The risqué artist who found God

After sleepless nights Tissot painted his vision of Christ comforting the poor

“Ladies in hammocks,” fumed the art critic for the Spectator after an exhibition of James Tissot’s paintings in 1877, “showing a very unnecessary amount of petticoat and stocking, and remarkable for little save their indolence and insolence.” The critic for the Telegraph, equally uneasy about hammocks, was concerned for the artist’s moral health. The sooner Tissot abandoned his painted gardens “full of hammocks, rocking-chairs, Japanese knick-knacks, bull-rushes, and slim sirens in black silk stockings and high-heeled shoes, the better it will be”.

What, then, would these critics have made of the sight of hundreds of priests in black cassocks rushing through the doors of the 1894 Tissot exhibition in Paris? Could these priests really be flocking to see girls in silk stockings? Not a bit of it. Tissot, who had sinned in oils, now repented in watercolour. The sirens of his earlier work, their corsets and bustles, ribbons and flounces, flashes of petticoat and glimpses of ankle, were gone. His new models were the Virgin Mary veiled in white at the Annunciation; the Penitent Magdalene in sandals and rags; St Veronica kneeling to wipe Christ’s brow. He had abandoned the champagne, ball gowns and love-note intrigues of his earlier paintings for a monumental watercolour series, “The Life of Christ”, in 350 scenes.

Jacques Joseph Tissot lived two lives. There was Tissot the painter-adventurer, the cad-about-town in Paris and London, the flâneur, the dandy, the society gadabout. And Tissot the visionary, the pilgrim to the Holy Land, the hermit who prayed every dawn in Jerusalem. In November, an exhibition at Tate Britain Impressionists in London, will bring together rarely seen works by Tissot, asking us to look anew at this most changeable of artists.

Tissot was born in Nantes in 1836 to a milliner mother and prosperous linen-draper father. “A Christian of the old-fashioned sort,” said his son, “and a devout Catholic.” Tissot’s education was both strict and sumptuous. Officially, his school was Brugelette, the respected Jesuit College in Belgium, where Jacques Joseph, among the sons of English Catholic families, became “James”. Unofficially, he trained his eye in his father’s cloth-rooms, his mother’s workshop and in the Nantes Museum, where he admired Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s Madame de Senonnes in her Empire-line velvet and pie-crust lace.

As a young artist in Paris, he painted bourgeois beauties in pale silks and mink mufflers and chic Zouave jackets. During the Franco-Prussian War and Siege of Paris of 1870-71, he roomed with the English journalist Thomas Gibson-Bowles, a reporter for the Morning Post. The Parisiennes, wrote Bowles, “no longer dazzle us with splendid toilettes … They are now dressed without exception in sombre and modest attire, which makes them look like refined upper-housemaids.” Starved of his usual silk-satin subjects, Tissot enrolled as a stretcher-bearer and sketched battlefields, wounded soldiers, field hospitals and the thick-calved canteen ladies of the National Guard. His sketchbook portrait of one of these cantinières is a highlight of the Tate exhibition.

After the Siege and Paris Commune, Tissot joined Bowles in London. When Bowles became founding editor of Vanity Fair, Tissot drew caricatures of great men and their scheming wives. He delighted in the Becky Sharps of his day, minxes in ruffles and ribbons, slinking late into parties, breaking hearts, shedding ostrich feathers. His was the world of Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now and Henry James’s Daisy Miller, of social faux pas and eyebrows raised behind pleated fans. London’s Melmottes bought Tissot’s paintings by the dozen.

He bought a carriage and a house in St John’s Wood and lived with Kathleen Newton – “La Mysterieuse”, the gossips called her – a ravishing Irish Catholic. It was Newton whose ankles caused a scandal swinging from Tissot’s hammock in the St John’s Wood garden. He could not marry her – she was a divorcée – and he was bereft when she died of tuberculosis.

Without her, London lost its glamour and he returned to Paris. There, in the Church of Saint-Sulpice, during Mass, he had a vision: Christ comforting the poor in the rubble of a fallen building. He painted the scene as it appeared to him and called it Inward Voices: The Ruins. He renounced picnics and boating parties, and travelled to Egypt, Syria and Palestine, where he prayed, read and sketched, a pilgrim with a watercolour box. He rode into Jerusalem on a camel and explored the Mount of Olives on a donkey.

His illustrated “Tissot Bible” was hugely successful and he exhibited the watercolours in Paris, London and America. Ticket royalties made him rich. The painter Edgar Degas thought Tissot a hypocrite who had “got religion” as a money-making scheme. “I shall do a caricature of Tissot,” wrote Degas, “with Christ behind him, whipping him, and call it: ‘Christ Driving His Merchant From The Temple.’ ” This was jealousy: Tissot’s faith was sincere. He returned to Palestine in 1896, to sketch an Old Testament series as huge as the first. He died in 1902 with the set unfinished.

Tissot never lost his love of finery. In the scene where Isaac meets Rebecca riding a camel in the fields, Rebecca peeks prettily, even coquettishly, from under her blue veil and gold headdress. The camel, needless to say, has exquisite ankles.

Impressionists in London is at Tate Britain from November 2 to April 22, 2018

This article first appeared in the September 1 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here