James (Jacques) Joseph Tissot (1836-1906)
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James (Jacques) Joseph Tissot (1836-1906)

La Soeur Ainée (The Elder Sister)

James (Jacques) Joseph Tissot (1836-1906)
La Soeur Ainée (The Elder Sister)
signed 'Tissot' (centre right, on the step)
watercolour and bodycolour on paper
19 5/8 x 12 5/8 in. (49.8 x 32 cm.)
with Stoppenbach & Delestre, London.
Transkunst Etablissement, 10, Rue du Conseil-General, Geveva, Switzerland, January 1993.
K. Matyjaszkiewicz, ed., James Tissot, Oxford 1984, p. 124, cat. no. 125, discussing the related etched and oil versions.
N. R. Marshall and M. Warner, James Tissot: Victorian Life/Modern Love, New Haven 1999, pp. 138-9, cat. no. 59, discussing the related etched and oil versions.
Probably Paris, Palais de l’Industrie, Exposition des oeuvres de M. J.-J. Tissot organisée par L’Union centrale des arts decoratifs, March 1883, no. 24.
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Lot Essay

This beautiful drawing is one of several watercolour versions of oils painted by Tissot in the early 1880s to meet exhibition and client demand. It is probably the watercolour of this subject that was included in his one-man show at the Palais de l’Industrie, Paris, in March 1883, which was organised to re-familiarise the French public with Tissot’s work after a decade’s absence in Britain. The critic Alfred de Lostalot, in an article on Tissot for the 1883 publication of the Society of French Aquarellists, noted that French connoisseurs and art critics had been surprised that ‘this delightful painter of English manners, this acute analyst of the … graces of the British lady’ was a Frenchman. Tissot, having enjoyed a decade of success in Paris, had lived in London from late 1871 until November 1882, when the great love of his life, Mrs Kathleen Newton, had died of tuberculosis. A photograph of Kathleen, at the home she shared with Tissot in St John’s Wood, was used by Tissot as a basis for the present watercolour and related oil.

Tissot exhibited the oil version, as The Elder Sister, among twelve paintings in his major one-man exhibition at the Dudley Gallery, London, in May 1882. Almost a metre high and half a metre wide, this painting was bequeathed to the French National Museums in 1919 by the English collector William Vaughan and is usually displayed at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris. The present drawing is a reinterpretation in watercolour of this oil. It follows the composition but is much lighter in tone, with great subtlety in the rendition of Kathleen’s face. She is shown seated on steps leading down from the sliding, glazed wooden doors of Tissot’s studio into the adjoining conservatory, which had been added to the house by the architect John Brydon, after Tissot’s purchase of the property following successful picture sales in 1872-73. The conservatory was filled with exotic plants and oriental ceramics, some of which can be seen on either side of the stairs. Delicate blooms of narcissi and azalea echo the flowers on Kathleen’s dress, while blue tones in the child’s clothing and Chinese pots draw the viewer’s eye across the composition.

Although the picture is titled La Soeur ainée, or The Elder Sister, the child was modelled by Kathleen’s niece, Lilian Hervey. The photograph on which the figures are based shows Kathleen and Lilian on a similar flight of steps but outside the house, leading from the other end of the studio into the front garden. This setting was used by Tissot in one of his small oil-on-panel variants (Matyjaszkiewicz, 1984, cat. no. 124, colour plate 12; sold Sotheby’s, London, 11 December 2007, lot 12), in which the poses of the figures were changed slightly and a wicker armchair included. Another small oil-on-panel variant (sold Sotheby’s New York, 24 February 1987, lot 79) incorporates the main elements of the present watercolour and related oil in a taller, slim composition that includes the full height of studio doors, and changes the delicate blooms of spring for a riot of hothouse lilies, geraniums, fuchsia and honeysuckle.

An etched version of the present watercolour and related oil was completed by Tissot in 1881 and available for visitors to purchase at the Dudley Gallery one-man exhibition in 1882. It was also displayed and available for sale that year at exhibitions in Liverpool and Glasgow.

We are grateful to Krystyna Matyjaszkiewicz for her help in preparing this catalogue entry.

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