Sale: Parke-Bernet, New York, October 5, 1961, lot 51
Sale: Sotheby's, London, June 20, 1972, lot 96
Sale: Sotheby's, London, November 22, 1983, lot 60, illustrated
Stair-Sainty Fine Art Inc., New York (until 1984)
D. C. Dueck
La soeur aînée (The Elder Sister), like most of Tissot's paintings from 1879-1882, depicts his mistress, Kathleen Newton, set against the backdrop of his home at 14 Grove End Road in St. John's Wood. Here, she is shown with her young niece, Lilian Hervey, and the two have been recast as sisters. Tissot often gave his paintings fictional names, such as The Widower or The Orphan, perhaps believing that this would appeal to the Victorian taste for genre and narrative. Kathleen is lost in thought, almost daydreaming, while the young Lilian is sucking her thumb and leaning against her aunt. This childish posture, while so natural, was rarely depicted in paintings of contemporary children of the time (Nancy Rose Marshall and Malcolm Warner, James Tissot, Victorian Love, Modern Life, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1999, p. 138).
This kind of realism would likely have appealed to Tissot. The painting is based on two photographs, each of which depict Kathleen seated on the steps of Tissot's conservatory (figs. 1 and 2). In the painting, Tissot combines the gestures depicted in the photographs: Lilian sucking her thumb and Kathleen daydreaming. The figures in the background were here replaced by a cat sleeping on a wicker chair. The evolution from photographs to painting and eventually to a print provides a glimpse into Tissot's working method in choosing a subject and setting up a composition. He always seduces the viewer with his attention to detail, whether in a painting or in a black-and-white print, and never fails to provide a veritable feast for the eyes.
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