This charming and stylish picture, the epitome of Tissot's work at the very height of his career, shows his muse and mistress Kathleen Newton reclining on an ottoman on a hot summer's day. She is seen contre jour, her head framed by a window through which appears a distant view of the harbour and lighthouse at Ramsgate, the well-known seaside resort on the Kent coast. The blinds are lowered against the glare and heat of the sun, but enough light filters through to caress the form of the casually posed, fashionably attired figure. It would be too much to describe this subtle and complex light effect as the true subject of the picture, but it certainly lends it piquancy and goes far to define its mood.
Tissot seems to have been undecided as to the picture's title. When it was first exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1878, it was called July (Specimen of a Portrait). Another picture shown with it was entitled Spring (Specimen of a Portrait), and although neither work was a portrait in the conventional sense, it seems likely that the subtitles were added in the hope of attracting portrait commissions.
By the time Tissot left London in November 1882, he had decided to change the name to Seaside. The evidence for this is the old label on the back, inscribed in Tissot's own hand with both the new title and his London address, 17 Grove End Road. He retained this title when he included the picture in a large retrospective exhibition which he mounted at the Palais de l'Industrie in Paris in 1883 to bring the French public up to date with the evolution of his work during the decade he had spent in England.
Both titles have been used in the subsequent literature, or when the picture has been sold or re-exhibited. The late Michael Wentworth, one of the leading authorities on Tissot in recent years, calls it July in his monograph (1984), but Seaside was the preferred title when it was in the Vaughan-Morgan and Loeb collections, and the present owner has followed this tradition. To confuse matters further, the picture was called La Rèverie when it was sold in Paris in 1905, while Agnew's sold it as Ramsgate Harbour in 1960. It is referred to as Seaside here.
When the picture appeared at the Grosvenor in 1878, Tissot had been living in England for seven years. He had fled to London after the fall of the Paris Commune in 1871, and the following year had settled at 17 Grove End Road, the house in St John's Wood that was to feature so prominently in his work during his English period. He was not unknown in London when he arrived. He had exhibited at the Royal Academy as early as 1864, and he continued to show there during the early 1870s, astonishing English audiences with his brilliant technique and the Gallic sophistication with which he viewed contemporary life. However, the opening of the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877 provided him with a far more sympathetic venue, and for three years he was one of the most prominent exhibitors. He showed only once at the R.A. after 1876, sending two pictures in 1881.
Master-minded by Sir Coutts Lindsay, a wealthy landowner married to a Rothschild, the Grosvenor was a revolutionary concept in its day. Situated in New Bond Street, it prided itself on its sumptuous decoration and innovative use of electricity, while the close involvement of the Lindsays and their friends ensured that the private views were great social events. More seriously, it genuinely set out to be a liberal alternative to the Royal Academy, in which the work of carefully selected artists, included by invitation only, would be seen to greater advantage than in the densely-hung exhibitions of the older institution. It is true that many Academicians were represented, including Sir Frederic Leighton, who was elected the Academy's president the following year and came to embody the Victorian art establishment. But this did not vitiate the Grosvenor's primary purpose of providing a showcase of all the most advanced and anti-academic tendencies in modern British art.
Tissot's pictures fitted this agenda to perfection, and it was inevitable that he should be asked to exhibit. Although not of course British by birth, he was at least by adoption; and in any case one of the great virtues of the Grosvenor was that it was international in outlook. (Another was that it encouraged women artists). Foreigners represented in 1877 included three who, like Tissot himself, had settled in England: the Dutchman Alma-Tadema, the Frenchman Legros, and the Paris-trained American Whistler. Gustave Moreau and Ferdinand Heilbuth were probably the most distinguished of several other French artists present. There were also a number of Germans, not to mention Giovanni Costa, the Roman leader of the Etruscan school of landscape painters who was a close friend of Leighton and had many English patrons.
To the inaugural exhibition Tissot sent no fewer than ten pictures, even more than Burne-Jones, the undisputed star of the show and indeed the Grosvenor's presiding genius during its ten-year heyday. As this implies, the emphasis at the Grosvenor was firmly on the ideal, a perception reinforced not only by the presence of many of Burne-Jones's followers but by other major elements in the make-up of its shows - the profoundly serious moral allegories of G.F. Watts, for instance, or the various takes on late Victorian classicism offered by Leighton, Poynter, Alma-Tadema and Albert Moore. Against such a solemn background, Tissot's sophisticated essays in middle-to-upper class genre seemed all the more suspect: virtuoso performances technically, no doubt, but disturbingly cynical and, by English standards, distinctly 'fast'.
