Tissot and his Muse
Even a brief look into the life of celebrated artist James Tissot will reveal a figure named Kathleen Newton. Ms. Newton was the model for many of Tissot’s masterpieces, and it is evident that he had a great admiration for her. But who was she? To Tissot, Kathleen “Kate” Newton was an indispensable companion and constant source of inspiration. The two led a somewhat scandalous life together for their time, a life ending in untimely tragedy.
James Tissot was born in Nantes, France in 1836. When he was 20 years old, he moved to Paris to study art at the celebrated École des Beaux Arts, where he befriended such masters as Whistler and Degas. After studying in France he moved to London, where he spent most of the rest of his life.
Tissot’s keen business sense coupled with his natural artistic talent propelled him to the forefront of the London art scene. It is there that he met the ravishing Irish beauty Kathleen Newton sometime in the 1870s. Almost 20 years younger than Tissot, young Kate was already plagued with scandal due to her status as a single (divorced) mother. At the age of 16 her father arranged for her to be married to a surgeon named Isaac Newton. On her voyage to be married to Isaac she met a Captain Palliser, who quickly became enamored of her and is believed to be the father of Kate’s first child, Violet. Being a religious Catholic, Kate sought counsel from her confessor who advised her to tell Isaac about her relations with Captain Palliser. After Kate revealed to Isaac what had happened between her and the Captain, he immediately sent her away with no money and divorced her. Captain Pelliser agreed to pay for her return to London under the condition that she be his mistress, which she accepted. She gave birth to their daughter Violet in December of 1871 at the age of 17, but she never married Captain Palliser. After Violet’s birth, Kate moved in with her sister Polly in St. John’s Wood. James Tissot also lived in St. John’s Wood, and although it is unclear exactly how he and Kate met, it is known that she lived with him for some time.
In March of 1876 Kate gave birth to her second child, a boy named Cecil Ashburnham who is widely regarded to be Tissot’s son. Tissot’s relationship with Kate was looked down upon by many in their society, however he remained committed to her at the expense of his popularity. Tissot reportedly described their life together as “domestic bliss” and most consider Kate to have been the love of his life.
Sadly she contracted tuberculosis and, unable to bear the pain inflicted upon Tissot by her declining health, she decided to end her own life in November of 1882 at the age of 28. It is said that Tissot remained by her coffin for 4 days and within a week left his home in St. John’s Wood permanently. Tissot never fully recovered from his loss, and became very spiritual in the time after Kate’s death. He attempted to contact Kate through seances, and created a work entitled “Apparition Medianimique” which depicts Kate with her spiritual guide.
Tissot lived and continued to produce work until 1902, when he passed away in France.
All artwork featured in this entry is available at Zygman Voss Gallery.