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Tissot’s Mysterious Irish Muse

James (Jacques) Joseph Tissot (1836-1902) Quiet, around 1881, BELUM.U2021.3

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James Tissot, Quiet painting
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The elegant young woman who looks up at us from her book with an air of self-confidence and independence is Tissot’s mistress and muse, Kathleen Newton.
Seated with her niece in the sunlit garden of Tissot’s house in St. John’s Wood, London, Newton engages us directly with her gaze. Known in artistic circles as La Mystérieuse (the mysterious or unknown girl) she was the subject of many of Tissot’s most famous paintings.

Who is Kathleen Newton?

Kathleen Newton’s story involves an arranged marriage, seduction, single motherhood and life in London as Tissot’s mistress. An air of mystery surrounded Kathleen, and Tissot referred to her in the titles of his paintings as La Mystérieuse (the mysterious girl) and La Belle Irlandaise (the beautiful Irish girl). 

Kathleen Kelly (1854-1882) was born to Irish parents in Agra, India, where her father worked for the East India Company. Educated at a convent boarding school in England, Kathleen returned to India at sixteen for a marriage her family had arranged with Dr Isaac Newton, a surgeon and widower whom she had never met. On the voyage Kathleen met and fell in love with a naval officer, Captain Palliser. Kathleen married Dr. Newton but immediately had regrets. The marriage remained unconsummated and Kathleen ran away to Palliser, and soon afterwards became pregnant. Newton began divorce proceedings and Kathleen returned to England to live with her sister, retaining her married name of Newton. There she gave birth to a daughter and, in 1876, to a son. In the same year she met Tissot.


Born in Nantes, Tissot became one of the leading painters in Paris during the 1860s and was influenced by the spirit of Impressionism. In 1871, he moved to London where he was celebrated for his highly detailed depictions of fashionable society. 

Tissot frequently celebrated Kathleen’s Irish ancestry, titling one painting Mavoureen (Irish for ‘my beloved’) while her unconventional life, haunting beauty and the secrecy of her identity intrigued London society. Tissot was fascinated by Kathleen’s beauty and painted her ceaselessly until her early death from Tuberculosis, aged 28.