If Tissot's painting itself encouraged these reactions, his lifestyle did nothing to dispel them. It was widely known that he lived with a divorced woman and her illegitimate children, one of which was almost certainly his own (fig.2). Kathleen Newton was a beautiful Irish girl who, at the age of seventeen, had been forced into an arranged marriage to a surgeon in the Indian Civil Service. By the time she arrived in India she was already pregnant by an army officer she had met on board ship, and the marriage ended in divorce almost immediately. She met Tissot in 1875 or 1876 when she took refuge with her sister in St John's Wood, where the artist was living. He is said to have seen her for the first time when she was on her way to post a letter. By the end of 1876 she had moved into his house, and they lived together until her death in November 1882.
The meeting of Tissot and Mrs Newton, wrote Michael Wentworth in an article he contributed to Christie's Magazine shortly before his death, 'changed both their lives. For Kathleen Newton, whose chaotic romantic life had already taken her to India and left her with an illegitimate daughter, Tissot represented a second chance of a kind only too rare in Victorian England. Like Carrie Brattle in Trollope's The Vicar of Bullhampton, Kathleen's failings lay more in a trusting nature and a generous heart than in any innate viciousness, and she rose superbly to her new role (as the artist's muse). Tissot, for his part, seems genuinely to have loved her and to have found inspiration in her gentle beauty that would last a lifetime. With an eye for style that seems uniquely Parisian, he transformed her 'pleasant but unremarkable prettiness' into a formidable ideal of elegance and chic.
Tissot made no secret of his liason; indeed he seemed to flaunt it by so often giving Mrs Newton a leading role in his paintings. Hers is one of the most familiar and recognisable faces in Victorian art; perhaps only some of Rossetti's models - Lizzie Siddal, Fanny Cornforth, Jane Morris - surpass her in this respect. But Tissot was to pay heavily for the joy and inspiration that Kathleen brought him. 'His love', writes Wentworth, 'would do much to destroy his English career. Collectors were not amused by such openly illicit happiness in St John's Wood shamelessly passed off on canvas as high art, and the hue and cry that met his work when it appeared at London exhibitions went far to damage his artistic reputation in England.' As for the relationship itself, it was doomed to tragedy. Tissot was devastated by Mrs Newton's death from consumption at the age of only twenty-eight. Unable to endure Grove End Road without her, he fled almost immediately to Paris, never to return.
Tissot's first English pictures suggest complex and ambiguous narratives. Skies are often stormy, and the theme of broken romance is seldom far away. At first Mrs Newton was fitted into this artistic programme, but as her affair with Tissot developed, the mood of his work changed; skies cleared and domestic bliss tended to replace the trials of love as his preferred area of subject matter. Often, as in the present picture, the focus was simply on Mrs Newton herself, 'presented', in Wentworth's words, 'as a kind of combination of allegorical figure and fashion plate'.
There was a close relationship between the advent of Kathleen Newton and Tissot's decision to abandon the Royal Academy and throw in his lot with the Grosvenor Gallery, an as yet unknown quantity. His contributions to the first exhibition in 1877 represented a variety of conceptual modes. One, The Triumph of Will - Part I 'The Challenge', was even an essay in almost Wattsian allegory, highly uncharacteristic for Tissot but perhaps a conscious tribute to the Gallery's prevailing ethos. By 1878, however, his new approach was established, and at least five of the nine works he submitted were studies of Mrs Newton in various guises. These images amounted to a veritable apotheosis of the young woman who had inspired them. In addition to the ravishingly beautiful Seaside, they included two standing figures, October and Spring, showing Kathleen equally alluring whether dressed in furs for an autumn walk or radiant in white muslin on the lawn at Grove End Road, and the etching Mavourneen, one of the artist's most popular works in this medium.
In Seaside Kathleen again appears in white muslin. Indeed the dress appears in several works by Tissot of this period, and must have been one of the most regularly used items in her wardrobe. As for the setting, we know that the couple visited Ramsgate in 1876, if not again later. A room overlooking the harbour in Goldsmid Place (now Harbour Parade) provided the mise-en-scène for A Passing Storm (Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton, New Brunswick), a painting datable to the summer of this year and thus one of the earliest works in which Mrs Newton appears. The town also provided inspiration for a number of other works of this date, notably the etching Ramsgate, perhaps Tissot's single most beautiful print.
