Spring dates from the happiest period of Tissot's life. It is a portrait of his beloved mistress, Kathleen Newton, who he is reputed to have met in 1875, when she was posting a letter in St John's Wood, where she was staying with her sister. By 1878 she had moved to the artist's residence at 17 Grove End Road and bore him a son, Cecil George. Their companionship is one of the most legendary in art history; the more so because of her early death from consumption in November 1882. Tissot never quite recovered; immortalising her in numerous canvases that replicate her image from those studies and paintings he made when she was alive.
Those full-scale oils that Tissot did complete during their blissful seven years together are therefore informed with a sense of that contentment, that translates in paint to a sparkiness of touch, and tenderness of observation. Here, for example, we note how Tissot traces Kathleen's whole form with light; she seems weightless, an impression which is the true physical effect of viewing a person lit from behind by the sun.
Kathleen's life had already been eventful, and tinged by scandal. She was born Kathleen Irene Ashburnham Kelly in Agra, India, in 1854. Her father worked in the accountant's office of the British East India Company. Kathleen and Mary Pauline, her sister, were sent to England, and are recorded as having been baptised in London in 1860. They were educated at Gumley House Convent School, Isleworth. Soon after Kathleen left school her marriage to Dr Isaac Newton, a surgeon working in India, was arranged. The ceremony took place in Hoshearpore (now Hoshiapur) in January 1871. However, Kathleen had fallen in love with a Captain Palliser on the voyage out. Her marriage was accordingly doomed; divorce proceedings were begun and she returned to England, where a daughter, Muriel Violet Mary Newton, was born in December, ten days before Kathleen's decree nisi was declared. (This biographical information has been researched and published by Dr Willard E. Misfeldt in the exhibition catalogue J.J. Tissot: Prints from the Gotlieb Collection, Art Services International, 1991.)
Kathleen rapidly became Tissot's principal model. He executed several rapid oil sketches of a woman and baby which can be identified as Kathleen and Cecil George. Frequently Tissot broadens his subject matter to represent a chaotic but equally happy view of family life, incorporating the children of Kathleen's sister Mary Pauline, who lived nearby.
Kathleen's death inaugurated many changes in Tissot's life and art. He returned to Paris and embarked on a large-scale modern-life series depicting chic Parisian women. He subsequently became interested in religion, and travelled to the Holy Land; his depictions of the Life of Christ and stories from the Old Testament won him international repute.
This portrait of Kathleen is especially tender; her lips are breaking into a gentle smile and the way light catches upon the feathered hat trim gives her the illusion of a halo. The face is much softer than in the gouache replica that Tissot painted subsequently. In 1878 Tissot sold both this and Spring to E.F. White, a dealer who is recorded as a vendor in Christie's archives many times during the 1860s and 70s. Tissot sold Spring for £300, the gouache replica for £50. (This information is courtesy of Dr Misfeldt, from the notebook or carnet in which Tissot recorded his sales each year, now in a private collection). In addition to the gouache replica (fig. 1; private collection), Tissot reproduced the composition in an etching (fig. 2), which was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1878 (no. 158) at the same time as the oil.
Tissot was experimenting around 1875-77 with figures placed against the light. Both in his oils and etchings, he explored the subtle contrasts of light and shade, and the rich intensity of sun-drenched colour. A 1875 oil painting, Spring Morning (Matinée de Printemps) (private collection), of a young woman wearing a striped dress and holding a parasol, and standing beside a pond with tall plants, was reworked with a narrower composition and stronger contrasts in a drypoint (fig.3). The same figure, in the same striped costume, stands outside a window looking into an interior - again silhouetted against a sunlit landscape - in an etching of circa 1875, Femme à la fenètre (Bibliotèque Nationale, Paris, and Art Gallery of Ontario). An oil painting of a woman standing in a doorway, wearing the same dress as Kathleen in Spring, was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877 (no.18) as A Portrait (fig. 4; Tate Britain, London), and reproduced by Tissot in an etching of 1876. The composition of Spring Morning, meanwhile, was repeated in The Widower (Le Veuf), with the figure of a woman substituted by a bearded man holding a small girl in his arms, and known in both oil versions (one of which was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery with A Portrait in 1877) and an etching.
