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Jesus, Illustrated: Tissot’s New Testament


Release: 2009-12-22 09:47 |  Author: XianBao |   View: 158time



Ken Johnson writes: "The Brooklyn Museum's exhibition of 124 paintings from James Tissot's series, 'The Life of Christ,' is surprisingly intriguing and moving." "Jesus Ministered to by Angels," 1886-94.


"In 1882 James Tissot returned to Paris following an 11-year sojourn as a successful painter of London society. Tissot (1836-1902) intended to produce a series of paintings of fashionable Parisian women but one day, during a church service, he had a vision of Jesus tending to people in a ruined building. It was his Road to Damascus. "


"Four years later, reconfirmed in his Roman Catholic faith, he took off on a research trip to the Holy Land, beginning a 10-year campaign to illustrate the New Testament. His presentation of 270 watercolors from 'The Life of Christ' in the Paris Salon of 1894 caused a sensation. Two years later, the profusely illustrated Tissot Bible was published, and it became an international best seller."


"In 1896, Tissot sent the completed series of 350 pictures on a trans-Atlantic tour. In 1900, prompted by the American painter John Singer Sargent, the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences - now the Brooklyn Museum - purchased the entire series for $60,000, then an enormous sum. The series remained on view at the museum until the 1930s, then went into storage, only to be seen in occasional, small doses thereafter. "


"Made with deft, photographic precision in opaque watercolor (gouache) on sheets ranging from postcard to notebook size, the paintings offer a conventional, Victorian Academic style of slightly brushy, near-photographic realism."


"The combination of miniature scale and fine rendering is often arresting. An imaginary reconstruction of Jerusalem and the Temple of Herod is a marvel of fine-grained architectural and archaeological rendering."


"But the strength of the exhibition is less in the aesthetic quality of individual works than in the cumulative effect of the narrative, which takes us from the Annunciation, left, to the Resurrection in great detail. "


"The paintings are like stills from a Hollywood movie spectacular. Tissot worked hard to achieve historical accuracy, so a scene like one in which Roman soldiers hoist the cross with Jesus attached using ropes and a temporary wooden framework has a persuasive palpability and tragic, cinematic grandeur. "


"The paintings range from prosaic to visionary. The close-up of Salome gloating over the weirdly illuminated head of John the Baptist is wonderfully grotesque; the image of Jesus being carried aloft by a shadowy Satan is hair-raising."


"The scene in which Jesus stands alone before Pilate in an expansive stone room has a terrible pathos. You don't have to be a devout Christian to get caught up in the story and its sad inevitability."

Here is a curious, widely forgotten episode in the history of French painting. In 1882 James Tissot returned to Paris following an 11-year sojourn as a successful painter of London society. Tissot (1836-1902) intended to produce a series of paintings of fashionable Parisian women, but one day, during a church service, he had a vision of Jesus tending to people in a ruined building. It was his Road to Damascus.

Four years later, reconfirmed in his Roman Catholic faith, he took off on a research trip to the Holy Land, beginning a 10-year campaign to illustrate the New Testament. His presentation of 270 watercolors from “The Life of Christ” in the Paris Salon of 1894 caused a sensation. Men reverently doffed their hats; women wept and knelt before the pictures, and some even crawled like penitents through the show. Two years later the profusely illustrated Tissot Bible was published, and it became an international best seller.

In 1896 Tissot sent the completed series of 350 pictures on a trans-Atlantic tour, starting in London. In New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago, people paid 25 and 50 cents apiece to see it. In 1900, prompted by the American painter John Singer Sargent, the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences — now the Brooklyn Museum — purchased the entire series for $60,000, then an enormous sum. The series remained on view at the museum until the 1930s, then went into storage, only to be seen in occasional small doses thereafter.

Now the museum has resurrected Tissot’s opus, displaying 124 paintings from “The Life of Christ.” It is a surprisingly intriguing and moving exhibition.

Made with deft precision in opaque watercolor (gouache) on sheets ranging from postcard- to notebook-size, the paintings offer a conventional, Victorian Academic style of slightly brushy, near-photographic realism. (Tissot used a camera on his trips to the Middle East.) The combination of miniature scale and fine rendering is often arresting. An imaginary reconstruction of Jerusalem and the Temple of Herod is a marvel of architectural and archaeological representation.

But the strength of the exhibition is less in the aesthetic quality of individual works than in the cumulative effect of the narrative, which takes us from the Annunciation to the Resurrection in great detail. The paintings are like stills from a Hollywood movie spectacular. Tissot worked hard to achieve historical accuracy, so a scene like one in which Roman soldiers hoist the cross with Jesus attached, using ropes and a temporary wooden framework, has a persuasive palpability and tragic, cinematic grandeur.

With the epic’s cast of hundreds, maybe thousands, and its scenes of urban bustle and nearly barren rural landscapes, it looks as if Tissot had based his series on a rewrite of the Bible by Charles Dickens. But the novelist would have given the main character more personality. Appearing in almost every picture, Jesus is a pretty, white-robed, impassive cipher; by comparison, most of the other characters seem humanly full-blooded. Even when he’s driving the money changers out of the temple, Jesus seems weirdly lifeless.

Other paintings range from prosaic to visionary. The close-up of Salome gloating over the weirdly illuminated head of John the Baptist is wonderfully grotesque; the image of Jesus being carried aloft by a shadowy Satan is hair-raising. The scene in which Jesus stands alone before Pilate in an expansive stone room has a terrible pathos. That of Joseph at his workbench, mooning over his pregnant fiancée, is touching. You don’t have to be a devout Christian to get caught up in the story and its sad inevitability.

Whatever the immediate impact, the series remains interesting to consider from more distanced perspectives. Faithful Christians and theologians might consider how true Tissot’s version, in all its detail, is to the comparatively minimalist Gospels. Philosophical speaking, there really is no answer to that question. The New Testament will always be refracted through the sensibilities of different cultures. Whatever works for you is the best you can hope for.

Viewing it as art is similar. To some, it will seem a musty artifact of sentimental piety and facile technique, exactly the kind of thing to which Modernists from Cézanne to Donald Judd would say good riddance. But narrative visual art has made a comeback since the late 1960s. Recently Robert Crumb, the onetime underground comic-book artist, illustrated the Book of Genesis. So today’s visual storytellers might well profit from studying Tissot’s approach.

It is most remarkable, however, as an episode in the social history of art and religion. Setting it against the backgrounds of fin de siècle Christian revivalism and spiritual faddism on one hand, and the high-class Parisian art world on the other, Judith F. Dolkart’s catalog essay provides a fascinating account of how Tissot’s devotional masterwork was received. Degas, for one, hated it.

An essay by David Morgan, an expert on the history of representations of Jesus, brings out the tension between the unknown face of the historical Jesus and the more or less idealized one envisioned by 19th- and 20th-century artists. It is an unresolvable but perennially provocative problem. The divine will forever tantalize and elude the imaginations and skills of merely human artists.
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