Ramsgate was an ideal centre for Tissot and his mistress. It not only provided the artist with plenty of the picturesque maritime detail he relished (fig.2) but offered them both a refuge for the pursuit of their affair, away from the prying eyes of London gossips. Ostracised from conventional society, they spent most of their time in their own company. As photographs show (fig. 2), the Grove End House itself was a haven where they could enjoy domestic life together and bring up the children, all grist to Tissot's mill as an artist.
But it would be wrong to see the painting as a literal record of a seaside holiday. It is in fact a highly sophisticated fiction, constructed with all the considerable artifice at the painter's command. As Wentworth puts it with characteristic perception, 'We are of course nowhere near Ramsgate, although Ramsgate light figures prominently in the background, projected, as it were, outside the bow window of Tissot's studio in St John's Wood'. The view is no doubt based on one of the topographical studies that he made for precisely this kind of use, but the familiarity of Mrs Newton's costume, not to mention the yellow velvet cushions and flowered upholstery, other studio properties which we encounter elsewhere, leaves no room for doubt that Tissot is creating an image from disparate sources, and that the impression the picture makes is essentially the product of skill and imagination.
Press reaction to Tissot's paintings in 1878 was inevitably mixed. It was probably too much to expect critics like W.M. Rossetti and F.G. Stephens, both steeped in the Pre-Raphaelite tradition, to take a positive line. Stephens, indeed, failed to mention Tissot at all in his review of the Grosvenor exhibition in the Athenaeum, while Rossetti, writing in the Academy, was at best half-hearted. 'Curiosa felicitas', he observed in his most donnish vein, 'is the distinguishing mark of Tissot's work; but it has a bad trick of lapsing into 'Curiosa infelicitas' every now and then, and we cannot say much for any one of his present specimens, except...Croquet'. This attractive study of a young girl standing on a sunlit lawn, brilliantly evoking the mood of a lazy summer afternoon (Art Gallery of Hamilton, Ontario), struck even Rossetti as 'a very enjoyable and uncommon production.'
But it was not impossible for English critics to meet Tissot on his own terms. A review of the exhibition in The Magazine of Art showed a sympathetic understanding of his revolutionary sense of light. 'M. Tissot has carried the study of light so far that he aims at nothing less than the abolition of the studio with its artificial chiaroscuro... One notable result of [his] mastery of "values" is the perfection of his rendering of surfaces....the windowseat cushion in July [i.e. Seaside] is an excellent specimen of this quality.' Others recognised the degree of artifice that lay behind Tissot's achievement. His pictures had been hung at the Grosvenor with those of Heilbuth and Legros, all being seen in the West Gallery, the Grosvenor's largest and most prestigious exhibition space. Apart from the fact that all three artists were French, they had very little in common. Heilbuth indeed specialised in genre, but of a much more sentimental and less challenging kind than Tissot's, while Legros was a stern follower of Courbet, obsessed with painting toiling peasants, nuns at prayer, and the occasional ecstatic saint. The art critic on the Times noted this bizarre juxtaposition, commenting that 'the pictures of Tissot, Heilbuth and Legros, hung side by side, suggest curious contrasts.' He then went on to mention our picture and Spring, two 'full-length portraits in white, with knots of pale yellow riband, under skilfully mangaged reflected lights', before summing Tissot up in a passage which, while reflecting English reservations, nonetheless showed a true appreciation of his work. 'It is impossible', he wrote, 'to conceive art less unsophisticated, less in contact with nature, as far as its subject-matter goes, than Tissot's. But it would be difficult to find in any contemporary painter's work more artistic thought and resource than have been lavished on these sophisticated subjects. It is art brought to the doors and laid at the feet of the monde, if not sometimes of the demi-monde, with an almost cynical sincerity. Thus far it is French rather than English, alike in the ideas it suggests and the skill it shows.'
The Grosvenor Gallery's commitment to the avant-garde inevitably made it the flagship of the Aesthetic movement, the cult of beauty in everyday life which revolutionised late Victorian taste. Not for nothing does the famous phrase 'greenery gallery, Grosvenor Gallery' feature in Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera Patience, a satire on the craze at its most self-indulgent staged in 1881. Many of the Grosvenor's leading artists, including Burne-Jones, his associate Walter Crane, Whistler and his friend Albert Moore, made some major contribution to the movement. Even the youthful Oscar Wilde jumped on the bandwagon with characteristic flamboyance, appearing at the private view of the first exhibition in a coat shaped like a cello. His thoughts were subsequently published in a review in the Dublin University Magazine.
