Click photo to enlarge
James Tissot Jesus Ministered to by Angels (Jésus assisté par les anges) 1886-1894 Opaque watercolor over graphite on gray wove paper Purchased by public subscription Brooklyn Museum Brigham Young University Museum of Art

James Tissot had painted chic Victorian debutantes, shopgirls and sirens, caught in unchaperoned picnics and flirtatious poses. The French Impressionist visually documented the love matches of the upwardly mobile, all set in the gilded materialism of the age.

How, then, could such a hedonistic artist make the leap from earthy motifs to a celestial subject? How could he express the divine nature of Jesus?

Such was Tissot's dilemma after an epiphany vaulted his art from domestic scenes to the Christian savior.

His solution? Luminescence.

Tissot's Jesus literally glows in a new exhibit of 124 watercolors at Brigham Young University's Museum of Art.

The paintings, on loan from the Brooklyn Museum, show Jesus imbued with light as he is elevated into the dark sky. Baby Jesus emits light as he lies in his manger. Angels reach out to touch a slumbering Christ, who is illuminated from within. After his resurrection, extra whiteness emanates from the wounds of Jesus' crucifixion -- the nail holes in his hands, the spear gash in his side, the thorn marks on his forehead.

"A lot of LDS doctrines are different than Tissot's interpretations," says Rita Wright, museum educator at LDS Church-owned BYU. "Many visitors to this exhibition will be believers in similar ways that Tissot was. Their faith in Jesus Christ will inform and shape their viewing experience in the same way it informed and shaped Tissot's creation of these works."


Advertisement

She points out that LDS President Joseph F. Smith owned a copy of Tissot's abridgment of the New Testament, with the watercolors as illustration. Smith passed the volume to his son Joseph Fielding Smith, another Mormon president, who donated it to BYU.

Many exhibit visitors have been deeply affected by Tissot's depictions, Wright says. "The gallery gets very quiet. He draws you into his world and Jesus'."

Indeed, she and the gallery designer found themselves weeping after their first tour of the finished exhibit as the watercolor scenes progressed toward Christ's death on the cross and subsequent resurrection.

At the end of the show is a symbol-laden image of Tissot himself titled "Portrait of a Pilgrim." It's a long way from where the artist's journey began.

 

Rebel, then a cause » Tissot was born in Nantes, a seaport in western France, in 1836 to a prosperous merchant family. He attended a Jesuit boarding school, but by age 20 had found his way to Paris, where he studied art and met prominent painters, including Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet and James McNeill Whistler. He traveled widely, eventually spending considerable time in London, where he produced several caricatures for Vanity Fair .

In 1871, after the Franco-Prussian war brought the occupation of Paris, Tissot moved permanently to London, where he focused his professional and personal life on women.

During this period, the artist dealt mostly with "the manners and customs of modern love, the drama of attraction and flirtation, body language and eye contact, the signs of availability, the many degrees of prostitution, the workings of passion, its frustrations, rivalries and cross purposes, the sorrows of separation and loss," writes Malcolm Warner in the catalog to a 1999 Tissot retrospective at the Yale Center for British Art.

One woman, Kathleen Newton, became his model, muse, mistress and love of his life, Wright says. Newton, a divorced Irish mother of two, moved in with Tissot without getting married and lived there openly until she became ill with consumption and committed suicide in 1882. The grief-stricken Tissot returned to Paris, where he took up another project portraying Parisian women.

While sketching in the Church of Saint-Sulpice, Wright says, Tissot had a vision of a bloodied Christ comforting the poor in the rubble of a building. He went directly home to re-create what he had seen, calling it "Inward Voices (The Ruins)."

That mystical moment forever changed the course of his career and artistic perspective. At age 50, he returned to the Catholicism of his youth and dedicated himself to visually documenting the life of Jesus Christ.

