The life of James Tissot (1836–1902) brackets the Victorian age; his art reflects, to a remarkable degree, the preoccupations of that time. Not least of these were the Victorian Catholic revival and devotional mores on both sides of the English Channel. The tenor of that piety—and modern distance from it—is the unspoken subtext of the Brooklyn Museum’s decision to rescue a portion of Tissot’s The Life of Christ, a suite of 350 watercolors, from climate-controlled oblivion for a three-month airing.
Born Jacques-Joseph Tissot to a prosperous Catholic family in Nantes, the artist anglicized his first name to foster his marketability during a period of French anglophilia. Ambitious and with a keen eye for opportunity, he built an enviable career on polished vignettes of contemporary Parisian life. After the collapse of the Paris Commune in 1871, he retreated to London and its thriving art market. His success prompted writer and critic Edmond de Goncourt to note sourly that Tissot’s studio in St. John’s Wood had “a waiting room where, at all times, there is iced champagne . . . and a garden where, all day long, one can see a footman in silk stockings brushing and shining the shrubbery leaves.”
Tissot created a splendid panorama of aspiring late-Victorian society. His paintings are peopled by the languid, lavishly dressed women of the steam set—forerunners to the jet set. Major critics of his day, including Oscar Wilde and Henry James, transferred disdain for nouveaux riches to chilly reception of the paintings themselves. John Ruskin dismissed them as “mere coloured photographs of vulgar society.” No matter. Tissot’s popularity was immense, and sales were high. Today, his Anglo-French theater of costume and setting carries a period charm as irresistible as a Merchant Ivory production.
On the face of it, Tissot seemed an unlikely convert to religious themes. But the death, in 1882, of his beloved live-in mistress—an Irish Catholic divorcée with an inconstant past—triggered his return to Paris. There, after several misstarts, he reinvented himself as an ardent Catholic and devoted the rest of his life to illustrating the Old and New Testaments. He claimed, later, to have had a vision of Christ while at work in the church of Saint-Sulpice, home to Eugène Delacroix’s Chapel of the Angels. Biblical motifs were still in vogue; it proved a fortuitous conversion.
Tissot’s return to Catholicism was of a piece with Goncourt’s famous estimate of him as “a complex being, a mix of mysticism and phoniness . . . finding every two or three years a new appassionement.” This renewed enthusiasm for his native faith lasted 17 years, until the end of his life, and made him a fortune.
Religious art, like any other, cannot be fully grasped without reference to its historical context. Writer Ernest Renan’s naturalistic Vie de Jésus, published in 1863, deeply affected New Testament representation in the second half of the nineteenth century. Add to that the exotic appeal of Tissot’s Orientalist religious repertoire. Add, too, the climate of popular devotion during the industrialization of Catholicism’s material culture. This mingling provides ground for continued interest in The Life of Christ.
A quest for the historical Jesus in pictures, Tissot’s series sought to strip biblical locales of accumulated artistic imaginings and portray them as they really were. Following common practice, Tissot took study trips to the Middle East, where he made extensive use of a camera to record ethnographic and archeological details. At the heart of this drill lay an implicit assumption: that Palestine in the 1800s accurately reflected the way it looked in antiquity, its people, dress, and ways of life fixed in time like archeological remains.
When Tissot set to work in Saint-Sulpice, the neighborhood around the church had become the production center of the international style of mass-produced Catholic art, for churches and private devotions. Distinctions between l’art sacré and l’art Saint-Sulpice—between sacred art and religious kitsch—were not yet matters of high concern. But seeds of later contention are visible in Tissot’s series, particularly where the Victorian attraction to spiritualism aligns with the emasculate tropes of sulpician piety. Grotto of the Agony envelops Jesus in a feathery haze of cryptic symbols; Jesus Ministered to by Angels frames him with an otherworldly span of ghostly arms and tongues of flame. Both assert the sensibility of an artist who frequented—as Tissot did—a professional spiritualist.
To today’s viewer, Tissot’s fastidious chase of historical exactitude bears the inevitable stamp of Victorian illustration. In their way, the watercolors are as much period pieces as his society paintings. Taken as a whole, The Life of Christ offers the pleasures of technical virtuosity applied to familiar stories garnished with lush stage sets, turbulent crowd scenes, and cinematic sweep. Missing from the sensuous surface appeal is psychological depth—a key component of veracity and sine qua non of any art that would bridge cultures and times. Compare any of Tissot’s Christ figures with—to pluck just one example from the longue durée—Gerrit von Honhorst’s Christ Before the High Priest (1617), and nothing need be said.
