are to be offered at Sotheby's next week. Then he unexpectedly had a vision of Christ ministering to the poor on a visit to the church of St Sulpice. He spent the rest of his life painting biblical pictures which were an overwhelming success and made him very rich indeed. He had planned 350 of them and had completed 270 by the time he died. The New Testament pictures are now in the Brooklyn Museum and the Old Testament pictures in New York's Jewish Museum. Nobody ever looks at them.

The four Tissots at Sotheby's have been sent for sale by Joey and Toby Tanenbaum, a husband and wife team from Canada with a family fortune based on steel, who are into art collecting in a big way. They bought their Tissots in the 1970s when the market was first rediscovering Victorian painting; it had been dismissed as an aberration when the Impressionists came into fashion. The Tanenbaums made a collection of rediscovered masterpieces of English and French academic painting.

'We started as a hobby, but it's turned out almost full time,' Joey told me. They have now moved on to Old Master paintings, especially Spanish and Italian works of the 17th century, and antiquities. The sale of the Tissots reflects the fact that they are 'running out of free cash', says Joey. The very high estimates suggest that they are prepared to part with the pictures only if the market goes mad for them.

The highest auction price on record for any painting by James Tissot is the dollars 1,375,000 paid in May 1989, the very height of the 1980s boom, for a dazzling girl and a Chelsea pensioner in a bow window entitled Reading the News. According to Sotheby's estimates, the Tanenbaums are hoping to match this price or improve on it for their three Femme a Paris pictures.

A good early Tissot entitled The Widow estimated at pounds 300,000- pounds 500,000 at Christie's last summer ended up selling for pounds 187,000. The Victorian picture market has been heavily hit by the recession. But American collectors have been getting their confidence back in recent months. Next week's Tissots will be a good test of their courage.-