For a century until Spring Morning reappeared at auction in 1981, its composition was known only through the related drypoint (see Notes). It was common practice for Tissot not only to repeat his paintings as etchings, but to re-use and re-combine figures, motifs, costumes, and compositions. Indeed, elements of this painting served as the sources for a number of works. The dress reappears in the etching Woman at the Window (ca. 1875) and again with the hat in the painting Holyday (ca. 1876; Tate, London); the rhubarb plant and reeds in the foreground are featured in the painting The Widower (1876; Art Gallery of New South Wales, Melbourne) as well as in the related etching; the reeds appear again in the similar composition of The Orphan (1879; private collection).
The motif of the figure silhouetted against the light is reminiscent of certain Japanese color woodblock prints, such as Buncho Ippitsusai’s The Actor Segawa Kikunojo in a Female Role (ca. 1796), and the clump of vegetation in the foreground is similar to a motif in Hokusai’s Manga, sources which were available to Tissot throughout the 1860s (as pointed out by Michael Wentworth, James Tissot: Catalogue Raisonné of his Prints, exh. cat., Minneapolis, 1978, where these images are reproduced as figs. 13a and 13b, respectively). Tissot, along with his friends Baudelaire, Bracquemond, Degas, Fantin-Latour, Manet, Monet, and Whistler, was an early and avid afficionado of the Japanese color prints that began to arrive in France in the late 1850s and early 1860s. Nevertheless, Tissot may also have been inspired by the sight of related motifs in the works of his contemporaries, where a similar contre-jour effect may be seen, as in the example of Monet’s Gladioli (1876; Detroit Institute of Arts; see Wentworth 1978, p. 79, fig. 13c). Most of the Impressionist artists employed this effect at one point or another in the 1870s and 1880s.
When the etching derived from this painting was exhibited in London in 1876, it was inexplicably singled out for criticism as "intensely vulgar, but clever enough for the public it appeals to." (Anonymous, "Exhibition of Works in Black and White – Dudley Gallery," Athenaeum, no. 2538 [June 17, 1876], p. 837, as quoted in Wentworth 1978, p. 76 n. 3, under no. 13). The vulgarity that offended the critic was perhaps the direct, unmitigated stare of the model, addressing the viewer from across a small pond. But there is nothing vulgar about her gesture, her dress, nor the garden. It is not known whether Tissot portrayed a specific garden (perhaps his own in St. John’s Wood) or invented an imaginary one, but the remarkable specificity of the blooming plants—acanthus and iris in the foreground, red pelargoniums, white azaleas, and rhododendrons in the background—suggests a setting in late spring, perhaps June.
It is possible that this is the earliest representation of Tissot’s companion Kathleen Newton. According to Newton’s niece Lilian Hervey, "One day [Tissot] called to ask if he might paint her portrait. Over sittings they fell deeply in love, and soon Mrs. Newton went to live with Tissot." (Quoted by Marita Ross in "The Truth About Tissot," Everybody’s Weekly, June 15, 1946, p. 6.) The details of Newton’s life in the years which immediately preceded her moving in with Tissot sometime in 1876 are unknown. Given that in March of that year she gave birth to a son, Cecil George, who could have been fathered by Tissot (there is no evidence either way), the present painting may document an early phase of their relationship. (See Wentworth, James Tissot, Oxford, 1984, pp. 126–27, esp. n. 4.)
[Asher Ethan Miller 2014; adapted from Tinterow and Miller 2005]