Born in Nantes, Brittany, Tissor studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris under J D Ingres and Hippolyte Flandrin. He exhibited in the Paris Salon for the first time at the age of twenty-three. In 1861 a painting was purchased by the French state for the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris. Initially he was a painter of “the charms of women.” Demi-mondaine would be more accurate as a description of the series of studies which he called La Femme a Paris.
In 1870 he fought in the Franco-Prussian War and, suspected of being a Communard, left Paris for London. The Communards supporters of the short-lived 1871 Paris Commune – an early form of communism – formed in the wake of the War and France's defeat.
Tissot’s great friend, Edgar Degas, joined the National Guard on the opposing side and survived the war, but left for New Orleans shortly afterwards. This was a time of great turmoil and Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro joined Tissot in London and resumed their successful careers after a brief exile; by contrast Alfred Sisley remained in France and spent the remainder of his life in poverty.
In London Tissor studied etching with James McNeil Whistler’s brother-in-law Sir Seymour Haden, he also drew caricatures for Vanity Fair, and painted portraits as well as genre subjects.
Sometime in the 1870s Tissot met Mrs. Kathleen Newton, who became his companion and the model for many of his paintings including The Emigrant. Mrs. Newton moved into Tissot's household with her daughter in 1876 and lived with him until her death in the late stages of consumption in 1882 at the age of 28.
Following her death Tissot returned to Paris but It was many years before he turned to his great valedictory labour, the production of a series of 700 watercolour drawings to illustrate the life of Christ and the Old Testament. In 1896 the series of 350 drawings of incidents in the life of Christ was exhibited in Paris, and the following year found them on show in London. They were published by Lemercier in Paris, who paid him 1,100,000 francs for them.