Tissot, James Jacques Joseph

Nantes 1836 - Buillon 1902
Biography & List of works




Medium: Oil on canvas

Size: 92 x 68 cm

Signed: Signed lower-left: J. J. Tissot


John Polson, of Tranent and Thornly, his executors’ sale, Christie’s London, 21 July 1911; Sir Edward J. Harland, Baroda House, London, his executors’ sale, Christie’s London, 31 May 1912; Ingegnoli Collection, Milan, his executors’ sale, Galleria Pesaro Milan, May 1933;Private Collection, Milan 2014.



Athenaeum, 10 May 1879, ‘The Grosvenor Gallery Exhibition’, pp. 607-8; Era, 4 May 1879, ‘The Grosvenor Gallery’, p. 3; Graphic, 10 May 1879, ‘The Royal Academy and the Grosvenor Galleries’ by Tom Taylor, p. 463; Manchester Guardian, 3 September 1979, ‘Royal Institution, First Notice’, p. 5; The Spectator, 31 May 1879, p. 691; The Times, 2 May 1879, ‘The Grosvenor Gallery’, p. 3; Ugo Ojetti, La Galleria Ingegnoli, Milano [1933], p. 9 and plate 191; Willard E. Misfeldt, James Jacques Joseph Tissot: A Bio-Critical Study PhD dissertation, Washington University, 1971, pp. 162-163, 191; Willard E. Misfeldt 1982, Albums, p. 52; Michael Wentworth, Michael, James Tissot, Oxford, 1984, pp. 88, 119, 141, 145-6, 147, 151, 203 and plate 159; Christopher Wood, Tissot: The Life and Work of Jacques Joseph Tissot, 1836-1902, Boston, 1986, p. 106; Margaret Flanders Darby, ‘The Conservatory in St John’s Wood’, Seductive Surfaces: The Art of Tissot, edited by Katharine Lochnan, New Haven, 1999, pp. 163, 166, 180-181 and figure 73. 


London, Grosvenor Gallery, 1879, number 95 as Rivals; Manchester, Royal Manchester Institution, Exhibition of Modern Paintings and Sculpture, 1879, number 355, priced £400; Milan, Palazzo della Permanente, La Mostra Nazionale di Pittura, ‘L’Arte e il convito’, 1957, number 188. 

Rivals is a masterpiece of painterly detail and characterisation that encapsulates the leisurely life and surroundings enjoyed by people of comfortable wealth in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Europe. In this beautiful painting, the anglophile French artist James Tissot depicts not only the woman he loves apparently being wooed by two older gentlemen, but also the extensive conservatory filled with exotic plants adjacent to the elegant studio of his St John’s Wood villa.


Born Jacques Joseph Tissot in Nantes, northern France, the artist was an admirer of all things English from his early years, and was already calling himself James when he moved to Paris to study art. Success came rapidly, gaining him a wide clientele and an enviable income. Tissot was not only good at capturing a likeness but also innovative in his choice of settings and poses for portraits of wealthy clients. In addition he created a range of thematic pictures to suit different tastes, from medieval-dress images of Marguerite – the heroine of Goethe’s Faust – to troubadour pictures of seventeenth-century star-crossed lovers, still life paintings, landscapes, and images of modern Parisian women going about their daily lives. Tissot’s success lay not only in his skills as a painter but also in his understanding of the art market, and the types of pictures that would appeal to different buyers. At the age of thirty he was sufficiently wealthy to build an English-style villa in Paris near the Bois de Boulogne, on the Avenue de l’Impératrice (now Avenue Foch). He filled it with Japanese and Chinese artefacts, which he collected avidly, and eighteenth-century furniture, along with exotic plants in a conservatory that included a goldfish tank.


The Franco-Prussian war and siege of Paris in 1870-71 saw Tissot fighting as a volunteer sharpshooter alongside fellow artists in defence of the city. Although he was friends with some of the more ardent Communards, his political sympathies were more conservative and, with the brutal suppression of the Commune and mass executions carried out near his home, he was persuaded to abandon Paris for London, where had been offered commissions by British friends. Influenced by his exposure to the contemporary London art market he created new works for exhibition and sale, designed specifically to appeal to British collectors and often including scenes along the Thames where the ships and maritime life would have reminded him of his early life in Nantes. Tissot soon made his mark and, by January 1873, had decided to remain in London, purchasing the lease of a property at 17 (now 44) Grove End Road, St John’s Wood, while arranging for a friend to rent his Paris house.


