The beautiful Kathleen Newton, Tissot's great love and muse, forms the centerpiece of this striking image of a young woman and child set against a blazing autumnal backdrop. The pretty blond girl is Kathleen Newton's young niece, Lilian Hervey. Tissot exhibited this monumental painting under the title Orphans, at the Grovesnor Gallery in 1879, along with seven other paintings, most of which featured Kathleen Newton as the female protagonist. L'Orpheline is one of the largest paitnings of Tissot's career and also one of his most exquisite depictions of Mrs. Newton. His liaison with this very pretty Irish beauty began in 1876 and lasted until her untimely death from consumption in 1882. Judging from Tissot's paintings from this seven year span, this was an idyllic and joyful time for the artist. He celebrated his happiness in paintings of Kathleen, alone or with her children--a time Michael Wentworth has called "Tissot's earthly paradise at its most ravishing: summer afernoons of lazy tranquility and warm sunshine." (Wentworth, p. 147). Of course, the subject of L'Orpheline strikes a different chord and one may hypothesize as to Tissot's reason for theme. He may have been hoping for the same critical acclaim he had with an earlier Grovesnor picture, his 1877, The Widower, a sentimental image showing a father holding his young child in his arms. However, the critics were harsh in 1879 when Orphans was exhibited at the Grovesnor Gallery. The Times thought the marshy setting of the painting suggested "nothing short of suicide and by the muddiest of deaths," and the commentary in the Atheneum was no more flattering. It has been rightly suggested (Wentworth, p. 147 and Wood, p. 107) that these critical attacks on Tissot at this time were directed at his morality and smacked of Victorian disapproval. Mrs. Newton had been married briefly to an older man in 1871 and gave birth to an illegitimate child by another, as well as to a second baby believed by some to be Tissot's own illegitimate son, Cecil George. By using Mrs. Newton as the subject for just about every painting he produced at St. John's Wood, he was boldly exploiting his relationship with a divorced woman, and this behavior was unacceptable to the disapproving eyes of contemporary society. Tissot did not seem to mind and contimued to paint his mistress for the world to see until her death in 1882.
L'Orpheline may be compared to two other paintings by Tissot from this period: the 1877 Octobre, this time showing a fashionably dressed Mrs. Newton against branches heavy with yellow and orange chestnut leaves, and La Dame à l'Ombrelle (ca. 1879), where Tissot depicts his mistress standing full length in a narrow black dress, her upper body silhouetted against a parasol. In fact, L'Orpheline could be seen as the successful blending of these to paintings. Tissot takes the silhouette of Mrs. Newton in La Dame à l'Ombrelle and places it against the blazing autumn foliage of Octobre. In L'Orpheline he adds cattails and reeds in the foreground of the composition, their vertical forms echoing the standing figure of Kathleen Newton, who is clad in a tightly fitted black dress. Sweeps of curving green bulrushes almost obscure the timid Lilian Hervey, who clings to her aunt. The only other color in the painting is Tissot's brilliant addition of the mauve and maroon carnations pinned to Mrs. Newton's bodice. The blazing gold of the chestnut leaves accentuates the bold silhouette of Mrs. Newton in black, and is reminiscent of the single figure format of Japanese Ukiyo-e painting of the early 18th century. Tissot was one of the first artists to become interested in Oriental art and th eformat of L'Orpheline showing a figure boldly silhouetted against a contrasting background echoes the compostions found in Japanese prints and paintings.
Tissot executed a smaller replica of 'Orpheline (Private Collection, Florida), and it was also the subject of an unfinished etching.
Kathleen Newton died on November 9, 1882 at the age of 28. Witin five days of her death, Tissot abandoned his house at 17 Grove End Road in St. John's Wood and fled to Paris. The face of Kathleen Newton continued to appear in his paintings--in scenes that reflected the happy years of the life they shared together in London.
We are grateful to Professor Willard Misfeldt for his assitance in preparing this catalogue entry.
JAMES JACQUES JOSEPH TISSOT (French, 1836-1902)
Signed J J Tissot lower left--oil on canvas
Signed J J Tissot lower left--oil on canvas
London, Grovesnor Gallery, 1879, no. 96 as Orphans.
85 x 43in. (216 x 109.2cm.)
Grovesnor Gallery Catalogue, London, 1879, no. 96.
"The Grovesnor Gallery," The Times, 2 May, 1879, p. 3.
"The Grovesnor Gallery Exhibition," Atheneun (10 May, 1879), p. 607.
H. Blackburn, ed., Grovesnor Notes, London, 1879, p. 31.
J. Laver, "Vulgar Society," The Romantic Career of James Tissot, London, 1936, p. 68.
W.E. Misfeldt, James Jacques Tissot: A Bio - Critical Study, Ann Arbor, 1971, pp. 190-191, 400, pl. 104.
W.E. Misfeldt, The Albums of James Tissot, Bowling Green, 1982, p. 53 (illustrated).
M. Wentworth, James Tissot, Oxford, 1984, pp. 6, 66, 113, 138, 145-147, 203, pl. 138.
K. Matyjaszkiewicz, ed. James Tissot, London, 1985, p. 116, no. 93, p. 123, no. 122.
C. Wood, Tissot, London, 1986, pp. 108-113 (illustrated in color, pl. 111).
Grovesnor Gallery, London (purchased for 500 or 12,500 ff).
Anon. sale, Christie's, February 12, 1955, lot 101
Thomas Agnew & sons, Ltd., London (until 1984)