A Quest for the Historical Jesus in Pictures
Selections of James Tissot's watercolors for The Life Of Christ at the Brooklyn Museum
By Maureen Mullarkey
THE LIFE OF JAMES TISSOT (1836-1902)
BRACKETS THE VICTORIAN AGE and his art reflects,
to a remarkable degree, the preoccupation's of the time. Not least of these was
the Victorian-era 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 360 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 Edmond de Goncourt to note sourly that his St. John's Wood studio
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
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 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 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
Delacroix's Chapel of the Angels). Biblical motifs were still in vogue; It proved a fortuitous conversion.
Tissot's return to his native 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 enthusiasm 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 the 19th
century. Add to that the exotic appeal of Tissot's Orientalist 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, the 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, making
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 1900s
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 was the production center of what had become the international style of
mass-produced Catholic art. Distinctions between l'art sacré and l'art Sainte-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 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 fastidous 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 Gérôme's Golgatha, Consumatum 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
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 are 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. Zubarán'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 The Life 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 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 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 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.
The Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway,
Brooklyn NY (October 23, 2009—January 17, 2010).
This essay appeared in First Things, October 28, 2009.