James Tissot in Mourning

An aspect of the fashionable clothing of his day that James Tissot did not fail to capture in paint was mourning.  Several of his pictures show mourning attire of the 1860s to the 1880s in great detail.


The five daughters of Queen Victoria in mourning for Prince Albert. March 1862. (Photo: Wikipedia.org)

Wearing appropriate mourning attire was one of the many rituals surrounding death in Tissot’s era, particularly in Great Britain when Queen Victoria wore mourning for forty years following the death of her consort, Prince Albert.

Numerous etiquette manuals and popular journals laid out the strict and complicated etiquette of dress that demonstrated respect for the deceased, earned sympathy for the grieving, and often displayed wealth and social status.  Different rules applied depending on the bereaved person’s relationship to the deceased person, from grandparents to cousins to servants.

The most stringent, and the most codified, rules governed the attire of widows.  As sexually experienced women who were now single, it was crucial that they observe all proprieties. (1)


Advertising for Victorian mourning garb

Large wardrobes were necessary to outfit women for bereavements of up to two and a half years, and this was a lucrative niche for those in the trade, such as Jay’s of Regent Street, opened in 1841 as an establishment for mourning. (2)  Peter Robertson founded a mourning warehouse in Regent Street in 1865, maintaining a wide inventory, executing special orders in a day, and even traveling to the countryside for fittings at no extra charge.  In 1876, the firm introduced a style catalog from which customers could order ready-to-wear garments to be sent by mail-order. (3)

A widow’s first, or deepest mourning, was worn for a year and a day.  Custom dictated every detail of clothing, and types of fabric to be worn, during this and the following period.  For example, the bonnet for first mourning must have a veil hanging at the back, and a shorter veil worn over the face, and cambric handkerchiefs must have black borders.  Second mourning was worn for twelve months, with complex instructions as to the gradual introduction of additional freedoms, such as wearing hats again.  At the end of the second year, mourning could be put off entirely, but it was considered in better taste to wear half mourning for at least six months longer. (4)


A Widow (Une veuve, 1868), by James Tissot.  Oil on canvas, 27 by 19.5 in. (68.5 by 49.5 cm).  (Photo:  Wikimedia.org)

In 1869, James Tissot exhibited A Widow (Une veuve, 1868) at the Salon in Paris.  The low-cut, square neckline of this stylish young widow’s full-skirted black gown is filled in with a blouse of filmy black silk, trimmed at the round neckline, center front, shoulders and wrists with frothy ruffles in the same fabric.  The set-in sleeves and long and full.  The trained skirt’s high waist is tied with a wide sash and accented with a black rosette.  The pleated flounce at the hem reveals her white, lace-edged petticoat, a black silk stocking, and a squared-toed high heel with its silk bow.  Her brown hair is parted in the center, and braids behind each ear crown her head.  Wearing black lace mitts as she dreamily pursues her sewing – while showing that glimpse of ankle so tantalizing to Victorian men – it is likely she can be induced to leave off her last months of mourning.  The elderly chaperone is in mourning, while the little girl is not.


The Empress Eugénie and the Prince Impérial in the Grounds at Camden Place, Chislehurst (c. 1874), by James Tissot. Oil on canvas, 50 by 60 in. (106.6 by 152.4 cm). Musee Nationale du Chateau de Compiegne, France. (Photo: Wikimedia.org)


Empress Eugénie in mourning for her son, 1880.  (Photo:  Wikipedia.org)

Tissot’s double portrait The Empress Eugénie and the Prince Impérial in the Grounds at Camden Place, Chislehurst (c. 1874) depicts the exiled French Empress (1826 – 1920), living outside London after the collapse of the Second Empire, and her son, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, who would be killed in 1879, at age 23, in the Zulu War.  The only child of Napoléon III of France, he was accepted to the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, in 1872 and is pictured in the uniform of a Woolwich cadet.  The Empress is in her first year of mourning following the death of her husband in January, 1873.

Her black gown consists of a high-necked, button-up bodice with long, tight-fitting, set-in sleeves over a white blouse, and a straight, trained skirt with a black draped tablier (apron) overskirt.  Her round black cap, so like her son’s, is trimmed in white, and a long black veil trails from its back.



The Widower (Le veuf, 1876), by James Tissot.  Oil on canvas, 116.3 by 75.5 cm.  Art Gallery of New South Wales, Australia.  (Photo:  Wikimedia.org)

Tissot exhibited The Widower (1876) at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877.  He portrays this widower with a lumpy, crushed hat of soft felt, wearing a sack coat.  The bereaved man appears so much sadder than if he were dressed in a dapper frock coat and top hat.


Orphans (L’Orpheline, 1879), by James Tissot.  Oil on canvas, 85 by 43 in. (216 by 109.2 cm).  Private Collection.  (Photo:  Wikimedia.org)

Orphans (L’Orpheline, 1879), features Tissot’s mistress and muse, Kathleen Newton (1854 – 1882) and was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1879.  Mrs. Newton’s form-fitting mourning gown was the very latest style – the new cuirasse bodice and Princess line seaming created by couturier Charles Worth.  Fitted over a white blouse with lace showing at the wrists under the long, slim, set-in sleeves, it is a different style of gown altogether from previous Victorian dresses.  It has no waist seam:  the seams run continuously from the shoulder to the hem, and the shape is created by sewing long, fitted fabric pieces together.  Note the center front of her gown, a vertical section of pleated bands.  The Princess seam created a tall, slender look.  It depended on the curaisse bodice, a tightly-laced, boned corset that encased the torso, waist, hips and thighs.  The result was a dramatic narrowing of the silhouette of women’s fashion in the late 1870s.

