In 1896, James Tissot embarked on his third and final voyage to the Middle East to begin an illustrated Old Testament [published in 1904]. He was sixty, making yet another long working journey, this time for a new project. On the ship, English painter and illustrator George Percy Jacomb-Hood (1857 – 1929) encountered Tissot and found him “a very neatly dressed, elegant figure, with a grey military moustache and beard…gloved and groomed as if for the boulevard.”
Tissot arranged with the firm Mame et fils, of Tours, to publish his Life of Christ illustrations in France in 1896-97.
He received a million francs for the reproduction rights of their two editions – a regular one, and a deluxe version printed on handmade paper with silk bindings, enclosed in wooden boxes – printed in Paris by Lemercier, with Tissot’s close supervision of the color plates. The first twenty copies of the deluxe edition were sold for 5,000 francs each, and advance subscriptions were sold to such luminaries as the Czar of Russia, the Queen of Spain, Tolstoy, and Sarah Bernhardt. Mame presented a copy to Félix Faure, the president of France.
To promote sales, Tissot’s illustrations were exhibited at the Lemercier Gallery in London in 1896, and Mame exhibited reproductions alongside the original watercolors in Paris in May, 1897. That exhibition was extended into June when 20,000 visitors packed the gallery in the first two weeks.
The Life of Christ was published in New York in 1896-97 and in an autograph edition in 1898.
Tissot corresponded with William Gladstone in 1897, in reference to his Bible illustrations, a year before the former British Prime Minister’s death. Gladstone wrote to him that his New Testament was “a remarkable work by a remarkable man.” The Life of Christ was published in London in 1897-98, with a dedication to Gladstone; a new edition was published there in 1898-99.
In February, 1898, Tissot traveled to New York to arrange the tour of his Life of Christ illustrations. He made a second trip to the United States in October, first visiting Chicago to arrange the tour of the Life of Christ illustrations, then returning to New York for the exhibition opening.
A female reporter for the Chicago Post met Tissot strolling around the Art Institute where his watercolors soon would be exhibited, and she described him as a man with “a gray mustache as fine as General Miller’s own, [in] an eminently easy, up-to-date English business suit.”
He took the reporter off guard by telling her he planned to tour Chicago’s famous stockyards during his stay. She had heard the rumor that Tissot was about to retire to a Trappist monastery; this idea seemed based on the fact that the Château de Buillon near Besançon in eastern France, which he had inherited from his father in 1888, had been built on the site of a twelfth-century Cistercian monastery.
During one of Tissot’s two 1898 trips to New York, he met with Parisian Society portraitist Antonio de la Gándara (1861-1917) at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, opened in 1893 on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 33rd Street. The two painters, who both socialized with the eccentric dandy and snob Robert, Comte de Montesquiou at his opulent home in Versailles, shared the Comte’s interest in japonisme as well as in spiritualism and séances, or “turn-table exercises,” such as those pursued at painter Madeleine Lemaire’s salon. Built by millionaire developer William Waldorf Astor, the Waldorf Hotel catered to the upper crust of New York Society and to distinguished foreign visitors.
Tissot was worldly enough to have been aware of the decadent, Versailles-themed Gilded Age costume ball given at the Waldorf Hotel by Bradley Martin, a New York lawyer, and his wife Cornelia on February 10, 1897 – outraging the nation with its extravagance after two decades of economic depression and high unemployment.
On that night, police guarded the entrances, protecting the guests arriving in their fine carriages from the public gawkers, and once inside, liveried attendants guided them upstairs and through the corridors to rose-filled dressing rooms.
The sight of the guests descending the stairs to the ballroom “recalled some old picture of a stately court function in one of the capitals of Europe,” and in the ballroom, it seemed as if “some fairy god-mother, in a dream, had revived the glories of the past.” The women, fifty of whom were dressed as Marie Antoinette, were festooned with “thousand millions of dollars in precious stones,” according to The New York Times, some of which had been purchased from the sale of the French crown jewels in May, 1887.
The ball, with its 28-course supper of caviar-stuffed oysters, lobster à la Newburg, roast English suckling pig, terrapin, and canvasback duck stuffed with truffles, included four thousand bottles of 1884 Moët et Chandon, at a cost of $369,000 (over £ 7 million today).
Though the play-acting by New York’s wealthy at being Old World aristocrats was galling to the American public, James Tissot recently had participated in the real thing: his friend the Comte de Montesquiou’s extravagant garden party at his eighteenth-century pavilion in Versailles, in the spring of 1894, which Marcel Proust likened to a dream, “where, for a few hours, we believed we were living in the days of Louis XIV!”
On November 15, 1898, the day after the Life of Christ exhibition opened at the American Art Galleries at Madison Square South, The New York Times ran a rather lukewarm review on Tissot’s Bible illustrations: “It is claimed for M. Tissot by his friends and admirers that he is one of the few artists of modern times who has attempted an artistic rendition of episodes in the life of Christ in a truly devotional spirit and without thought of gain, and as proof of this they point to his piety and to his intense religious convictions. It is not necessary or advisable to start a controversy on this question.” The reviewer continued, “As to how individual transcriptions of this or that episode will impress the visitor it is of course impossible to say,” and while admitting that Tissot’s pictures “are worthy of reverent study,” and “certainly original,” added, “but one person will be impressed here and there, where another will see only what is bizarre or curious.”
Three days later, after calling on Archbishop Corrigan, Tissot was dragged nearly a block when trying to board a Madison Avenue line trolley car, leaving him bruised and unnerved. He was 62 years old.
A long article, “A Believer’s Pictures of Christ,” by Charles De Kay, appeared in The New York Times on December 11, 1898, stating, “Tissot is a straightforward, honest believer in the existence and Godhead of the Saviour.” Illustrated with six of Tissot’s pen and ink drawings, the article concluded, “Tissot’s scenes and glimpses from the life of Christ cannot fail to charm all serious souls.”
Tissot’s New Testament watercolors toured New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Toronto, Boston, St. Louis, Omaha, and other cities through 1899, to adoring crowds who by the end of the decade brought Tissot the huge sum of $100,000 in entrance fees. The astonishing financial success of Biblical works put him a bit on the defensive: he seemed to feel the need to emphasize his personal piety amid the profits.
Tissot’s “friends and admirers” certainly would have included the late, acclaimed French artist Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier (1815 – 1891), whom Tissot used to entertain in his Paris villa during his heyday under the Second Empire. In 1897, Meissonier’s biographer noted that he was very proud of Tissot, one of his protégés, whose career he followed closely, and who fulfilled the hopes he entertained of his future. According to Meissonier, “Tissot has noble visions. He is in love with the ideal. He devotes himself entirely to religious subjects now. He wanders in Palestine, among the scenes of the great events of the Gospels…”
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The Hammock: A novel based on the true story of French painter James Tissot, brings Tissot’s world from 1870 to 1879 alive in a story of war, art, Society glamour, love, scandal, and tragedy.
Illustrated with 17 stunning, high-resolution fine art images in full color
Courtesy of The Bridgeman Art Library
(295 pages; ISBN (ePub): 978-0-615-68267-9).
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