My blog today is the first of a two part look at the life and art work of Jacques-Joseph Tissot, later to be known as James Tissot. In this first part I will look at his life and a religious painting with a difference, which was one of a series he completed between 1886 and 1894. In my next blog I will introduce you to the “love of his life”, who featured in a number of his later works.
Jacques-Joseph Tissot was born in 1836, in Nantes, a French seaport on the north-west coast of France. Tissot was the second of four sons born to Marcel Théodore Tissot, an affluent linen merchant and successful businessman, who owned a country house, Château de Buillon, close to the town of Besançon and Marie Tissot, née Durand, a clothes and hat designer who helped in her husband’s business. Tissot was brought up in a very religious household with both his parents being devout Roman Catholics. At the age of twelve he was sent away to a Jesuit boarding school in Belgium, in the town of Brugelette, which in those days was one of the leading seats of learning for children of the Roman Catholic faith and attracted many pupils from different countries. In her 1985 biography, Tissot by Krystyna Matyjaszkiewicz, she points out that it was at this college that Tissot first came into contact with English children. She wrote:
“…Pupils at Brugelette included Catholics from England, and it may have been through friendships at Brugelette that Tissot became interested in all things English and began to style himself James, the name he was using by 1854. When new laws enabled the Jesuits in 1850 to open a college at Vannes in Brittany Tissot returned to France and attended school there, subsequently moving to another in Dôle (near Besançon), a bastion of Catholicism….”
His early family life would later have a bearing on some of his paintings such as his beautifully crafted depictions of ships which he would have seen in the local harbour of Nantes and his devout religious upbringing would have given him an interest in religious paintings.
By the time he was seventeen years of age, Tissot had decided to become an artist, much to the annoyance of his father, who had hoped his son would follow in his footsteps and run the family business. His father eventually relented and in 1855, aged 19, Tissot went to Paris, lodging with an artist friend of his mother, Jules-Élie Delaunay. He then worked in the studios of the French academic painters, Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin and Louis Lamothe who had learnt their trade as pupils of Ingres. During his stay in Paris, he would, like many aspiring artists, spend a great deal of time at the Louvre copying the works of the Old Masters and it was around this time that he met other contemporary artists such Degas, who also had once studied under Lamothe, the American artist, James McNeill Whistler and Édouard Manet. Four years after arriving in Paris, Tissot exhibited five of his works at the 1859 Paris Salon.
Within a relatively short time he became an admired painter and received a number of commissions for wealthy patrons. There was also a change in Tissot’s painting style from his medieval-styled works to everyday life seen through his portraiture. He would depict modern Parisian women as they went about the city and its suburbs and he would spend time perfecting the way he depicted their style of dress, and such an interest in this aspect probably harked back to the days spent with his family clothing business and admiring his mother’s talents as a designer. Much later in his life, in 1885, there was a major exhibition of his work at the Galerie Sedelmeyer, Paris, where he showed 15 large paintings in a series called La Femme à Paris. These paintings represented different types and classes of women, shown in their professional and social contexts.
Because I want to save the middle part of Tissot’s life and his love affair with Kathleen Newton, until my next blog, I am going to skip to the year 1885 which is the year in which the artist experienced a re-conversion to Catholicism. It is said that one day, during a church service, he had a vision of Jesus tending to people in a ruined building. It was, Tissot believed, his Road to Damascus. It was this return to his Roman Catholic beliefs which led him to spend the rest of his life illustrating the Bible. It is not unusual for us to hear of people being struck by this “born again Christian” phenomena but in the case of James Tissot many of his friends found his sudden return to Roman Catholicism, at a time when there had been a French Catholic revival and a coinciding surge in purchasing religious paintings, just too much of a fortuitous coincidence !! Nevertheless, from then on Tissot devoted himself to painting religious subjects. He totally immersed himself in all things religious and painted works connected with bible. His biographer, Krystyna Matyjaszkiewiczn wrote of Tissot’s religious fervour:
“…Tissot set off for Palestine on 15 October 1886, his fiftieth birthday. He returned to Paris in March 1887 with sketchbooks full of drawings and a burning compulsion to illustrate the life of Christ. The idea developed into publishing images of events, places, people, and incidental detail, with extracts from the Gospels and biblical commentaries. Tissot made further visits to Jerusalem in 1888 and 1889. By April 1894 he had completed 270 watercolours, which were displayed at the Champ de Mars, Paris, to awe and amazement…”
Tissot travelled to the Holy Land and this marked the beginning of a 10-year campaign to illustrate the New Testament. He would return to Palestine and back to Jerusalem and the surrounding area in 1888 and 1889 to make further studies of the landscape and the people. The culmination of the project resulted in his The Life of Christ collection which was a compilation of 350 watercolours that depicted detailed scenes from the New Testament, from before the birth of Jesus through to the Resurrection, in a chronological narrative. Two hundred and seventy of them were exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1894. It is reported that these works of art caused a sensation. Men were described as reverently doffing their hats whilst women wept and knelt before the pictures. Some women even crawled like penitents through the show. The exhibition of his biblical works moved to London in 1896 and New York at the end of 1898 before the entire collection was purchased by the Brooklyn Museum in 1900. In 1897 a French version of the profusely illustrated Tissot Bible was published and a year later an English version was available. This further enhanced the artistic reputation of Tissot and made him very wealthy. In the last few years of his life, Tissot worked on paintings depicting scenes from the Old Testament, eighty of which were exhibited in Paris. He had, by this time, retired to Château de Buillon, the residence he inherited on the death of his father. Tissot was never to complete the series of Old Testament works as he died at his chateau in Doubs, France in 1902, aged 66.
My featured painting today is one of the biblical scenes from the New Testament completed by James Tissot during the period 1886-1894. It is an opaque watercolour over graphite on gray-green woven paper entitled What Our Lord Saw from the Cross. It is regarded as one of the most memorable of the series of biblical images by the French painter. It is totally different from the normal crucifixion scene paintings when, in almost all cases, we look up at the figure of Christ hanging from the cross. In Tissot’s painting, we are the eyes of Christ and it us who looks down from the cross at the people below. By doing this Tissot has allowed us to imagine ourselves in Christ’s place and by doing so we are able to empathise with him and maybe we can imagine what was going through his mind as he looked down upon friends, who had come to lend their support, and his enemies who have participated in his death and had come to gloat at his predicament.
From our viewpoint we look downwards at the crowd. We see Mary Magdalene, in the immediate foreground, with her long red tresses swirling down her back, kneeling below the feet of Christ, which we can just see at the bottom centre of the painting. Further back we see the Virgin Mary clutching her breast, while John the Evangelist looks up with hands clasped. Some Roman soldiers are looking on, including a centurion who is clad in red. He has a downcast and remorseful expression on his face and Tissot has no doubt placed him at the scene reminding us of the passage in Luke’s Gospel 23:47 which stated:
“…Now when the centurion saw what was done, he glorified God, saying, Certainly this was a righteous man…”
The men on horseback in the right mid ground of the painting are Jewish scribes. They have a look of satisfaction on their faces for Christ was their rival. These were the very men who had put pressure on Pilate to have Christ crucified. Their plan had succeeded and their rival had been removed. Look towards the centre of the background and one can see that Tissot has depicted the entrance to a tomb, the very place in which the body of Christ will be laid to rest after he has been brought down from the cross.
This is truly a remarkable work of art and I would love to go to the Brooklyn Museum to see the complete series.
In my next blog I will tell you about Tissot’s beloved Kathleen Newton, an Irish divorcee, and look at some of his portraits of this woman, who was the love of his life.