Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite & British Impressionist Art

Mysterious Muses: The Beauty, Scandal and Tragedy of Godward and Tissot’s Favoured Models

By Sarah Spencer
The nineteenth and early twentieth-century was an age of social hypocrisy, where strong moral codes were habitually broken, and using beautiful women as models for paintings commonly led to scandalous affairs. James Tissot and John William Godward each fell in love with one of their respective models.

T issot painted his beloved mistress Kathleen Newton with such finesse and frequency that she is now among the most recognisable models of the day. Godward’s model and alleged love, known only by her sobriquet ‘Dolcissima’ (Sweetest Castaway), features in many works that were painted whilst Godward was living in Rome in the 1910s. She remains mysteriously nameless, and Kathleen Newton, too, was known simply as la mystérieuse until she was reidentified in the 1970s. Ahead of our Victorian Pictures sale on 11 July 2019, we compare how these forgotten muses shaped the lives and art of Tissot and Godward.

Room Looking over the Harbour is one of Tissot’s first paintings of Kathleen Newton. She is shown reading at a lunch table, clothed in a fashionable, high-necked dress. The pair met in St John’s Wood, London, in around 1875 and began a controversial relationship that lasted seven years. This period was the happiest of Tissot’s life, and Kathleen became the elegant leading lady of his pictures. Although it was common for artists of the period to have mistresses, it was unusual, and indeed scandalous, that Tissot lived with her openly, and painted her repeatedly in intimate domestic settings. Kathleen’s status exacerbated the controversy. In 1870-1, whilst on passage to India to marry Isaac Newton- a surgeon in the Indian civil service- Kathleen had an affair with fellow traveller Captain Palliser. When the truth emerged shortly after the marriage, Kathleen became an Irish catholic divorcée, and latterly the mother of two illegitimate children. She was thus considered declassé by Victorian society, and Tissot’s social standing suffered markedly by association.

Godward prompted similar controversy when he relocated permanently to Rome in around 1912 with Dolcissima, the Italian beauty immortalised in Pyrallis and several other paintings. Whilst Tissot painted Kathleen in domestic settings, Godward placed Dolcissima and his many other models in environments and clothing that strongly evoke the classical past. Although the name ‘Pyrallis’ appears among the list of Emperor Gaius Caligula’s lovers, the title was probably chosen simply to recall ancient Rome. Considering that Godward almost exclusively used Dolcissima as his model during his final year in Rome, it is likely that she was depicted in An Edition de Luxe, which is signed and dated ‘Rome, 1920’. This work is an archetypal Godward; a woman clothed in vibrant drapery is shown in repose amid sumptuously textured fur and marble surroundings. It demonstrates his devotion to capturing idealised feminine beauty and disinterest in narrative and drama. Though Godward’s move to Rome inspired some of his finest works, it shocked his family to the extent of estrangement. His mother reportedly never forgave him. Both Tissot and Godward were so captivated by their models that they were willing to damage their reputations, and alienate themselves from society and their families, to love and live with them.

The lives of both artists were marred by tragedy. Kathleen died in 1882 at the age of just 28, either from tuberculosis or suicide to spare herself and Tissot the agony of her consumption. Her death deeply affected Tissot, prompting his return to Paris just days later. After three years, he experienced a revival in his Catholic faith and painted only religious subjects until his death. The beautiful woman that gazed out from so many of Tissot’s finest paintings was forgotten until Kathleen’s name and story were rediscovered in the 1970s, when her niece came forward with memoirs. Many rumours have circulated about her demise, though none are conclusive. Suicide would offer an explanation as to why Kathleen’s identity was forgotten until recent years, as the act was considered a mortal sin.

Godward met this tragic end in 1922. His life had been plagued with periods of ill-health that curtailed his artistic output, including Spanish influenza, a peptic ulcer, insomnia and bouts of depression. It is unknown what became of Godward’s relationship with Dolcissima, but he returned to London in 1921. The popularity of his work was rapidly declining with the rise of Picasso and modern art, and, in poor health and feeling his paintings were hopelessly anachronistic, he took his own life. His family were so ashamed by Godward’s suicide that he was barely mentioned, and they attempted to erase all memory of him by destroying his personal items and removing him from photographs.

It is some consolation that despite these tragedies, neither Godward or Kathleen were permanently forgotten because their memory endured in paint. Certain details about both Dolcissima and Kathleen may never be known, but these mysterious muses undisputedly changed the lives of Tissot and Godward and inspired- and are memorialised by- their most exquisite works.

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