Serendipity led me to a book on James Tissot in the Berkeley Library. If you’ve never heard of him, it’s okay, because he’s not exactly a superstar of nineteenth century art.
I first encountered Tissot in one of my mother’s art books, Edward Lucie-Smith and Celestine Dars’s How the Rich Lived: The Painter as Witness 1870-1914 (1976). That title is incredibly snooty and I suspect that’s why my mother owned it.
As a child, all the reproductions in that book fascinated me. It was only when I was older that I actually read the accompanying essays on the incomes, manners, and scandals of the period.
How the Rich Lived furnished me with some basic education about the class divide in nineteenth century Europe. When I started reading Charlotte Brontë and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as a girl, it helped me understand the social context of these works. Why both Mr. Rochester’s marriages were shocking and why Irene Adler was an unsuitable match for a royal personage became clear to me.
Yes, I was always an arts-and-culture nerd.
Going back to Tissot, though, I found his paintings compelling because of the repetition of the same female figure in all of them. How the Rich Lived gave scant details on Tissot, merely noting that the woman was his lover and she died young.
My inability to find out more—remember, this was the age before the internet and public libraries in Manila are in a woeful state—really frustrated me, teased as I was with this idea of a painter’s great love affair that ended in tragedy.
In any case, I simply filed the visual information away in my head and forgot about it for years.
As an adult, my interest in Tissot was rekindled when I saw one of his works at the Auckland Art Gallery. I recognized its style immediately, which included Tissot’s signature ruffled frocks and “that woman.”
It was a graceful, flighty thing that the museum was understandably proud of. One of their monographs detailed how the painting was restored after it was damaged in a botched art heist back in 1998.
Belated as it is, I’m really glad I found James Tissot, as edited by Krystyna Matyjaszkiewicz (1984). After all these years I found out the identity of the mysterious woman.
Her name was Mrs. Kathleen Newton and she was described as “a hauntingly pretty Irish divorcée.” Born Kathleen Kelly, Tissot’s great love led a very interesting life even before she met him in 1876. Apparently she was sent to India to meet her fiancé, in a match set up by her family. On the trip out, however, she fell in love with another officer. Despite her feelings, Kathleen was still married off. She was only seventeen years old.
When her husband discovered the situation, scandal erupted and he sought a divorce.
It’s unclear whether Kathleen Kelly Newton was a victim of circumstance, youthful indiscretion, or even the patriarchal attitudes of the time. Online sources suggest different ideas from the essays in the Matyjaszkiewicz book. It’s all quite confusing. What’s definite is that by the time Tissot met her in England, Kathleen was a twenty-two-year-old divorcée with an illegitimate child. She would give birth to another, whom many believe was fathered by Tissot.
Despite their relationship, Mrs. Newton and Tissot lived in separate households, living across the street from each other in St. John’s Wood. (Again, some online sources state differently.) The book itself never states why they never married.
Kathleen Newton died of tuberculosis at age twenty-eight. Even after her death, Tissot continued to draw and paint her likeness. There’s no indication that he had another serious relationship again.
Tissot was an odd man. He seemed to be a calculating sort of guy: equal parts artist, hustler, and businessman.
I’m pretty sure his contemporaries didn’t know what to make of him. He was known to backbite some of his friends, like the printmaker Marcellin Desboutin and Edgar Degas. On the other hand, he was on good terms with Édouard Manet and Camille Pissarro. He received some high-profile visitors at his English home, including Berthe Morisot, who was not very impressed with anything. (To quote a caveat from the book: “Everyone probably seemed a little vulgar next to Berthe Morisot.”)
As an addition to his known social weirdness, it’s been posited that Tissot was attracted to Kathleen’s sickly nature. After all, several of his paintings deal with fleeting seasons and ephemera. Tissot was definitely not bothered by depicting his muse covered in blankets, whether nursing a cold or merely looking frail.
I did not think deeply about these portrayals of Mrs. Newton before reading the Matyjaszkiewicz book. After more information on the nature of their relationship, in hindsight it all seems rather weird. Why would anyone want to capture their lover’s worst moments and romanticize them? I’m not sure what to make of it. Perhaps some Art History graduate student can make much of it for a thesis. This is going to be one of those trivial bits of history that I will turn over in my mind, time and again, in fruitless speculation regarding motive and artistic intent.
I suppose the goal of most artists is to be remembered after they are gone. In this way, Tissot succeeded, at least with me.
If you are in the Bay Area, you can check out some Tissot etchings and mezzotints at the Legion of Honor. If you are rolling in dough and wish to add to your art collection, you can buy some Tissots from the Christopher-Clark Fine Art Gallery near Union Square. Adam and I had stumbled upon this find in yet another moment of serendipity. I have a way of just chancing upon Tissot; even after this post is done, I am sure I haven’t seen the last of him yet.