October/November 2017 - Vol. 94

Life of
                    Christ painting by James Tissot
Jesus calms the storm at sea, watercolor by James Tissot, 1886-1894, Brooklyn Museum

The Life of Christ illustrated by James Tissot

An artist with a burning compulsion to paint the narrative story of the Bible

edited 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, James.

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.

life of Christ
                  painting by James Tissot

Burning compulsion to illustrate the life of Christ
In the year 1885 James experienced a reawakening of his Christian faith during a church service where he saw a vision of Jesus comforting the poor. Tissot described it as his 'Road to Damascus.' Shortly after, he did a painting called, “Inward Voices,” which depicted his vision of an impoverished couple sitting on the rubble of a building in ruins. The crucified Jesus sits beside the couple – scourged, bleeding and wearing a crown of thorns, offering them comfort and hope in the midst of sorrow and ruin. This spiritual experience had a profound affect on his art and inspired him to spend the rest of his life illustrating scenes from the Bible.

                  by James TissotIn 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 complete, The 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.

life of Christ painting by James Tissot

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:
Return to Table of Contents or Archives  • (c) copyright 2017 The Sword of the Spirit