Tissot commissioned the young Scottish architect John Brydon to design an extension to the house in Grove End Road, comprising an elegant, spacious studio and a large conservatory. Brydon’s designs were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1874 and his view of Tissot’s studio interior was published in the May issue of Building News. ‘As will be seen from the drawing,’ the accompanying text informed readers, ‘it is a large apartment, amply lighted, principally from the north and east. The whole of one side (the right in the view) is open to a large conservatory, from which it is separated by an arrangement of glass screens and curtains. The floor is laid with oak parquet, and the walls are hung with a kind of tapestry cloth of a greenish blue colour.’ (Building News, 15 May 1874, p. 526) The ‘glass screens and curtains’ between studio and conservatory are omitted from the Building News illustration, probably for clarity. They can be seen clearly, however, in a Tissot painting of about 1874 that has sometimes been confused with Rivals and is now called In the Conservatory but was known by its first owner as Afternoon Tea (Private collection). In the latter picture the foreground figures taking tea are located in Tissot’s studio, while a couple engaged in conservation can be seen through the open glass screen that separated the studio from the conservatory. The conservatory is filled with a range of palms and there are pale pink blooms of a rhododendron, and flashes of red from other blossoms. Such exotic plants needed a particular climate to flourish, and the glass screen enabled the correct temperature and humidity to be maintained, while striped blinds provided shade in the studio. On the left, in the distance, can be seen the curved exterior wall of the conservatory, comprising tall narrow panes of glass held between white-painted cast-iron ribs. In the centre of the painting is one of several bronze two-handled, elongated vases that punctuated the junction between studio and conservatory, like the one that can be seen in the upper centre of Rivals.


Another view of the plant-filled conservatory provides the setting for a Tissot painting shown at London’s Royal Academy in 1875, The Bunch of Lilacs (Private collection). In this painting the banana palm familiar from the right background of In the Conservatory can be seen behind a young woman in the same blue muslin gown as the standing figure in the studio, who this time carries rather than wears her bonnet. The polished tile floor gleams mirror-like, reflecting the plants and sky-lit conservatory glass. To the blue-clad figure’s left is the large wooden carved and gilded oriental lantern visible also in Rivals. Tissot appears to have simplified its outlines and detail for In the Conservatory, as the lantern centrally placed there, and reflected in the mirror on the right, has different decoration and no gilding. Rivals is set in the lower part of the conservatory, at garden level, which was reached from the upper part, at studio and house level, via stairs. These appear in several paintings by Tissot, such as The Elder Sister, also known as Mother and Child (Musée Municipal, Cambrai, France; small version ex-Stair Sainty Gallery). At the top of the stairs can be seen the glass screen doors leading into the studio. The models are Kathleen Newton, the great love of Tissot’s life, and her niece Lilian Hervey. It is Kathleen who is the subject of attention in Rivals.


Kathleen Irene Ashburnham Kelly was born in 1854 in Agra, India, where her father worked in the accountant’s office of the British East India Company. After the Indian Mutiny, Kathleen was sent to England with an older sister, Mary Pauline, for safety and to attend Catholic school, where the girls would obtain suitable accomplishments to make them attractive marriage partners. When Kathleen reached the age of sixteen, a marriage was arranged to Dr Isaac Newton, an army surgeon in India. The ceremony took place in Hoshearpore (now Hoshiapur), India, in January 1871 but the couple separated soon after the wedding, Kathleen having admitted that she had met and had a short-lived affair with a Captain Charles Henry Palliser (later Major-General Sir Henry Pallister 1830-1895) on board ship during her journey from Britain.  Divorce proceedings were begun and she was sent back to England, where a daughter, Muriel Violet Mary Newton, was born in December, ten days before Kathleen’s decree nisi was declared. Nothing is known about Kathleen until March 1876, when she gave birth to a son, Cecil George Newton, at Mary Pauline’s house in Hill Road, St John’s Wood, a short distance from Tissot’s house in Grove End Road.


Mary Pauline had married Hervey Augustus Frederick Hervey in 1874, and was the mother of Isabelle Mary (known as Belle) and Lilian Ethel. Lilian was Kathleen’s favourite, and the source of biographical information about Kathleen given to the journalist Marita Ross in 1946. According to Ross, Tissot ‘could scarcely help noticing the pretty Mrs Newton who tripped past his gate to post letters, or to take the children out for a walk. One day he called to ask if he might paint her portrait. Over the sittings they fell deeply in love, and soon Mrs Newton went to live with Tissot.’ The earliest dated portrait of Kathleen by Tissot is the etched Portrait de M. N. of 1876, popularly called La Frileuse, in which she wears a fur-edged wrap and a wide-brimmed black hat. An unfinished painted portrait of Kathleen is dated 1877, and it is likely that she came to live with Tissot that year. Her children continued to live with their cousins at Hill Road, where they shared a nanny, and all visited Kathleen and Tissot regularly for tea, play in the garden, and music with Kathleen at the piano.


