Tissot is famous for his exquisite paintings of beautiful English women and most people think he was English. In fact Jacques-Joseph Tissot was born in Nantes, then a thriving port on the Loire estuary in western France. He adopted the name James as an anglicized form when living in England.
His friends were Manet and Degas, with whom he shared a teacher in the painting school in Paris. Not a lot is known of his personal life except that around 1876 a mysterious attractive lady begins to appear in his pictures. Her identity remained a mystery until well into this century. Her name was Kathleen Newton, née Kelly. Her father, an Irish army officer, arranged the marriage of his convent-educated daughter when she was only 17, sending her off to India to marry a certain Isaac Newton, a surgeon in the Indian Civil Service. On the ship, however, she fell in love with a Captain Palliser, but only confessed this to Newton after their wedding on 3rd of January 1871. Newton's response was to divorce her immediately.
Decree nisi was granted on the 20th December the same year. Kathleen had returned to England by then and on the same day gave birth to her daughter by Captain Palliser. We do not know exactly when or where Tissot met and fell in love with her, but we do know that in March 1871 she gave birth to another child, believed to be Tissot's son. This of course was regarded as scandalous behavior in those days and was kept secret by Kathleen's family until quite recently.
In 1876 Kathleen Newton and her two children moved into Tissot's house and remained there until her death from consumption in 1882. She was only 28. For Tissot, the time spent with Kathleen was the happiest period in his life, and one which he was to look back on longingly for the rest of his days.
Finding the thought of life in London intolerable without her, he decided to leave at once. Within only five days of her death he abandoned the house, leaving his paints, brushes and some unfinished canvases behind him, and returned to Paris. Later he sold the house to his friend Alma-Tadema.
He carried on painting the fashionable society for three years after arriving in Paris, but from 1885 until his death in 1902 became very religious and spent the last 17 years living as recluse painting religious pictures.
During his eleven years in London Tissot enjoyed great artistic and financial success and produced most of his finest work. Unlike some of the artists whose talents are only appreciated after their death, Tissot's pictures were loved and bought by his contemporaries and sold for very high prices.
Despite his success in England, however, the French persisted in regarding him as a minor artist and dismissed his work as being "too English”! And curiously, he is one of the few painters who have not "gone out of fashion". He appeals to us today as much as he did to the people who saw his pictures at his first exhibitions.
There are many reasons for this. The first is the fact that his paintings are so genuinely charming and beautiful. The contrast between the dazzling elegance and complexity of Victorian dress and the drab practicality of modern attire arouses feelings of nostalgia. He painted beautiful society ladies taking tea in conservatories, having picnics by ornamental pools, taking trips on boats and going to balls and concerts.
Kathleen Newton was a model for many of his paintings. We can see he adored her totally and loved to paint not just her pretty face, but also to dwell on her dresses, pleats, ribbons, bows and hats. He had not only a great artistic talent, but also an eye for style and a feeling for chic.
The second reason for his enduring popularity could be that although the people in his pictures are so elegant and pretty that they could have been lifeless models out of fashion magazines, they are yet very human. Every picture tells a story. The pictures of his Mrs Newton and her children exude an atmosphere of genuine domestic happiness.
Some pictures project a mood of unmistakable tension and unease. His pretty heroines seem lonely and frustrated. They gaze at the spectator with stares full of suppressed restlessness and boredom. Although apparently engaged in harmless and innocent diversions, they seem to be trapped behind the bars of an invisible cage.
Tissot often used the colors of the seasons and the weather to underline those surprising moods: his pictures are full of autumn leaves and grey, leaden skies. It's this psychological edge which elevates Tissot's work above the merely trivial. His genius was for depicting life that he saw around him in a highly personal and emotional way. What he understood was the paradoxical situation of the Victorian woman - she was a pretty bird in a cage: ornamental, pampered, but trapped within a rigid moral and social code. She was "The Angel of the House" but had no right to own property; she was a goddess but she could not divorce and had no vote.