Not surprisingly, the work Tissot showed at the Grosvenor in the late 1870s often shows an awareness of Aesthetic priorities. Michael Wentworth suggests the influence of Albert Moore, with whom Tissot was acquainted through their mutual friend Whistler. Wentworth sees an affinity between Moore's paintings of standing female figures, exquisitely abstract arrangements of form and colour of which notable examples appeared at the Grosvenor in 1877 and 1878, and the two standing figures that Tissot showed in 1878, Spring and October. Equally, he relates our picture to the groups of seated girls, posed and draped in semi-classical style, that Moore painted with almost monotonous regularity. Seaside, he writes, is 'the most accomplished of Tissot's readings of Moore', owing 'no small part of its drowsy summer luxuriousness to Moore's sleepy beauties.' In fact not only the imagery and composition but the colour scheme, dominated by white and yellow, is extremely Moore-like. A picture such as Moore's Dreamers (fig. 3), another chromatic harmony in white and yellow, leaps to mind, although the fact that is was not exhibited (at the R.A.) until 1882, two years after the appearance of Seaside, is a warning that we are talking about a general climate of ideas (fig.3) rather than anything so crude as a specific, one-way influence.
Wentworth also raises the issue of the analogy between painting and music, an idea that obsessed Aesthetic theorists in the 1870s. Its most famous definition was the statement that 'all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music', made by Walter Pater in his essay on Giorgione in his Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873). Tissot reflects the subject not only in his interest in colour harmonies, as epitomised by Seaside, but in the subject of a painting like Listening to Music, an unlocated work which can be dated to circa 1878 (Wentworth, 1984, pl. 134). We might draw a parallel with Whistler's habit of calling his pictures 'nocturnes', 'symphonies' or 'arrangements' to stress their innocence of any narrative content, adding that the colour scheme in Seaside, while it may be Moore-like, is also reminiscent of Whistler, whose three Symphonies in White, all dating from the 1860s, feature girls in white dresses. Or what of Whistler's enemy, Burne-Jones', whose Golden Stairs (fig. 4) is not only a harmony in white and gold but introduces an element of music to establish mood and provide whatever tenuous subject-matter the picture possesses? Sometimes said to have been a source of inspiration for Patience, and certainly Burne-Jones's single most aesthetic production, The Golden Stairs, like Moore's Dreamers, was exhibited after Seaside, appearing at the Grosvenor in 1880. In other words, we are back with a sense of shared cultural values which transcend questions of date and precedence. Nonetheless, it is worth recalling that when, after Burne-Jones's death, his widow wrote to Tissot to ask if he had known her husband in London, Tissot replied that although they had seldom met, he had the greatest admiration for Burne-Jones's work. One has the distinct impression that he is expressing himself more warmly than mere politeness required.
Yet when all is said on the subject of Tissot's relationship with English or Anglo-American exponents of Aestheticism, there is obviously a point at which his work evades such comparison. Its air of Parisian chic and metropolitan sophistication are poles apart from Moore's earnest exploration of formal values or the evocation of never-never dream worlds, essentially innocent for all their hints of sexual tension, that was Burne-Jones's forte. Ultimately, as the Times critic put it, Tissot remains 'French rather than English', and we should remember that his exile in London did not prevent him from keeping in touch with what his friends were doing in Paris. After 1874 he was officially allowed to return to the French capital, and he seems to have taken full advantage of this freedom. He was particularly intimate with Manet, and probably travelled to Venice with him in the autumn of 1875. Pictures by Manet that lend themselves to comparison with Seaside are not hard to find. A good example, dating from 1873-4, is the portrait of Nina de Callias (fig. 5), a leading figure in Parisian salon society and a woman with a similarly equivocal reputation to that of Mrs Newton. The Japanese fans with which Manet surrounds her look back to Tissot's own work (or Whistler's, for that matter) a decade or so earlier, but the indolent head-on-hand pose and the way in which the sitter looks us in the eye, holding our attention with an expression at once quizzical, complicitous, wistful and amused, all this anticipates Seaside.
