If the rapid approach of Christmas is wearing you out instead of cheering you up - I have a very good antidote to your distress! Hop on the Number 2 train, ride out to Eastern Parkway and visit "James Tissot: The Life of Christ" now on view at the Brooklyn Museum.
James Tissot has long been one of my very favorite artists. His depictions of beautiful ladies in Victorian Paris and London are splendidly detailed accounts of both the perils and pleasures of life at that time. His paintings hang in the great museums of the world and his etchings are highly sought after. But his life was almost as dramatic as the images he portrayed.
Tissot achieved success early in his career as Parisian high society's portrait painter of choice. His re-location to England after the War of 1870 proved providential as he became the darling of London's elite and in 1876 met the love of his life, the ex-wife of a sea captain, Mrs. Kathleen Newton. Her "unfortunate" circumstances forced the affair to be kept under wraps, but Tissot immortalized her lovely face in many of his best known works. Mrs. Newton died of tuberculosis in 1882 and a broken-hearted Tissot quit London in search of redemption.
Now James Tissot, like many people both then and today, was raised Catholic but had let his religion fall by the wayside as he flitted about with the rich and famous. After Mrs. Newton's death, during a visit to the Church of Saint Sulpice, he experienced a vision of Jesus tending to people in a ruined building that struck him like a thunderbolt and literally changed his life. He gave up painting fashionable subjects and embarked on a project to illustrate the New Testament beginning with an excursion to the Holy Land.
The culmination of this 10-year long mission was the French and English publications of "The Life of Christ" illustrated with 270 color reproductions. It was an immediate success and the 350 original watercolors that Tissot created on the subject were presented to huge acclaim at the Paris Salon of 1894 and later in a trans-Atlantic traveling exhibition including London, New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago. In 1900, at the urging of John Singer Sargent, the brand new Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences (now the Brooklyn Museum) decided to purchase the complete series of watercolors at the astonishing price of $60,000. They remained on display until 1930 when they were packed up and put in storage only to have a few examples surface from time to time.
Until January 17, 2010, visitors have the rare opportunity to view 125 of these beautiful watercolors that depict every stage of the life of Jesus Christ from the Annunciation, His childhood, His ministry, The Passion and finally The Resurrection. Familiar Christian scenes of the Manger in Bethlehem, the Marriage at Cana, the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, Christ on the Cross, and Doubting Thomas are depicted in infinite detail using an opaque watercolor method. Often Orientalist in style, Tissot has recreated the scenes with a mania for accuracy in costume, architecture and landscape that was unheard of at the time and gives the works an almost photographic quality.
So during the holiday season when it is often difficult to reconcile all the things on your "To Do" list with the original and true reason for Christmas, I offer you a moment to enjoy this devout artist's exquisite interpretation of the birth of Our Savior and how He changed the world. May the joy of Christmas be with you and your families now and throughout the year!