Tissot was born in Nantes, France. In about 1856, he began study at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris under Hippolyte Flandrin and Lamothe, and became friendly with Edgar Degas and James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Tissot exhibited in the Paris Salon for the first time in 1859, two portraits of women and three scenes in medieval dress from Faust. The latter show the influence of the Belgian painter Henri Leys, whom he had met in Antwerp in 1859. In the mid-1860s, however, Tissot began to concentrate on depicting women, often although not always shown in modern dress. Like contemporaries such as Alfred Stevens and Claude Monet, Tissot also explored 'japonisme', including Japanese objects and costumes in his pictures. A portrait of Tissot by Degas from these years shows him with a Japanese screen hanging on the wall.
Tissot fought in the Franco-Prussian War and then in defense of the Paris Commune. Either because of the political associations caused by the latter, or simply because of better opportunities, he left Paris for London in 1871. Having already worked as a caricaturist for Thomas Gibson Bowles, the owner of the magazine Vanity Fair, as well as exhibited at the Royal Academy, Tissot arrived with established social and artistic connections in London. He quickly developed his reputation as a painter of elegantly dressed women shown in scenes of fashionable life. In 1874, Degas asked him to join them in the first exhibition organized by the artists we call the Impressionists, but Tissot refused. He continued to be close to the artists however. Berthe Morisot visited him in London in 1874 and he traveled to Venice with Edouard Manet at about the same time. He also saw Whistler regularly. In 1875-6, Tissot met an Irish divorcee named Mrs. Kathleen Newton, who became the painter's companion and frequent model. She moved into Tissot's household in St. John's Wood, London, in 1876 and stayed there until her death in 1882.
After Kathleen Newton's death, Tissot returned to Paris. A major exhibition of his work took place in 1885 at the Galerie Sedelmeyer, where he showed 15 large paintings in a series called La Femme à Paris. Unlike the genre scenes of fashionable women he painted in London, these paintings represent different types and classes of women, shown in their professional and social contexts. The works suggest the influence of Japanese prints in their use of unexpected angles and framing.
In 1888 he underwent a religious conversion when he went into a church to 'catch the atmosphere for a picture', and thereafter he devoted himself to religious subjects. He traveled to the Middle East in 1886, 1889, and 1896 to make studies of the landscape and people. His series of 365 gouache illustrations showing the life of Christ were shown to critical acclaim and enthusiastic audiences in Paris (1894-5), London (1896) and New York (1898-9), before being bought by the Brooklyn Museum in 1900. They were published in a French edition in 1896–7 and in an English one in 1897-8. Tissot spent the last years of his life working on paintings of subjects from the Old Testament. Although he never completed the series, he exhibited 80 of them in Paris in 1901 and engravings after them were published in 1904. Tissot died in Doubs, France in 1902, while living in the Château de Buillon, which he had inherited from his father in 1888.
For many years after his death Tissot was considered a grossly vulgar artist, but there has been a recent upsurge of interest in him, expressed in sale-room prices for his work as well as in numerous books and exhibitions devoted to him.