This striking composition reflects many of James Tissot's key interests, and places his work alongside that of his friends and fellow artists: Edgar Degas and Edouard Manet.
Like Degas, Manet, James McNeill Whistler and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Tissot was an early and avid collector of Japanese art. His Parisian house, near the Bois de Boulogne, was filled with Japanese furniture, porcelain, textiles and artefacts, which feature in a number of his paintings of the 1860s. He also bought Japanese prints and painted scrolls; some of the latter appear as artefacts in at least one London composition, evidence that Tissot had Japanese prints and paintings with him (either acquired in London or brought over from Paris) during his stay in England from 1872 to 1882. Similarly to Degas, Manet and Whistler, Tissot was inspired by the pared-down Japanese compositions, their emphasis on patterns and shapes, their strongly silhouetted figures, and their use of unusual angles of view. These echoed elements in photography that attracted both Degas and Tissot. The cropped parasol and close-up view of the sitter in Summer are influenced by both photography and Japanese prints. The yellow and black-banded parasol is itself a Japanese artefact or a close imitation. Either this parasol or a similar one was found in Tissot's studio at the Château du Buillon, Besançon, at the time of the estate sale in 1964 and is now in a private collection. Parasols like this appear in many Japanese prints and paintings. Tissot makes effective use of the parasol to highlight the sitter's head and shoulders, almost giving her a halo. The device also enables him to emphasise her long, delicate fingers wrapped around the handle.
The sitter in Summer is Mrs Kathleen Newton, Tissot's mistress and muse, who came to live with him at his house in St John's Wood some time during 1876. She became his principal model and his work increasingly focused around their home life, until her death from tuberculosis in November 1882. The three-quarter pose enabled Tissot to show her large eyes, delicate nose and full lips to best advantage. The red of her lips is echoed in the nosegay of red flowers pinned at her breast. These are nasturtiums, a flower symbolic of 'conquest' and 'victory in battle' in the 'language of flowers' used in the past to express feelings to others - perhaps a conscious choice, as both Kathleen and Tissot were 'conquered by love'. Nasturtiums grew in Tissot's garden at 17 Grove End Road and appear in other paintings of Kathleen, notably in the background of Type of Beauty, 1880 (sold at Christie's London, 25 October 1991, lot 48).
Kathleen was the model for two series of personifications of the seasons by Tissot, one with three-quarter-length single figures and one with full or near-full-length single figures. The latter series included Spring, exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery, London, in 1878 (and sold at Christie's London, 26 November 2003, lot 21), in which Kathleen, wearing a white pleated muslin gown with yellow ribbons, stands backlit by sunlight against a backdrop of blossoms and grass. An unfinished near-full-length version of the current picture (Musée Baron Martin, Gray) is the same canvas size as Spring and is either the unfinished 'summer' of his series or a study for it. A painting entitled Summer (from a series depicting the Four Seasons) was lent by the dealer E.F. White to the Grosvenor Gallery exhibition in 1877 but it is not known whether this was a finished version of the Gray picture or another work. Tissot's smaller version of October (Private Collection), with a sinuous full-length Kathleen against richly-coloured orange-yellow chestnut leaves, may well be the 'autumn' of the full-length series. A Tissot picture entitled Wintertime was shown at the Royal Manchester Institution in 1878 and may be the fourth in this series, or the painting known as A Walk in the Snow (sold at Sotheby's London, 5 June 1996, lot 134), which is the 'winter' of the three-quarter-length series. The current picture Summer belongs to the latter series. A Walk in the Snow shows Kathleen in red-trimmed hat and red coat with fur cape and fur muff, her head silhouetted against the branches of a cedar tree surrounded by snow. Autumn in that set may well be the painting that has been given the title of Tissot's etching after it, Mavourneen (sold at Christie's, New York, 5 May 1995, lot 99). In this picture, Kathleen wears the same wide-brimmed hat and fur-edged coat as in October, and stands silhouetted against a blind half-pulled down over a window behind which autumn leaves can just be seen. Whether Tissot painted a 'spring' in this three-quarter-length series is not known. A further seasonal composition, exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1878 with the title July (and later known as Seaside, sold at Christie's London, 27 November 2002, lot 19), depicts Kathleen in a more elaborate setting, seated on a sofa before the seaside window.