Tissot and Kathleen were unable to marry: both of them were Roman Catholics and divorce, though newly available in civil law, was not recognised by either the Catholic or Anglican churches. The two lived together as man and wife, Kathleen being known to the servants as ‘Madame Tissot’, according to Lilian. Cohabitation was common in Victorian England, especially among artists and bohemians, as well as the working classes, but was frowned upon by most people in the middle and upper classes. Over the years, as Kathleen came to feature in an increasing number of Tissot’s works, it became well known that he had a grande passion for a married woman, with whom he lived, but few knew her name. The two ‘had their own little literary and artistic circles,’ Lilian told Marita Ross, ‘in which the absence of a conventional wedding ring made no difference.’ The journalist quoted Lilian as saying that ‘Whistler and Oscar Wilde, with his brother Willie, were constant visitors,’ as were ‘Sir Charles Wyndham, Sir Henry Irving and Miss Mary Moore.’ Thomas Gibson Bowles, founder of the satirical weekly Vanity Fair, was a longstanding friend of Tissot and frequent visitor, introducing others such as William Stone, who ‘was a good deal up at 17 Grove End Road and often had tea in the garden with Tissot and the lady’. Stone said ‘Tissot was quite a boulevardier and could not grasp our somewhat puritanical outlook.’ Kathleen clearly had admirers among the friends who visited Tissot; the two protagonists in Rivals may well be portraits, and the painting therefore an in-joke for those who knew the sitters.


We, as viewers of Rivals, have a laden tea table in front of us, including a teacup with handle turned invitingly in our direction.[1] The young hostess, sitting opposite in a fur-draped wicker armchair, is dressed in black, probably in mourning, and busy with crochet but looking towards an elderly gentleman in the centre. On our right is a sandy-haired gentleman, who is clearly well settled in and already taking tea, his left arm with saucer in hand resting along the chair-back[2] as he daintily lifts a teacup with his right. This man’s legs are crossed in the direction of the young woman and his face is turned towards her, away from the second gentleman. His white-haired rival appears to have arrived more recently and still wears a glove on the right hand that lightly holds his cane. He is leaning towards the young woman, whose knees extend in his direction. In the elderly gentleman’s buttonhole is what looks like fragrant orange blossom (Choisya), a favourite flower for wedding bouquets. To his right, on the stone parapet surrounding the conservatory plants, is a green ceramic rabbit. 1879, the year in which this painting was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery – and was probably completed – was the Chinese year of the Earth Rabbit. According to Chinese tradition, people born under the sign of the Earth Rabbit are grounded in reality; their advice can be harsh but honest, and home life is as important to them as money or material goods. Tissot was familiar with the Chinese zodiac and symbolic meanings, and was fascinated by Chinese and Japanese culture. There are ceramic and bronze oriental vessels from his collection dotted around the conservatory and to the left of the young woman’s head can be glimpsed a sculpture depicting one of the leaders of the Chinese immortals, Zhongli Quan. This immortal is known for his pleasing disposition and is distinguished by his long beard and bare chest, and the feather fan that he holds, which has the magical ability of reviving the dead, and in some stories can transform stones into gold and silver.


The showpiece, oriental-style tea caddy in the foreground, with curving lizard handle, was of recent British make, inspired by Chinese and Japanese artefacts. Tissot owned many such modern Japoniste pieces of furniture and ceramics, as well as the oriental items that had inspired them. A Royal Worcester design,[3] the tea caddy has floral sprays and storks embossed in white against a dark blue ground. The same tea caddy has pride of place at the centre of the picnic spread in Holyday (Tate Britain), which includes the same silver teakettle[4] and sugar bowl that feature in Rivals, as well as a similar teacup[5] held by one of the young women by the pool. Reflections in the silverware, and from silver spoon to glazed teacup, as well as the way that the different materials of ceramics, polished silver, bone handles and bakery products are clearly distinguishable, demonstrate Tissot’s astounding painterly skills. No contemporary rivalled his ability to paint silverware, ceramics and glass. A faint image of the artist and the gentleman seated at right can be seen reflected on the tea kettle, a gesture to similar conceits in seventeenth century painting. In Rivals Tissot further shows off his painterly flair through the reflections of the glasshouse roof, supporting structure and palm fronds on the window panes of the glass dividing screen between conservatory and studio in the picture’s background. The dominance of plants, filling the top two-thirds of the canvas, is a bold and unusual choice of composition, seen also in Chrysanthemums (Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Massachussetts). Chrysanthemums were hot-housed for decoration in the home, and Tissot’s Grove End Road property included a number of greenhouses for cultivating different flowers, fruit and vegetables successfully. Both Chrysanthemums and Holyday were shown by Tissot at the opening exhibition of London’s new Grosvenor Gallery in 1877.


