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Karen Sue SmithApril 05, 2010

Although religious conversion always bears fruit in a person’s life, that fruit is sometimes not visible to the casual observer. In the case of the French artist James Tissot (1836-1902), however, the evidence of his conversion 125 years ago is still plain for all to see.

According to his own account, Tissot, at around age 48, saw a vision during Mass in the Church of St. Sulpice in Paris. Until that time his paintings had focused primarily on high-society life in Paris and London. After his mystical experience, Tissot’s work changed markedly. His next painting, “Inward Voices,” depicts his vision: an impoverished couple sit on the rubble of a building in ruins; beside them sits Jesus—scourged, bleeding and wearing a crown of thorns, yet present to comfort them. Tissot’s religious experience at St. Sulpice resulted in a lifelong directional shift in his artistic work.

Like most conversions, Tissot’s was not instantaneous. Even before his conversion, he had painted several religious subjects that show his familiarity with the Christian saints. Around 1881, Tissot finished a series of oils and etchings of the parable of the prodigal son, setting each episode in the France of his day. The rich father lives in a chic riverside home; the prodigal spends his inheritance on an Asian fling (Paris was infatuated with Japanese culture at the time); the father and son reconcile on a crowded dock; and the celebratory family feast is served waterside, perhaps along the Seine.

Four years later, after his vision, Tissot undertook an artistic project that led him to study archeology and the Bible, and he traveled three times to the Middle East, where he filled sketchbooks with images of the people and places he observed. Drawing upon his photos, sketches and nearly 100 finished drawings, Tissot created a suite of 350 watercolors, entitled “The Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ,” commonly known as “The Life of Christ,” a chronology from Jesus’ birth to the Ascension. It took the artist 10 years to make these vivid, detailed and emotive images. Some are miniature masterpieces; only the major episodes in Jesus’ life are larger in size than a standard sheet of paper. The narrative work includes portraits and landscapes, aerial views and close-ups, intimate moments and vast crowd scenes.

Contemporaries of Tissot, like Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh, also produced biblical images, as did Maurice Denis decades later. But by the end of the first half of the 20th century, only Georges Rouault and Marc Chagall had come even close to Tissot in the quantity of their Bible-based output.

Tissot was bound by the beliefs of his time. His is a single, harmonized Gospel story, untroubled by the questions that modern biblical scholarship has raised and the contradictions it has pointed out. Mistakenly, he thought the culture of the Middle East had not changed much since the time of Jesus and so worked diligently to capture the similarity on paper before modernity could erase it. But this “mistake” accounts for some of the admirable documentary detail of his work: the patterns of rugs, tiles, lattices, textiles, capitals and costumes; and the precise rituals and pageantry, including the segregated society of men and women. Jesus walks through narrow passageways; sits in dark, moonlit rooms; strides down stone streets; and when not on the sea, traverses a pink, gold or blue landscape with oases of palms and olive trees that is starkly beautiful—its rock piles casting gray and mauve shadows. At times one also sees the Jerusalem of Tissot’s day—its red-and-white striped buildings bleached white in the gleaming sun.

Tissot’s people are dynamic and lifelike. In “Procession in the Streets of Jerusalem” (p. 25), young boys in sidelocks sing and clap their hands as Jesus triumphantly enters the city by donkey. One of these young boys appears in an ominous scene just a few days later when Jesus, now a prisoner, is led from Caiaphas to Pilate. Tissot’s cast of characters extends beyond the leading roles to include townspeople whom viewers can recognize throughout the series.

The way Tissot presents Jesus, however, is often disappointing, especially in comparison with Rouault’s powerful images. At times Tissot’s Jesus appears as an expressionless, pale, blond man in a sea of energetic, gesturing, swarthy Jews. Some of this has to do with the small scale, where Jesus’ white robe and blond hair and beard become a cliché.

Fortunately, there are exceptions. “The Good Shepherd” Jesus, for example, his head covered, carries an errant lamb on his shoulders as he descends a mountain of boulders. He looks directly at the viewer as if caught in the act of doing his job. In “The Sower” (p. 26), Jesus is portrayed in a classic pose: a barefoot, vigorous man is casting seed by hand as the sun sets behind him. “Jesus Goes up Alone Onto a Mountain to Pray” shows a backlit Jesus viewed from below, standing atop a pinnacle, the dark blue sky behind him speckled with stars and illumined by a crescent moon.

Ironically, Jesus looks strong, both physically and spiritually, throughout his passion and crucifixion. In “Consummatum Est: It Is Finished,” Jesus has summoned a community behind him; he no longer seems lost in a crowded spectacle. Here God’s presence is depicted as a triangle within a star of David, the Spirit by a dove; and the prophets holding scrolls stand behind Jesus on the cross. Jesus keeps heavenly company.

And in “The Resurrection” (this page), Christ, his wounds aglow, bursts from the tomb and hovers above the guards, who have been knocked to the ground as if hit by an explosion. Their lanterns are still swinging.

Although Tissot strove for historical realism, his images of spirits, angels and demons are highly imaginative, as fantastic and modern as a still shot from James Cameron’s “Avatar.” In one of the temptation scenes, “Jesus Transported by a Spirit Onto a High Mountain,” a huge, shadowy figure lifts a shimmering, white-robed Jesus upward, as in flight, through a purple sky.

After years of intense labor, Tissot exhibited his work in Paris, then in London and the United States. Viewers responded with reverence, awe and tears. Crowds were hushed. Most reviews were laudatory, though not all; one likened the realistic style of the work to a Baedeker guide. When the series was published, the Tissot “Bible” became an international best seller.

In 1896, at age 60, Tissot returned to Palestine to begin a similar series of illustrations of the Old Testament. He completed 95 watercolors and many drawings before his death in 1902. That collection is currently held by the Jewish Museum in New York City.

Last year, for the first time in 20 years, the Brooklyn Museum, which owns the “Life of Christ,” exhibited more than 100 images. The museum also produced a catalogue of the entire set, James Tissot: The Life of Christ, and placed the images online as part of its searchable collection. A traveling exhibition is currently being planned.

The revival is well timed. Events in the Middle East dominate the news, offering contemporary connections to Tissot’s work. It is difficult to see Tissot’s “Maltreatments in the House of Caiaphas,” for example, without thinking of the abuse committed by the United States military at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. In the artist’s painting, a bound and blindfolded Jesus is taunted, poked and pulled at without mercy. The art world has also seen a resurgence of interest in figurative and narrative art. Tissot’s images blend realism and romanticism in a Victorian style that still appeals to many museumgoers. They do not startle the viewer as they once did but now look familiar. Indeed, Hollywood epics have been based on them. And scenes of the suffering of Jesus from Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” and the appearance of the Ark of the Covenant in Steven Spielberg’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark” both owe a debt to Tissot.

To believers, Tissot’s images reveal something more: signs of a vibrant Christian imagination. He did more than represent the land where Jesus walked. Tissot saw himself as a spiritual pilgrim. He reflected on each image and seems to have placed himself in the scenes as the various characters, much as St. Ignatius Loyola recommends in the Spiritual Exercises: as a prodigal son, a child of Jerusalem, a Roman soldier, a mother with a sick child, a condemned thief, a woman at the empty tomb and a convinced follower. Tissot’s visionary images can also help viewers to do the same.

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