Personifications of the seasons have been favourite subjects for artists since ancient times. They could be part of wider allegorical themes or just thinly-veiled reasons for depicting beautiful women. Among Tissot's contemporaries, the Belgian Alfred Stevens was especially well-known for pictures of young women in contemporary dress with various attributes to represent the seasons. But it is likely that an earlier precedent influenced Tissot's choice of subject. During the 1870s Tissot had become interested again in the technique of etching and no doubt added to his print collections 17th Century etchings, as admired and discussed among artists of the 'etching revival'. The etchings discussed or collected would have included ones by Wenceslaus Hollar, who created three series of 'seasons' personifications that were a departure from earlier, elaborately allegorical images, and very similar, in their boldly silhouetted fashionably dressed women, to the creations of Tissot. A half length Hollar Winter is an exact echo of Tissot's Mavourneen. It is quite probable that it was the development of etching series that led Tissot to the making of his painted series of seasons, which he also interpreted in etched versions. Tissot published the etching of Mavourneen in 1877, etchings of the full-length Spring and October, and the three-quarter-length Summer, in 1878, and the three-quarter-length A Walk in the Snow (with lines from a poem by John Keats) in 1880. He created an etched version of July but it was never published.
The full-length figure of Kathleen, with the same black dress and Japanese parasol as Summer, appeared in a painting known as The Gardener (illustrated in James Laver, Vulgar Society: The Romantic Career of James Tissot 1836-1902, 1936, plate XXII), and in two versions of The Hammock (one of them sold at Christie's London, 28 November 2001). Japanese parasols also feature in several paintings and etchings of Kathleen and children in the garden, including In the Sunlight, Children's Garden Party and On the Grass. The black dress appears in a number of other works, including The Bow Window or At the Seaside (unlocated).
The soberly elegant black dress and hat in Summer draw the viewer's attention back to Kathleen's face, and to her hands, one holding the parasol and the other resting in her lap, both with fine black-net fingerless gloves. The narrow white frills she wears at collar and cuffs further emphasise her head and hands. The dark figure is set off against the yellow halo of the parasol, and the bright greens and yellows of the daisy-filled lawn behind. Many of Tissot's paintings dating from the mid 1870s to early 1880s have grassy backgrounds (as in Spring), whose vivid colours were obtained by using a mixture of pigments, including the brilliant but poisonous Emerald Green (Copper acetoarsenite), the deep but colder and more transparent green Viridian (Hydrated chromium oxide), and the dazzling lemon Yellow (Barium chromate). These were new pigments developed and perfected by the mid-19th Century and newly available in tubes. The purity and brilliance of these colours made them favourites of the Impressionist painters and a key element in creating their atmospheric pictures. Colour contrasts were also used as they optically intensify colours. Painters such as Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir generally preferred complimentary contrasts, like red with green or orange with blue, but did on occasion use black (though usually this was a constructed 'optical black' from greys and blues). Manet, on the other hand, liked the boldness of black and it is often the dominant colour in his paintings. There are many similarities between Manet's work and that of his friend, Tissot, with whom he visited Venice in 1875, but the contrast between Tissot's apparently higher finish and Manet's lack of surface finish tends to disguise their parallel interests. Tissot may have been familiar with Manet's 1872 portrait of Berthe Morisot (Private Collection), in which the head and shoulders of the young artist, in black dress and hat, are pictured against an abstract light background. Berthe has a nosegay of violets pinned at her breast. Manet, in turn, would have been familiar with Tissot's paintings and prints of season personifications when he came to paint his own series of the four seasons, commissioned by Antonin Proust. Only two of these were completed - Autumn 1881 (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nancy) and Jeanne - Spring, 1882 (unlocated). In Autumn Manet's model, Méry Laurent, is shown three-quarter-length in a fur-edged Worth pelisse that Manet particularly liked, with her hands tucked in a muff, and posed against a bright blue flowered background based on a Japanese textile lent by Antonin Proust. In Spring, the young actress Jeanne Demarsy is posted three-quarter-length in profile, holding a parasol over her shoulder in an echo of Tissot's Summer. Manet created a printed version of his Spring in etching and aquatint, which was the last etching he made before he died. It was not produced in large quantity, unlike Tissot's etchings, which accounted for a significant and increasing proportion of his earnings between 1876 and 1881, when he was enjoying huge financial success that was the envy of fellow artists in Britain and France.
We are grateful to Krystina Matyjaszkiewicz for her help in preparing this catalogue entry.