October/November 2017 - Vol. 94
The Life of Christ illustrated by James Tissot
An artist with a burning compulsion to paint the narrative story of the Bible
by Don Schwager
Jacques-Joseph Tissot (1836-1902), was raised in a
Christian household in Nantes, a French seaport on the
north-west coast of France. He studied at a Jesuit
boarding school in Belgium where he became friends with
a number of English students and from then on he became
interested in all things English. He subsequently
switched his French name, Jacques, to the English form,
Around the age of 17, James aspired to become an
artist, much to the annoyance of his father who was an
prosperous linen merchant and successful businessman.
His father relented and at the age of 19, Tissot went to
Paris and lodged with an artist friend of his mother,
while he studied and worked in the studios of the French
academic painters. Within a short period of time he
became an admired painter in Paris and received a number
of commissions for wealthy patrons. He later moved to
London and painted there for several years before
returning to France.
Burning compulsion to
illustrate the life of Christ
In preparation for his series on the Life of Christ, Tissot in 1886 at the age of fifty, made an expedition to Jerusalem, Palestine, Syria, and Egypt to record the landscape, architecture, costumes, and customs of the Holy Land and its people, which he recorded in photographs, notes, and sketches. Tissot sketched and then painted his many figures in costumes he believed to be historically authentic, carrying out his series with considerable archaeological exactitude. Tissot made further visits to Jerusalem and the Middle East in 1888 and 1889.
Tissot drew more than a hundred detailed pen-and-ink
sketches that were later integrated into his finished
compositions in watercolor of the Gospel narrative. He
formally entitled his project which took 10 years to
Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ, a
collection of 350 watercolors that depicted detailed
scenes from the New Testament description of the birth
of Jesus through to his death and resurrection, in a
chronological narrative. Two hundred and seventy of them
were exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1894-95 and
received enthusiastic acclaim.
In July 1894, Tissot was awarded the
Légion d'honneur, France's most prestigious medal. The
exhibition traveled to London in 1896 and to the United
States in 1898-99, visiting Manhattan, Brooklyn, Boston,
Philadelphia, and Chicago. In 1898, the compositions,
each accompanied by related Gospel verses, were first
published in four volumes known as the “Tissot Bible.”
In 1900 the Brooklyn Museum in New York purchased
the collection of The Life of Christ.
During the last few years of his life Tissot began to
paint a series of scenes from the Old Testament. Eighty
Old Testament scenes were exhibited in Paris. He had
hoped to complete his Old Testament series, but died
suddenly in Doubs, France on 8 August 1902 (aged 66),
while living in the Château de Buillon, a former abbey
which he had inherited from his father in 1888.
A selection of 200 paintings from The Life of Christ by James Tissot.
can be viewed in the Wikimedia Commons at: