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Kathleen Newton at the Piano

Kathleen Newton at the Piano
signed 'J. J. Tissot' (lower right)
oil on canvas
43 7/8 x 30 3/4 in. (111.2 x 78.1 cm.)
Painted circa 1880-1881
(Possibly) with Bulla Frères & Jouy, acquired directly from the artist, 1886, as Le piano.
Private collection, France, acquired in le Havre circa 1946.
Their sale; Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 12 December 1984, lot 42, as La leçon de piano.
Anonymous sale; Sotheby’s, New York, 22 February 1989, lot 179.
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, New York, 24 October 1996, lot 190.
Acquired by Ann and Gordon Getty from the above.
M. Wentworth, James Tissot: Catalogue Raisonné of His Prints, Minneapolis, 1978, pl. 65, 65a (as a related print and watercolor).
'Tissot Ladies,' Antiques Trade Gazette, 19 January 1985, p. 36.
K. Matyjaszkiewicz, James Tissot 1836-1902, Paris, 1985, p. 225.
San Francisco, Legion of Honor, James Tissot: Fashion and Faith, 12 October 2019-9 February 2020, pp. 281, 297, no. 98.

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Joshua Glazer
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Lot Essay

Kathleen Newton at the Piano is an intriguing depiction of the interior of Tissot’s house at 17 (now 44) Grove End Road, St John’s Wood. After Tissot returned to Paris in 1883 he sold the house to his friend Alma-Tadema, who radically re-worked it, and created the classically inspired interiors seen in A Corner of my Studio (1893, The Ann and Gordon Getty Collection). Tissot’s picture echoes Hide and Seek (c. 1877, National Gallery of Art, Washington), in displaying the fashionable and luxurious comfort of his house before he met Kathleen Newton where, according to the diarist de Goncourt, champagne was always on ice for visitors and a footman was employed to polish leaves in the shrubbery. It also celebrates the domestic happiness the artist found at home in the company of his partner, Mrs. Kathleen Newton, and her visiting children and nieces.
Tissot had come to London from his native France following the fall of the Paris Commune in 1871. After the Franco-Prussian War, the Siege of Paris had left the French capital war torn and destitute and as a painter of fashionable society there were better prospects for the artist in London. Tissot was already known on both sides of the Channel through print and photographic reproductions of his Paris pictures, exhibition of works in Liverpool and Manchester as well as London, and sale of several paintings to London dealer Ernest Gambart. Instrumental to Tissot's move from Paris was Thomas Gibson Bowles, founder proprietor of Vanity Fair and The Lady. He employed Tissot, already a celebrated portraitist following his debut at the Paris Salon in 1859, as a caricaturist, capturing, amongst others, likenesses of the exiled Napoleon III. (Bowles established his reputation as a war correspondent by sending dispatches from besieged Paris by pigeon. He is now perhaps best known to posterity as maternal grandfather to the celebrated Mitford sisters: the novelist Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Jessica, Unity, and the late Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire).
Tissot prospered in England and was able to purchase, furnish and maintain a fine establishment, which amply demonstrated the extent of his earnings. He could have settled in Chelsea alongside his friend Whistler, whom he had met in Paris. Instead he chose St. John’s Wood, with its clearer light and better air. Gambart lived nearby, as did Tissot's fellow cartoonist George du Maurier, who captured their shared youth as aspiring artists in Paris in the 1850s in his novel Trilby (published in 1894).
In 1876 he met Mrs. Kathleen Newton, a captivating Irish divorcée, who had been seduced by a Captain Palliser on her passage to India to be married. She had left her new husband for Palliser within a fortnight of marriage, and Newton divorced her after she told him by letter she was pregnant by Palliser. Returning to England, she gave birth to a daughter in 1872 and a son in 1875, the latter when she was living in St. John's Wood with her sister and family. She and Tissot fell in love and she came to live with him, becoming his muse and the subject of numerous paintings from the most celebrated period of his career. She shone beguilingly from his canvases, either alone, or in the company of enchanting looking children.
Ostracized by certain sections of society for the irregularity of their ménage, Tissot’s art underwent a change after meeting her. In Paris, the artist had established his reputation with stupendous portraits such as La Cercle de la Rue Royale, which depicted a group of aristocratic friends seated on a balcony overlooking the Place de la Concorde (1868, Musée d’Orsay). Subsequent pictures recorded the fashions and manners of elegant society, and their passing preoccupations: an interest in all things Japanese for example.
However, after Kathleen Newton came to live with him in 1877, narrative was mostly rejected in favor of depictions of the domestic. He exhibited pictures of her at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877-1879, and both additionally and subsequently showed work very widely in Britain, as well as at smaller London galleries. His pictures, mostly small, sold to London and provincial dealers as well as directly to collectors. Despite Kathleen's ill health (she was to die of tuberculosis in 1882), it was a supremely happy time for the artist, who relished family life. This domestic felicity is perhaps best encapsulated by the present picture.
In the present work, three children, Kathleen Newton’s son Cecil, her daughter Violet (left), and her niece Isabelle Hervey, gather around a piano. They are undoubtedly singing, and are applauded by an old lady seated in an armchair, lower right. A spectacular bunch of summer flowers dominates the room, and light is filtered through newly broken leaves seen through the window onto the garden. The picture dates from approximately 1880, a year or so later than Hide and Seek and a couple of years before Tissot’s masterpiece of this period Le Banc de Jardin (Private Collection), which was exhibited in 1883.
‌A pencil drawing for the figures in Kathleen Newton at the Piano is in the collection of the Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart. The position of Violet's foot on the chair is slightly different to the painting and there are three separate studies of Cecil's legs, the young boy seemingly finding it difficult to stand still.
‌Tissot painted a similar view of Kathleen Newton at the piano but looking down at her younger niece, Lilian Hervey, who is the only child in that depiction and looks directly at the viewer. Sold by Tissot as Piano or Lily to London art dealer Arthur Tooth in 1879, it was exhibited by Tooth as Music or Amusing Baby (present whereabouts unknown). Another oil painting, with Kathleen Newton alone at the piano (whereabouts unknown), is known from a watercolor version (Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence) exhibited at the Hanover Gallery in 1881 as Do, re, me, fa, sol, la, ti, do. The view through the window in the watercolor is of ship masts in harbor, rather than Tissot's garden. One of Tissot's etched illustrations for the Goncourt brothers' novel Renée Mauperin (1882) is based on a variant view of Kathleen Newton at the piano.
In contrast to the tight handling of his early work, the brushwork is notably open here, and perhaps experimental. Paintings by Tissot that were more private than for exhibition have similar looser brushwork, for example Mrs. Newton Resting on a Chaise Longue (Musée Baron Martin, Gray). The spontaneous, un-staged nature of the composition shows the influence of the Impressionists. Tissot was invited by Degas to join the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, but was much occupied with London commissions and personal difficulties, and may have been unable to spare the time. The influence of Japanese prints, with their dynamic, truncated viewpoints is also apparent. In his use of blocks of color, Tissot almost seems to anticipate Vuillard and his fellow artists of the Nabis.
Following Kathleen Newton’s death in 1882, Tissot returned to Paris a broken man. Haunted by his loss, and following a religious vision, he threw himself into illustrating the Bible. The contrast in his oeuvre has recently been explored in the exhibition James Tissot: Fashion and Faith, Legion of Honor, San Francisco, to which this picture was lent (2019-2020, exh. cat. plate 98).
‌We are grateful to Krystyna Matyjaszkiewicz for her assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.

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