The Artist and the Muse: James Tissot and Mrs. Kathleen Newton

French painter Jacques Joseph Tissot (1836-1902) took the Anglicized first name James after meeting James McNeil Whistler. Known for his paintings of fashionable women and his later religious studies, Tissot studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris under Ingres, Flandrin, and Lamothe. His friendships included fellow painters Degas and Manet. Tissot left Paris to live in London because of his alleged evolvement in the Paris Commune of 1871. It was in London he met Kathleen Irene Ashburnham Kelly Newton (1854-1882) who would become his muse, model and mistress.


Mrs. Newton was a hauntingly beautiful Irish Catholic divorcee who had spent her childhood in Lahore and Agra. The family moved to London when her father, an Irish army officer retired. Charles Frederick Ashburnham Kelly betrothed his stunning seventeen year old daughter to a surgeon in India, Dr. Isaac Newton. On her voyage to India, Captain Palliser unsuccessfully tried to seduce her. She confessed this to her husband on their wedding night who considered her damaged goods. The marriage was not consummated and Newton divorced her. Mrs. Newton's passage back to England was paid by Palliser who as compensation insisted she become his mistress. Although she became pregnant, she refused to marry him and she and her daughter went to live with her sister in St. John's Wood.


Tissot's paintings which depicted an ephemeral world of elegant women in glamorous settings, feature Mrs. Newton as the model. She moved into his household in St. John's Wood in 1876 and bore him a son. It was an ideal life that Tissot described as "domestic bliss" until she contracted tuberculosis. At the age of twenty-eight, in the last stages of the disease Mrs. Newton chose to take an overdose of laudanum. After losing his "delightful Irish", Tissot left London and eventually the material world he showed in his paintings. Turning to religion and spirituality he traveled to Palestine where he illustrated The Life of Christ. In Tissot's The Annunciation, the face of the Angel Annunciate bears a likeness to his beloved muse, Mrs. Newton.