James Tissot's tragic muse 

In an Art Institute exhibit that blends history and impressionism, one notorious figure stands in sharp focus.

July: Specimen of a Portrait, by James Tissot

July: Specimen of a Portrait, by James Tissot

Courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art

If you've stood at the corner of Michigan and Adams this summer and looked up at the banners on the face of the Art Institute, you may have met the expectant gaze of Kathleen Kelly Newton, a sun-washed, copper-haired Victorian beauty, resplendent in a froth of white ruffles and pale golden bows.

Newton was 24 years old and a pariah in London society when she sat for the now famous painting July: Specimen of a Portrait, part of the "Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity" exhibit that's been packing the museum's galleries all summer. Both she and the dress were objects of obsessive attention by their possessor, painter Jacques—alias James—Tissot.

Their story, with its mix of passion, scandal, luxury, tragedy, and disparaged artistic genius, unspools like a good late-summer beach read.

Kathleen Kelly was born in 1854 to Irish parents in Lahore, the "Pearl of Punjab," where her father, an officer in the British Indian army, was stationed. Convent educated, after her mother died she was sent to boarding school in England, which is where she was at the age of 17, when her father decided it was time for her to marry. He arranged a match with an older man, Isaac Newton (not that one), a surgeon in the Indian Civil Service, and literally shipped her off like a mail-order bride.

Papa neglected to send along a competent chaperone, however, and on the long voyage to her wedding, Kathleen fell in love with the ship's no-doubt-dashing captain, one Mr. Palliser, a fact she confessed to her new husband right after their nuptials (and before the marriage was consummated). He responded with divorce proceedings, and she returned to England on Palliser's ship in the spring of 1871. In December of that year she gave birth to a daughter, said to be the captain's child.

Now damaged goods, Mrs. Newton, as she was subsequently known, went to live with her married sister in a London neighborhood popular with the city's artists, including a French refugee who'd made a name for himself in England's proper social and art circles: Jacques, now James, Tissot.

Tissot—whose fixation on fabric and the minutiae of clothing was unmatched by his contemporaries—was in fact the son of a drapery dealer and a milliner. A native of Nantes, at the age of 20 he'd gone to Paris, where he trained in the neoclassical style of Ingres while making friends with the likes of Whistler, Degas, and Manet. He never swerved from his stunningly exact realism, but in the 1860s, like his impressionist buddies, he abandoned historical, mythical, and religious subjects for the portrayal of "modern" life.

With its mix of passion, scandal, luxury, and tragedy, the story of painter James Tissot and his muse unspools like a good late-summer beach read.

Both France and England were in the throes of rapid industrialization and urbanization. As this exhibit makes clear, the arrival of mass production in the clothing industry, along with a burgeoning middle class eager to jump into the latest status-symbol attire, made fashion an appropriate subject. Paris was the epicenter of this new economic and social phenomenon, and Tissot's paintings of fashionable Parisians were a hit with newly wealthy collectors. He was soon a rich and envied man (described by one "friend" as having "an unintelligent skull and the eyes of a boiled fish"). But in 1871, after the Franco-Prussian war left Paris in chaos (and, rumor had it, after some foiled revolutionary efforts of his own), he fled to London. According to biographer Christopher Wood, he arrived with only 100 francs in his pocket.

Working under his anglicized first name, Tissot pulled off another meteoric rise, painting exquisitely exacting scenes of London society and its foibles that were refreshingly free of the usual Victorian sentimentality. The critics of his day didn't much like his work—the English dismissed him as French, the French came to think he was too English, and both faulted his fashion-obsessed middle-class subjects as vulgar—but it commanded handsome prices. In 1873 he purchased a home near the one in which Kathleen Newton was living with her sister, and sometime after that—perhaps on a stroll through the hood?—he met the woman whose piquant face and delicate form he seemed to have presaged in his earlier paintings. In 1876 Newton added a second, unthinkable blot on her reputation by giving birth to a son usually assumed to be Tissot's, and she and the children moved into his house.

For the next six years Newton was Tissot's live-in mistress and muse, appearing repeatedly (sometimes with the kids and always lavishly dressed) in his luminous work. They could have married but didn't, openly violating Victorian norms and scandalizing the social circles in which he'd moved. Wood says this unorthodox domesticity was the happiest period of the artist's life, but it lasted only about six years. Newton, always a wisp in a world of opulent, corseted flesh, died in 1882, reportedly downing a fatal dose of laudanum to end a futile struggle with tuberculosis. Distraught, Tissot sold his house and moved back to France. In 1885, after seeing a vision of Christ, he returned to the Catholicism of his youth and devoted himself to illustrating the Bible. He died in 1902.

Gloria Groom—who dreamed up this very popular exhibition and organized it with the Metropolitan Museum and the Musee d'Orsay—has included a generous helping of Tissot in the show, which integrates the art with original gowns and collateral items. Among the 75 major paintings on display, a dozen are his, and coming upon them amid the brash blur of so many impressionists is like raising a good pair of opera glasses to your eyes: a whole world, in all its seductive detail, is suddenly in focus. The frothy white dress with its myriad tiny pleats and sunny bows is there twice, as is the notorious Mrs. Newton. Look for her in Evening (Le Bal), making a bold entrance in white lace, with a strategic cascade of gold and white ruffles bringing up the rear. She's scanning the crowd, and she's on the arm of an older man.

Groom, who's recently been promoted to the Art Institute's first "senior curator" position, notes that the museum doesn't own a single painting by Tissot. "Maybe now," she says, "we can do something about that."

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