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Few reputations have benefited as much from the recent appreciation of the wide-range of 19th-century art as James Tissot's. While most of the reawakened respect for his works focuses on his depictions of fashionable society of Paris and London, he also produced numerous religious themes. Indeed he devoted most of the final two decades of his career to illustrating the Bible.
Tissot's idea for illustrating the life of Jesus prompted his travels to Palestine and the Near East in 1886. His purpose was to observe the landscape where biblical narrative originated, to research archaeological sites, and to study ethnological details - all assumed unchanged for nearly two millennia. His goal, a historically accurate visual recreation of biblical passages, resulted in nearly 400 drawings. These met with enormous public success and were subsequently published.
Tissot also made a trip to Palestine in 1896 to gather material for another series of drawings illustrating the Hebrew Bible. This project occupied much of the artist's time until his death in 1902. About half the works in this series were in fact left to the execution of several other artists. The Hebrew Bible suite, published in 1904, toured the United States for some years. Curiously, Tissot's biblical paintings were the very works that turn-of-the-century audiences most associated with his name.
Tissot's attempt at historical veracity can easily be faulted by contemporary standards. Nevertheless, the rich, romantic, and accessible images he left provided sources for the biblical visions of 20th-century film-makers from D. W. Griffith to Steven Spielberg.
In the "imaginative" truth of his reconstructions, the artist fell prey to pitfalls not only of biased, inaccurate research, but also of personal penchants evident in his earlier works. For example, he used the headdress of a recently excavated Greek bust as a model for the coiffures of his biblical heroines. This prop served both his predilection for archaeological sources and his love of complex, well-designed costume so apparent in his society painting. Tissot's observation of the brightly colored camelback traveling compartment, erroneously considered an ethnographic prototype, provided him with as much local color as the banners on his earlier masterpiece, The Ball on Shipboard. The artist's totally undocumented pastiches are evident in Joseph Dwelleth in Egypt. Here motifs found on Egyptian jewelry have become imaginary standards, transforming history into pageantry. Finally, Tissot had no compunction about rendering Joseph with the same youthful face throughout the series of works that record his long life span.
Tissot's former companion, Kathleen Newton, whose premature death helped turn the society artist into biblical chronicler, served frequently as the inspiration for his matriarchs and heroines. Tissot not only recalls her oval face and fine features in Abram's Counsel, but also adapts the intimacy of his depictions of their life together in London to the narration of the relationship between Sarai and Abram in the desert.