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Few reputations have benefited as much from reappraisals of the range of late-nineteenth-century art as that of James Tissot. While most of the reawakened admiration focuses on the artist's depictions of fashionable society in Paris and London, Tissot also produced two large bodies of work devoted to the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. During the final two decades of his career, one might say the artist was consumed with the painting of The Bible.
The idea of illustrating the life of Jesus came first. This enormous project prompted Tissot's travel to Palestine and the Near East in 1886. His purpose was to observe the landscape where biblical narrative originated, to research the archaeological sites, and to study ethnological detail. His focus on the material reality of the present, inevitably built on colonial attitudes and Orientalist imaginings, naively presumed a life unchanged for nearly two millennia. His goal, a historically accurate visual recreation of biblical passages, resulted in nearly four hundred paintings.
Following the major success that greeted the Life of Christ (1886-1895) Tissot made an additional trip to Palestine in 1896 to gather material for another series of paintings illustrating the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament. This project occupied much of the artist's time until his death in 1902. Ninety-five paintings relating to the book of Genesis were exhibited in Paris in 1901. It is believed that there were 200 works for the project by the following year but that the series was completed by other artists (selected by Tissot) who "finished" his pictures or created works to "approximate" his style. Published in 1904, the Hebrew Bible pictures toured the United States for several years. Tissot's biblical paintings were the works that turn-of-the-century audiences most closely associated with his name.
The artist's obsession with a frame-by-frame narrative for his immense biblical suites seem to foreshadow the invention of film in 1895, and in his later years Tissot may have been influenced by the new phenomenon of moving images. While the painter's stab at historical veracity can easily be faulted by contemporary standards, he nevertheless created rich, romantic, and accessible images. These, in turn, have provided sources for biblical visualizations by filmmakers from D. W. Griffith to Steven Spielberg.
In the "imaginative" truth of his reconstructions, the artist fell prey not only to biased, inaccurate research, but also to 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 his predilection for archaeological sources and his love of complex, well-designed costumes so apparent in his society painting. Tissot's observation of the brightly colored camelback traveling compartment, which he assumed to be an ethnographic variation on a much earlier prototype, provided him with as much local color as did the vibrant banners on his earlier masterpiece The Ball on Shipboard. Totally undocumented pastiches are evident in Joseph Dwelleth in Egypt. Here motifs found on Egyptian jewelry have become imaginary standards, through which he transformed stylized animal and vegetal motifs into cinematic 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 companion, Kathleen Newton, whose premature death at the age of twenty-eight helped turn the society artist into biblical chronicler, served frequently as the inspiration for his matriarchs and heroines. Devastated by her demise in 1882, Tissot attended séances in an effort to contact her spirit. As the artist recalls her oval face, widely spaced eyes, bow lips, and prominent chin as Eve in Adam and Eve Driven from Paradise, he may have been thinking of his lost love and his seeming exile from Eden. Even in his biblical paintings, Tissot remained- as one critic cleverly remarked-"the painter of modern love."