Critics remarked on Tissot's virtuoso handling of light: The Times reviewer of the 1878 Grosvenor Gallery exhibition noted the 'skilfully managed reflected lights' in Spring, while the Magazine of Art critic enthused that '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. He paints either in the diffused and gentle open-air light, or in the gentle and natural shadows of a room... One of the noticeable results of M. Tissot's mastery of 'values' - i.e. of the inter-comparison of the degrees of lights or shadows on objects, which is quite a distinct study from that of tone, or the relative depth or lightness of their local colour - is the perfection of his rendering of surfaces, without laborious imitative effect; the fan of the lady in Spring...[is an] excellent specimen of this quality.'
Both the contrast of light and shade, and the placing of a single prominent figure beside large foreground plants, are devices found in Japanese prints. Like his contemporaries and friends, Albert Moore and James Whistler, Tissot avidly collected and studied Japanese art. The series of tall and narrow compositions with single figures that Spring belongs to are very similar to Moore's single verticle figures. But whereas Moore dressed his figures in classical robes, and was preoccupied with subtle arrangements of colour, Tissot's figures are in modern dress and mostly posed outdoors, against exotic or richly coloured plants.
The concept of figures personifying seasons or times of day was a favourite one among artists, and occurs in both the work of Tissot and Moore. Tissot had, in addition, a great admiration for the work of the Belgian artist Alfred Stevens, whose pictures had enjoyed great success in Paris during the late 1860s, and included a series of tall, narrow, single-figure 'Seasons'. Spring, 1869 (fig. 5; Clark Institute of Art, Williamstown), echoes Tissot's own later treatment of the subject.
From the subtitle of Summer, exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877 (no.17), it is clear that Tissot intended to paint at least one series of four seasons. The painting, which may be the three-quarter-length study of Kathleen in black, holding a Japanese parasol (sold Sotheby's, New York, 29 October 2002), which Tissot reworked as an etching published in 1878 (fig. 6), was subtitled 'from a series of the Four Seasons', and like Spring had been purchased by E.F. White. It is possible that a three-quarter-length of Kathleen in fur-trimmed jacket, painted in 1877 and now known by the title of the etched version, Mavourneen (private collection), was intended to represent autumn in this series; and A Winter's Walk, exhibited at the Royal Manchester Institution in 1878 (private collection) and reproduced in a print published by Tissot in 1880, winter.
Spring therefore, appears to belong to a series of full-length or almost full-length paintings personifying the seasons. An unfinished variant of the Summer composition described above (fig. 7; Musée Baron Martin, Gray) portrays Kathleen standing, and is painted on a Winsor and Newton canvas of the same type and dimensions as Spring. A canvas of similar dimensions was used for a replica of October (fig. 8; private collection), sold by Tissot in 1878 to the dealer Maclean for £250 alongside the larger version (Montreal Museum of Fine Arts), which Maclean also bought from Tissot, for £425 (information courtesy of Dr Misfeldt, from the notebook or carnet in which Tissot recorded his sales each year, now in a private collection). It is tempting to see these three similarly-sized works as Spring, Summer and Autumn.
Both the summer picture and Spring have vivid greens and yellows in the grass behind the figures. Paint analysis has shown that Tissot used both Viridian mixed with dazzling yellow Barium Chromate, and the brilliant but poisonous Emerald Green; the brightness of the yellow grass is due to the use of Strontium Yellow. The whole was painted on to an underlay of pure white, for added luminosity. The same acidic yellow and green colours are used in the grass in a number of Tissot's garden pictures dating from the late 1870s and early 1880s, including Croquet (fig. 9; Art Gallery of Hamilton, Ontario), exhibited with Spring at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1878 (no.32), Uncle Fred, reading a Story and In the Sunshine (En plein soleil). Tissot clearly liked the unusual but vivid combination, which no doubt helped differentiate his pictures from others.
The summer dress in Spring was a favourite of Tissot's. Modelled by both Kathleen Newton and others, it features in a variety of compositions including A Portrait, 1876 (fig. 4; Tate Britain, London), the etching Ramsgate, 1876, A Fete Day at Brighton, and Seaside- exhibited in 1878 as July (Specimen of a Portrait) (sold Christie's 27 November 2002, lot 19). In The Gallery of HMS Calcutta, Portsmouth (Tate Britain, London), exhibited with A Portrait and The Widower at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877, the foreground model wearing the same muslin dress is posed with her back to the viewer, so that across several pictures we get an view of the costume from every angle.
The muslin folds allowed Tissot to demonstrate his skill at rendering light and shadow. In Spring his mastery is fully evident; in the way he suggests the layers of striped muslin - jacket over sleeveless dress - and soft satin yellow ribbons catching the sunlight. His ability to replicate sartorial details earned Tissot a reputation as a recorder of fashion. Some contemporary reviewers criticised Tissot for creating compositions that evoked fashion plates: 'his devotion to modern millnery in its most extravageant forms lends an ephemeral fashion-book air to his performances', wrote one in 1878. The seasons, like Spring, come closest to resembling magazine fashion plates, which regularly illustrated up-to-date costumes for current and forthcoming seasons, from back and front or side. Today, fashion historians and film and theatre costume designers have been able to reconstruct actual clothing from Tissot's pictures.
James Laver, in his early biography of the artist, concludes that Tissot was 'assured of his immortality, if not in the History of Art, at least in l'histoire des moeurs, for most books on 19th century costume or society illustrate at least one of Tissot's pictures. Yet his re-use of costumes, and of both sketches and photographs, over several years, lends a note of caution to precise dating of many of his works, though it is interesting to note that such reuse did not cause undue comment (at least until the 1880s), indicating that it was generally acceptable for slightly-dated dress to coexist happily with the latest fashions. Precise dating of Tissot's pictures is difficult unless they can be identified with exhibited works. This is particularly true of paintings featuring Kathleen, where the terminus post quem of 1875 when they met, and about 1880 when Cecil George proudly wore His First Breeches (as recorded in an etching after a lost photograph from a known series of the family in Tissot's garden), are the only anchors.
In associating Tissot with the minute detail of buttons and seams, it is easy to forget that he was a contemporary and friend of the Impressionists and was adept at painting atmospheric landscapes. The background to Spring is purposely diffused to enable the white-clad sunlit figure to stand out. The lilac-coloured rhododendron blooms are subdued in tone and painted in soft, blended brushstrokes, as are the leaves and background trees, the greens of both being mixed with yellow ochre and traces of soft brown for a lower key. The cool green and lilac provide a foil to the bright yellow of the ribbons. The whole composition is framed by an arching bough of pink spring blossom, which is meticulously rendered as befits an object near to view.
Tissot's subtitle for Spring at the Grosvenor Gallery, 'Specimen of a Portrait' was the same subtitle given to July (also known as Seaside) at the same show. Tissot was presumably trying to win portrait commissions. Several portraits subsequently recorded in Tissot's carnet suggest that he was successful in attracting these.
Kathleen Newton was the model in seven of the nine works that Tissot showed at the Grosvenor in 1878 - the oil and etched versions of Spring, the etched versions of autumnal subjects October and Mavourneen, the oil of July, an oil painting of Kathleen in bright yellow evening dress at a ball, entitled Evening (also known Le Bal, Musee d'Orsay, Paris), and A Study 'of which only a pretty simple head is finished' (sold Christie's, London, 17 March 1989). The following year, all but two of Tissot's exhibits featured Kathleen, the exceptions being etched studies of the classical colonnade in his garden and of the Trafalgar Tavern. The regularity of her appearance annoyed some reviewers in 1879. Spring, shown the previous year, had seemed fresh and was accordingly favourably received. It thereby represents Tissot's honeymoon period in both critical estimation, and personal experience.
We are grateful to Krystyna Matyjaskiewicz for her help in preparing this catalogue entry.