In 1886-87, Tissot went to Egypt, Syria and Palestine, "where he studied and sketched the landscape, architecture, customs and people of the Holy Land, which he imagined unchanged since the time of Christ," writes Judith F. Dolkart, associate curator of European art at the Brooklyn Museum, in a catalog of Tissot's Christian watercolors. And he sketched many Jewish faces as models for biblical figures.

The artist was looking to overturn the long-standing tradition of portraying the Christian savior in the costumes of more modern times and in European settings.

"For a long time," Dolkart quotes Tissot as saying, "the imagination of the Christian world has been led astray by the fancies of artists; there is a whole army of delusions to be overturned."

For Tissot, she writes, the experience in the birthplace of Jesus allowed him to "match an exacting attention to detail in the service of historical accuracy with a mystical process bordering on revelation."

Some, including his friend Degas, were skeptical of Tissot's conversion and none too pleased with the womanizing dandy-turned-devout.

"Now he's got religion," seethed Degas, according to Dolkart, The move seems to have "irreparably broken their long-standing friendship."

It was not popular at the time for avant-garde artists to be too spiritually inclined.

 

Mass appeal » The clergy and public, though, flocked to showings of Tissot's watercolors.

French and U.S. newspapers mentioned "startlingly emotional" reactions, Dolkart reports. Women knelt before the works, or crawled from piece to piece, while men "removed their hats" and regarded the works with reverence.

Clearly, that is why the Brooklyn Museum was willing to pay $60,000 -- at the urging of artist John Singer Sargent -- in 1900 for the Tissot watercolors as part of a 350-piece collection. It also is why even today not a week goes by, Dolkart writes, "without an inquiry about these tiny wonders."

The watercolors, many of them no larger than notebook paper, contain layers and layers of details.

Tissot's buildings (from simple dwellings to temples) and terrain (from lakes to mountains) clearly resemble ancient Palestine. The biblical figures have an ethnic feel and dress -- although some of the women begin to look less Jewish and more like Catholic nuns. Every sacred male figure wears a prayer shawl. The manger is in a cave.

His imagery was so convincing that filmmaker Steven Spielberg used Tissot's depiction of the Ark of the Covenant for his 1981 thrill ride "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

Still, the artist had to fill in many historical and theological gaps in the scriptural account with his imagination. The heavenly beings are fanciful creatures, almost New Age, in their transparence.

It is clear, Wright says, that Tissot was open, seeking inspiration and messages from beyond the grave. He attended several séances in which he tried to communicate with the divorcée Newton, who was the model for his Mary Magdalene series.

In his self-portrait, Tissot is surrounded by Catholic funerary items, a crucifix, wreaths and holy water. The candles seem to flicker as if a gust -- maybe a spirit -- has passed through the room.

The watercolors' literal and symbolic aspects are endlessly engaging, Wright says. "We hope that this exhibition will cause, as Tissot put it, 'each and all [to] withdraw to ponder, as the Virgin [Mary] did, these things in our hearts.' "

pstack@sltrib.com

About the artist

Born in 1836 as Jacques Joseph Tissot in Nantes, a seaport town on the French coast.

Developed a lifelong fascination with nautical elements.

Taught by Jesuits as a youth, then studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris.

Changed his name to the anglicized James.

Inherited commercial instincts from his merchant father.

Exhibited his work, mostly paintings of women, at London's Royal Academy in 1864.

Lived with an Irish divorcée until her death.

Produced hundreds of watercolors depicting Christ's life.

Died Aug. 8, 1902.

Source: jamestissot.org

About the exhibit

"James Tissot's The Life of Christ" is on display at Brigham Young University's Museum of Art, Provo, through January. The free exhibit is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Thursday evening from 6 to 9; and Saturday from noon to 5 p.m. For more information, go to moa.byu.edu.

About the exhibit

"James Tissot's The Life of Christ" is on display at Brigham Young University's Museum of Art, Provo, through January. The free exhibit is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Thursday evening from 6 to 9; and Saturday from noon to 5 p.m. For more information, go to moa.byu.edu.