Seaside did not find a buyer before Tissot left London so hurriedly after Mrs Newton's death on 9 November 1882. The following year, as already noted, he included it in the retrospective exhibition which he held at the Palais de l'Industrie, and it was probably soon after this that he gave it to his friend Emile Simon, adding an appropriate dedication beside his signature on the window frame.
Emile Simon (sometimes referred to in the literature as Edmond Simon) was the administrator of the Théatre l'Ambigu-Comique from 1882 to 1884. The theatre was at 2, Boulevard Saint Martin, and its director during the same period was Maurice Bernhardt (born 1864), the only son of Sarah Bernhardt and the Prince de Ligne. No further details about Simon have so far come to light, but the fact that his sale lasted five days at the Hotel Drôuot in June 1905 suggests that his collection was very extensive.
Seaside appeared at the sale, and seems to have remained in private hands in Paris for a considerable period. By 1955, however, when it was lent to the Tissot exhibition at Sheffield, it was in England, in the collection of Sir John Kenyon Vaughan-Morgan, M.P.. He sold it five years later through Agnew's to the New York collector John L. Loeb, and it remained in the Loeb collection, sharing the walls with superb Impressionist pictures and two more remarkable Tissots, until 1986.
Another version of the picture exists in the Cleveland Museum of Art (fig. 6). The two pictures are almost identical in size, and they have sometimes been confused in the records. They are also more or less contemporary, since the Cleveland version appeared in the stock-books of the New York dealer Koedler as early as 1879. Unlike our version, however, it has remained in America almost ever since, although it was sold by Christie's in London in 1975.
There are two main differences between the two versions. The first, for which Tissot himself was responsible, is the view through the window. In the Cleveland picture, instead of the panoramic view of Ramsgate, embracing sea, harbour wall and lighthouse, we see a small stretch of beach, bordered by breaking waves, in much closer focus. Doubtless based on another of the 'on the spot' sketches that furnished the background to our version, this view subtly alters the atmosphere of the picture, making it a degree more enclosed and claustrophobic.
The second difference seems to be the result of a later retouching by another hand. As Wentworth puts it, 'at some point after leaving Tissot, and probably well into the twentieth century, Mrs Newton's light brown hair, dressed in the neat severe style fashionable in the 1870s, was found to be unsaleably outmoded and repainted as an iron red mound topped by an Apollo knot that confuses Tissot with Toulouse-Lautrec in a manner that, it is safe to say, would have pleased neither the painter nor his fastidious sitter'. Dr Aileen Ribiero of the Courtauld Institute and Lucy Johnston, curator of nineteenth-century costume at the Victoria and Albert Museum, confirm that while the hairstyle and dress in our picture undoubtedly date from the 1870s, the way the hair is dressed in the Cleveland version is much later. In fact it makes Mrs Newton look a little like Sarah Bernhardt as we know her from her photographs of around the turn of the century.
Inevitably there has been arguement as to which version was the picture shown at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1878. Roger Diederen has made the case for the Cleveland version in his catalogue of the nineteenth century European paintings in that collection, but he admits that the case has not been proved. The question is made no easier by the re-working of the Cleveland version, nor are there labels on the backs of either picture that might prove conclusive.
Two other pieces of evidence are also missing. First, there is Tissot's etching of the composition. He almost certainly followed his usual practice and used the exhibited version of the picture as his model, but in this case the plate was abandoned and the view through the window - the one area that would convincingly identify the Grosvenor picture - was left blank. In fact only one impression of the print is known, a trial print in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.
The other vital piece of evidence might have been provided by the albums in which Tissot kept a photographic record of his work, but although three of these albums survive, the one that would have included the pictures shown at the 1878 Grosvenor is missing. It was last firmly documented as long ago as 1882.
Ultimately, then, we are thrown back on aesthtic appraisal, or good old-fashioned connoisseurship. No doubt even this would be easier if the two versions could be placed side by side. Meanwhile, Michael Wentworth, drawing on a lifetime's experience of Tissot, had no doubt that our picture was the Grosvenor Gallery exhibit, since to him it possessed of that spark of life and intensity which invariably belongs to a primary version. 'To this writer at least', he wrote in what proved, tragically, to be his valedictory article, 'the present work appears fresher and less mechanical - more artistically engaged - than the Cleveland version.'
We are grateful to Lucy Johnstone, Dr Aileen Ribiero and the late Michael Wentworth for their help in preparing this entry.