Mrs. Newton wears black lace mitts, a peaked bonnet embellished with black feathers, and a heavy black scarf around her neck.  She wears a corsage of lavender and white chrysanthemums, but no jewelry except for the wedding band visible on the third finger of her left hand.  It is likely that she is being represented as a widow in her secondary mourning, as lavender was considered a color appropriate for that stage.

The little girl [modeled by Kathleen Newton’s niece, Lilian Hervey (1875 – 1952)] also wears mourning – though, oddly, she seems dressed for different weather entirely in her short-sleeved, button-down black dress over a white chemise.  She has bare arms and legs and wears white socks with black strapped shoes.


The Rivals (I rivali, 1878-79), by James Tissot.  Private Collection.

Tissot’s The Rivals (I rivali, 1878–79) is set in the conservatory of his home at 17 (now 44), Grove End Road in St. John’s Wood, London.  It casts his mistress, young divorcée Kathleen Newton, as a young widow, crocheting while taking tea with two suitors, one middle-aged and one old.  Mrs. Newton is wearing the same black gown she did in L’Orpheline (Orphans, 1879).  In this picture, Tissot paints her so close to the end of her mourning that she is entertaining men – and so nonchalant about it that she slouches in her fur-lined, wicker armchair while focusing on her needlework!

Tissot exhibited this painting at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1879.  Kathleen Newton died of tuberculosis on November 9, 1882, at age 28, at Tissot’s house with her sister, Polly Hervey, at her side (according to the death register).  Tissot draped the coffin in purple velvet and prayed beside it for hours.  Immediately after the funeral on November 14, at the Church of Our Lady in Lisson Grove, St. John’s Wood, Tissot abandoned his home and returned to Paris.


Sans dot (Without Dowry, 1883-85), by James Tissot.  Oil on canvas, 58 by 41 in. (147.32 by 104.14 cm).  Private Collection.  (Photo:  Wikimedia.org)

Tissot exerted himself to re-establish his reputation in Paris, which he had fled following the bloody aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, with a series of fifteen large-scale pictures called La Femme à Paris (The Parisian Woman).  Painted between 1883 and 1885, they portrayed the fashionable parisienne in various incarnations using brighter, modern colors than he had in his previous work.


Women’s mourning bonnet in hard crape, c. 1880.  Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  (Photo:  Wikipedia.org)

The elegant young widow in Sans dot (Without Dowry, 1883-85) takes the air in the gardens in Versailles wearing a buttoned-up, high-necked black bodice with three-quarter, eighteenth-century-style Sabot sleeves that fit tightly before flaring into a deep ruffle below the elbow.  Black gloves cover her hands and forearms.  She wears a black draped tablier (apron) overskirt over a straight, pleated underskirt in sable-colored silk.  Her high-crowned, black straw bonnet features a large black bow over her fringe, echoed by a soft bow tied neatly under her chin.  Because her bonnet is so elaborately beribboned and has no veil, we know she is past her first year of mourning (when the appropriate bonnet was simple, like the one shown at the right) and is now in secondary mourning.  The widow maintains a wistful expression and a demure posture before her work basket and a book while her elderly chaperone, who is wearing mourning and a bonnet with a veil, is absorbed in the newspaper.  She appears completely aware of her charms – and of the fact that her lack of a dowry seems unlikely to affect her ability to attract another husband.

Related posts:

James Tissot’s Fashion Plates (1864-1878): A Guest Post for Mimi Matthews by Lucy Paquette

James Tissot’s garden idyll & Kathleen Newton’s death

A visit to James Tissot’s house & Kathleen Newton’s grave

Tissot’s La Femme à Paris series


(1)  Sidell, Misty White, “A time when the wrong outfit could lead to disgrace and scandal: New Costume Institute exhibit to explore the strict world of Victorian mourning fashions,” Daily Mail, (July 1, 2014); http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2677118/A-time-wrong-outfit-lead-disgrace-scandal-New-Costume-Institute-exhibit-explore-strict-world-Victorian-mourning-fashions.html (Accessed: 1/19/2017)

(2)  “Victorian Mourning Etiquette,” http://www.tchevalier.com/fallingangels/bckgrnd/mourning/ (Accessed: 1/19/2017)

(3)  Hansen, Viveka, “Jet & Dressed in Black – the Victorian Period (B 20),” TEXTILIS (October 12, 2016); https://textilis.net/ (Accessed: 1/19/2017)

(4)  Robinson, Nugent. Collier’s Cyclopedia of Social and Commercial Information.  New York:  F. Collier, 1882.  (Accessed: 1/19/2017)

© Copyright Lucy Paquette 2017.  All rights reserved.

CH377762The Hammock:  A novel based on the true story of French painter James Tissot, brings Tissot’s world from 1870 to 1879 alive in a story of war, art, Society glamour, love, scandal, and tragedy.

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Courtesy of The Bridgeman Art Library  

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4 thoughts on “James Tissot in Mourning

  1. Carol Lois Haywood

    A fascinating exploration of mourning costume, in Tissot’s art as well as in the guides to manners of the time! (Tissot himself I learned was devastated by the untimely death of his longtime companion. And changed his life around completely as a result.) Rather than deny death, as moderns seem to do, the folks of his era expressed their pain through these daily efforts. These changes in their appearance also reminded those who saw them of their loss, also I would guess reminding them to express their feelings to the bereaved one. A better way.

    1. Lucy Paquette, author of The Hammock: A novel based on the true story of French painter James Tissot Post author

      Carol, good to hear from you. I understand that the widespread custom of wearing mourning came to an end during the Great War – when so many lost loved ones that it was not singular to be in bereavement. But then we think of Jackie Kennedy at J.F.K.’s funeral service, wearing the black veil. There can be some comfort in ritual during times of grief, and as you say, a reminder to offer sympathy well past the first days of loss.

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