BYU Museum of Art opens ‘Prophets, Priests and Queens’ exhibit

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The BYU Museum of Art opened their exhibit “Prophets, Priests, and Queens: James Tissot’s Men and Women of the Old Testament” to the public after eight years of preparation.

This new exhibition opened on May 5 and it features 129 out of 400 of Tissot’s Old Testament series.

Curator Ashlee Whitaker said Tissot was “a very prominent 19th century artist and had a fairly successful career.”

Whitaker said Tissot is commonly known for his glamorous images of society. However, in the 1880s, he had a religious awakening where he believed he saw a vision of Christ and was asked to return to his Catholic roots. 

Whitaker said this life event set him on his exploration to study the life of Christ. He started with the New Testament and once finished, he moved on to the Old Testament. 

“I really wanted the chance to explore his Old Testament series. Of all Tissot’s artwork, it’s probably the project that has received the least attention,” Whitaker said. 

Whitaker said a large reason the exhibition was receiving less attention was that Tissot passed away in 1902, before finishing the project. Nonetheless, his assistants completed his work thanks to the artist sketching out all the images he wanted to be included in the series.

The BYU Museum of Art had been working with the Jewish Museum to have Tissot’s paintings restored and prepared to be displayed at BYU. Whitaker said that Tissot’s Old Testament series has been displayed at this large of a scale only once, about 40 years ago by the Jewish Museum. 

Whitaker said the timing of the exhibit worked perfectly with the timing of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Come Follow Me program since this year’s theme is the Old Testament. Each week, Come Follow Me provides a lesson that follows along chronologically with the Old Testament.

She also said Tissot had a very interesting lens into the biblical world.

“I found that as I spent a lot of time with these images that it made me think about these stories in different ways. I appreciated it so much,” Whitaker said. 

Philipp Malzl, the head of education at the BYU Museum of Art, said he hopes that people who visit the exhibit are able to learn about a “relatively obscure artist” and gain new insights about the Old Testament. 

“The Old Testament is a work of scripture I’m sure many people feel intimidated by because it seems so inaccessible, foreign, confusing or strange,” Malzl said. “I want people to come to this exhibition and discover other narratives and perhaps find new mental images that can enrich their understanding of the Old Testament.”

BYU junior Chad Manley went to the exhibit on its opening day. Manley said he had seen Tissot’s “Life of Christ” series before.

“It was interesting seeing Tissot’s counterpart, the Old Testament, and how it sets the stage for everything that happens in the gospels,” Manley said. “I really liked how Tissot’s paintings are really lifelike and realistic. They aren’t glamorized in a way that other artists are, but it seems very real and human.”

Malzl helped create learning opportunities for individuals who visit the exhibit. Some of those resources include a gallery guide, an audio guide on the Museum of Art app, a symposium, a publication, tours and iPads that give details about Tissot’s life and creative process. 

Malzl said the “Prophets, Priests, and Queens” exhibit is a “once in a lifetime opportunity.” He said he hopes people will take this opportunity to see Tissot’s original paintings and learn more about him. The exhibit will be open until the end of 2022 for the general public. 

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