Tissot’s Christ-event unfolds in color-drenched variations on received pictorial idiom. The aerial perspective of What Our Lord Saw from the Cross, for instance, leans on Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Golgatha, Consummatum Est (1863) but sacrifices the power and conviction of the earlier work to spectacle. Gérôme worked to enhance the message of the gospels through pictorial means; Tissot drew the story line.
Imaginative vigor winds episodically through the narrative. Sojourn in Egypt is a delightful departure from conventional renderings. Mary, in a printed dirndl and dark apron, carries a toddler up from a quay crisscrossed with masts and riggings taken straight from the Thames. But for the oil jar balanced on her head, she could be a Victorian tourist disembarking. Tissot’s Magi travel as Persian kings should, with a longsome camel train and full retinue. The Testing of the Suitors of the Holy Virgin is an extra-textual scene that affirms the solemnity of betrothal. Elsewhere, though, Tissot’s inventiveness strikes the modern eye askance. Swaddled in Middle Eastern dry goods, Salome entertains Herod by walking downside up on her hands while her skirts defy gravity to protect her modesty. In The Dead Appear in the Temple—a reference to Matthew 27:52—risen men, fully dressed, flit through the air like dybbuks fleeing exorcism.
Textiles are central to Tissot’s pursuit of authenticity. Dramatic flourishes of drape and patterning signal nineteenth-century Orientalist bravura before first-century Judean wardrobes. In its entirety, the series calls to mind the costume epics of silent cinema; Pathé’s 1903 production of Samson and Delilah comes to mind. Naturally so, since early film studios plumbed such paintings as these for the look of antiquity.
Adoration of the Shepherds exemplifies the uneasy alliance between historical intent and doctrinal symbolism. The merry cluster of grinning shepherds in attendance is a grouping of pictorial types, stock tenants of Dutch tavern scenes redeployed to Bethlehem. That they have all their teeth is an anachronism unworthy of Haarlem genre painting. One shepherd lays chickens and a basket of eggs at Mary’s feet. It is a lovely, credible touch. But in a clear nod to Francisco de Zurbarán’s The Dead Lamb (1635), a second, less fortunate, offering lies nearby. Iconographic significance dissolves in the banal literalism of a limp carcass. Zurbarán’s hieratic lamb is an exalted Christological symbol. Tissot’s, fresh from the paddock, is drained of sacral purpose.
Swathed in pompier lengths of white sheeting, Mary shimmers like a dollop of whipped cream. She wears a dark veil over a white wimple, more Dominican mother superior than Galillean country girl. Unspotted by the rigors of childbirth or the dirt floor of a shepherd’s cave, the figure is—necessarily, perhaps—an emblem. Here is one Immaculate Conception cradling another on her lap.
Women wept at the 1894 Paris Salon when selections from The Life of Christ were first exhibited. Some knelt. Others crawled from one image to another as if making the Stations of the Cross. Men removed their hats. On tour, the series drew large pay-per-view crowds in London, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago. A boy soprano singing hymns accompanied its first Brooklyn showing.
In little more than a century, the Christian story has lost purchase on the culture at large; moreover, viewing habits have changed. The Brooklyn Museum has closeted The Life of Christ, acquired by public subscription in 1900, for decades. Why, now, such generous exposure? Is Christianity making a comeback in museum culture? Hardly. Exhibition is a form of asset management that serves multiple ends, including box office ones. Tissot’s reputation and market prices have recovered from the neglect imposed by early modern rejection of all things Victorian. And exhibition, enhanced by a scholarly catalogue, is today’s prelude to tomorrow’s deaccession.
Whatever prompted the current hanging, it is an oddly compelling event. Its claim on admirers of Tissot and on students of his time and place is undeniable. Beyond that, the work is a vivid reminder that art is an instrument thoroughly of this world. It is not revelation, and it is poorly suited to the spiritual burdens laid upon it. The historical value of Tissot’s illustrated gospel survives a devotional value that is long spent.
Maureen Mullarkey is a painter who writes on art and culture. Her essays appear online at www.maureenmullarkey.com.