It is Christmas time, a season that calls for a religious blog post. Fortuitously, I recently discovered the magisterial La Vie de Notre-Seigneur Jésus-Christ ("The Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ") by Jacques (James) Tissot, which is suitably biblical.
The French painter Tissot (1836-1902) had a fairly conventional artistic career, until his support for the Paris Commune forced him to flee to London, where he lived and worked for ten years. Some years after his return to Paris in 1882, he experienced a spiritual conversion during a visit to the Church of Saint-Sulpice, which led him to devote the remainder of his life to religious painting.
By chance, the nineteenth century had seen the birth of the pictorial Bible, along with related works such as the Landscape Illustrations of the Bible (published by John Murray in 1836). The German artist Julius Schnorr was an early exponent of the genre. Alongside this new trend came a revival in religious painting, by artists such as Ford Madox Brown, William Dyce (more famous for his Arthurian scenes), and particularly William Holman Hunt (famous for his 1860 painting of The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple). At roughly the same time, Tissot's countryman Gustav Doré had great success when the publication of a Bible illustrated with 228 of his engravings led to a London exhibition which ran almost continuously throughout 1868-9, closing only on Sundays.
Travelling In The Footsteps
Like Holman Hunt, who had travelled in Egypt and Palestine in order "to make more tangible Jesus Christ's History and Teaching", Tissot headed east. (However, unlike Hunt, he does not appear to have experienced any street scuffles or colourful scenes in brothels.) Between 1886 and 1889, he made studies for an ambitious series of paintings that became La Vie de Notre-Seigneur Jésus-Christ.
Completed in 1894, the 365 paintings were exhibited in Paris (1894-5), London (1896) and New York (1898-9), before being purchased by the Brooklyn Museum in 1900.
Tissot's scenes have been influential, as (for example) the inspiration for D. W. Griffith's cinematic biblical epic of 1916, and doubtless many of its successors. I'm sure we can still see Tissot's influence in the biblical epics of today.