Rivals was exhibited by Tissot at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1879, with seven other paintings and four etchings. Kathleen Newton was Tissot’s principal model in six out of the eight paintings. The exhibition reviewer in The Times described Tissot’s subjects as being found ‘as usual, in the boudoir life of luxuriously appointed villas, where graceful ladies, in irreproachable costume, keep a brace of rivals in play at five o’clock tea, plying their crochet pins the while as demurely as if men’s affections were women’s natural playthings. Such a scene is the subject of one of Tissot’s cleverest pictures here, the scene of which is laid in a conservatory with a background of tropical plants wonderfully painted. The others show us the same lady swinging in the shade in a Brazilian hammock, in one case alone, under a Japanese sunshade of black and yellow (The Hammock, Private collection); in the other with a grey-haired elderly gentleman to keep her company’ (A Quiet Afternoon, Private collection). Some reviewers were unhappy to see repetition of the same model, while others made allusions to possible impropriety. Tom Taylor, writing in the Graphic, praised Tissot’s paintings as ‘dainty and luxurious’. He thought the work ‘highly wrought in its detail, and elaborately smooth in its surface, and finished of execution.’ Tissot’s Grosvenor Gallery exhibits, he said, ‘revel in irreproachable toilettes, costly conservatories’ and ‘sumptuous five o’clock teas’. A reviewer in the Era singled out Rivals for description: ‘There is a very dashing young lady taking tea in a conservatory with a couple of gentlemen, one an elderly, the other a youthful, admirer. Both are striving their utmost to please the fair one, who appears to bestow no particular attention upon either of them.’


John Polson, the first owner of Rivals, was probably attracted to the picture because of Tissot’s depiction of so many exotic plants. Polson ‘took a great interest in the growth of rare plants’, according to his grandson, Thomas Godfrey Polson Corbett, 2nd Baron Rowallan, and often corresponded ‘with Kew Gardens over a Gravilea robusta and other tender shoots.’ He had greenhouses and extensive gardens at several properties in Scotland, where Polson was the director of the famous corn-flour manufacturers Brown and Polson, having discovered how to make an edible starch from maize in 1854. Pioneering a profit-sharing scheme for workers for whom he built homes and schools, Polson also supported many charities, and promoted literature, music and fine art in his hometown of Paisley. Following his death in 1900, his wife Mary continued John’s philanthropic work and his art collection was sold after her death in 1911. Polson owned a wide range of pictures, including Tissot’s An Afternoon Call, also known as Miss Lloyd or The Visit (Tate Britain), which was exhibited with Holyday and Chrysanthemums in 1877 at London’s Grosvenor Gallery.


Kathleen Newton, the great love of Tissot’s life, died of tuberculosis in November 1882, barely three years after Rivals was painted. A heartbroken Tissot abandoned London and returned to live in Paris, selling his Grove End Road house to fellow artist Lawrence Alma-Tadema. The latter had extensive alterations made to the property, retaining some of Tissot’s fluted pillars but reducing the size of Tissot’s vast conservatory to make room for a larger studio.



[1] The eclectic mix of tea paraphernalia in the foreground of this picture enforces the bourgeois setting. By the mid-nineteenth century the increasingly wealthy middle classes were emulating the upper class in many of their pursuits and rituals, not least afternoon tea, initiated in the mid 1840s by the Duchess of Bedford, Mistress of the Robes to Queen Victoria, who is widely credited with formalising the event during a visit to Belvoir Castle. As the new rich would not have inherited porcelain and silver services, they purchased them from the growing number of department stores or fashionable shops.

[2] This chair with its pierced and carved splat in the centre of the partitioned section is possibly from the Indian subcontinent or Dutch East Indies. In the nineteenth century they were known as Burgomasters chairs but had been popular since the early seventeenth century. They are able to rotate 360 degrees and the curved back makes them highly ergonomic.

[3] The oriental Royal Worcester teacaddy is in the ‘aesthetic’ style, a movement popular with the porcelain manufactures of this period, possibly decorated by the Callowhill brothers. The angular form, scrolling dragon handle and relief prunus decoration take inspiration from the East but are modelled in a distinctly non-Chinese manner. The diagonal angle of the spoon and handle along with the use of oriental motifs is a fusion of Chinese design and English imagination, typical of the ‘aesthetic’ movement. 

[4] The silver tea kettle, more likely to be electroplate nickel silver (EPNS), is in the style of Dr Christopher Dresser, a fashionable contemporary designer much ahead of his time. He worked in both ceramics and metal ware but his silver plated wares reflect the rise in middle-class desire for the appearance of silver without the higher cost.

[5] The cups with their bleu celeste handles are probably by the Staffordshire factory, Brown Westhead and Moore or their contemporary W. Brownfield & Son. The bleu celeste ground was developed by Sèvres in the mid-eighteenth century, but popularised in England by the nineteenth century factory of Minton and Co. After Minton’s great success with a bleu celeste service at the Great Exhibition (purchased by Queen Victoria and given to the Austrian Emperor), other smaller firms began to produce wares that emulated this popular colour.