He was born in 1836 in Nantes to a rich cloth merchant and his wife. Jacques (“James”) Tissot had Catholic parents and was a good Catholic boy. He became a good painter and not such a good boy.
Yet, though he took his time, Tissot finally handed over his brushes to God. And in the latter years of his life, Tissot showed the mysteries of Christianity in a way no one has duplicated since.
Acting on an instinct that is second nature to Catholics — and perhaps anathema to Jews — he tried to paint the face of God.
The young Tissot wanted to live by art, but the real money was in vanity. There was no Paris Hilton in 1860s Paris, but there were plenty of gold-flake beauties. Tissot painted their selfies.
Then came a disastrous war and the Paris Commune, which ended in flames. James Tissot, insufferable anglophile, decided it was time to travel to the home of his tweed jacket. He landed in London in 1871.
In London, more calico and chiffon leapt off Tissot’s brush. Brittle aristocrats adored it, and soon he was moving into a house in Saint John’s Wood.
To look at the pictures of this time, you would never guess the man had known suffering. Here, all the world’s a ballroom. Unless you’re on the riverbank with your suitors…
…or leaning on the rail of a gunship in perfect whites.
It paid the bills. Edmond de Goncourt, the critic for whom the prize is named, visited London and observed tartly that there was always champagne on ice for the ladies in Tissot’s waiting room (Sneer he might; it beats a Snickers from the vending machine).
But champagne goes flat. In 1882, the divorcée with whom he had been living — and with whom he had conceived a son — died of consumption. Tissot moved back to France, convinced happy days were behind him.
Then, in 1885, when he was nearly 50, James Tissot had a Saint Paul moment. He experienced a conversion, or a re-conversion. We don’t know why exactly, but Tissot came back to the Catholic fold.
It was quite a good time to be Catholic, actually. In reaction to the Third Republic, a Catholic revival was sweeping France. Huysmans would soon convert. Thérèse Martin would climb Mount Carmel. Lagrange was active in biblical sciences, building a monastery in Jerusalem. Everyone was reading Chateaubriand’s work from three generations before, Le Génie du christianisme.
That genius touched James Tissot. You can see the record in paint: the Spirit moved on Tissot’s canvasses and chiffon moved out.
But first the artist went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
In 1886, 1889, and 1896, James Tissot steamed across the Mediterranean to Ottoman Palestine to study the landscape and the architecture and the people.
Like the natural scientists of his day — like an ornithologist in the Amazon or an anthropologist among the Xhosa — he produced hundreds of careful sketches of lined faces and cracked facades and sun-baked landscapes.
And as he frowned over details, Tissot let the grit of the Land of Israel into his bloodstream.
The result was more than 300 finished works in gouache, which he showed in Paris in 1894-95. They then moved to London. They ended up in the Brooklyn Museum.
The paintings caused uproar everywhere. It’s easy to see why.
To Christians, these are images of God:
These are from a series he called “The Life of Christ.” There’s no idealized, abstracted superhero Jesus here. No Nordic Christ. These are Semitic paintings — if paintings of deity can be called Semitic.
God so oriental? So dusty? So ethnic? Yup.
Tissot also knew Mary. Here is the Virgin as a young girl:
Note: no peau de soie.
And here she is at the Annunciation — unlike any you’ve ever seen:
These paintings are (almost) realistic. They’re psychologically realistic, certainly.
Just look at that Annunciation: Mary is slumped against a wall as she receives Gabriel’s news, the way people who’ve prayed a long time on their knees (as is our custom) might slump against a pew.
Awe does that: God exhausts you. You have to pray to paint that.
The scenes are geographically accurate. A European might think the splendor in these paintings, like the backgrounds in Renaissance portraits, springs from the artist’s imagination. But this is exactly what Israel looks like, as readers there will know. We see landmarks natural and man-made — the Dead Sea and the Judean hills, the Lions’ Gate and the Citadel. It’s all real.
And the people in these images are real. They’re (nearly) anthropologically correct. Look at Mary’s betrothal to Joseph. An Israeli might think this was a Yemenite wedding:
Tissot gives us a Hebrew Mary and Joseph and a very Jewish Jesus.
Better to say: he restores Jesus’s Jewishness to our Lord. Because that’s how it was, for real. And it’s beautiful.
All of this beauty is laden with theological meaning for Catholics. It’s a message that heals us of toxic fantasies in which Jesus is something other than a Jew.
We learn again: the Jesus we call Christ was born on the fringes of the Roman Empire to a poor couple with an unfashionable monotheistic religion. God came to us in a particular time in a narrow little place on the ledge of the Levant. This is the real Jesus.
The artist died in 1902, in the Château de Buillon in Doubs, a former abbey. His grave is in a chapel on the grounds.
* * *
Tissot met the Lord in Paris, then followed Him to the Land of Israel.
I first discovered his works on a shelf in the library of the Ecole Biblique on Nablus Road, a center built in Jerusalem by French Dominicans between 1880 and 1900 — while Tissot was in town, along with Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who borrowed dictionaries from the friars.
I can’t help but ask: why did I have to wait to get into that library to discover Tissot? Why are his gouaches socked away in Brooklyn, not hanging over altars in churches where the parishioners have a little taste?
Maybe it’s because, more than a century after his death, we Catholics are not ready for Tissot.
Tissot shows God Incarnate, and the fleshy reality of the Lord’s coming has always frightened us. We’d rather have an Übermensch or a Zeus than a rabbi.
But we can fix that.
We can let the Jesus of our own Gospels back into our hearts, with the dust of the desert and the smells of the shouk in his robes. And, in the best Catholic tradition, we can do it through the contemplation of beauty. All we have to do is look.