BYU Museum of Art Head of Education Philpp Malzl and curator Ashlee Whitaker taught Education Week participants about 19th century religious artist James Tissot’s artwork in a session of their “Bringing Art to Life” series on Aug. 17.
Whitaker introduced the life of James Tissot by explaining his educational, personal and artistic background. Born in 1838, Whitaker said the artist grew up in a strong Roman Catholic family.
“Tissot was educated richly in Catholic tradition and that tradition was a part of his life,” Whitaker said.
Throughout his life, Whitaker said Tissot encountered many different religious traditions and movements, including spiritualism, a movement of individuals that believed in communion between the living and the dead.
“Tissot reported a vision he had of the Savior comforting a couple in distress,” Whitaker said. “He later depicted the vision in his artwork and said Christ was saying ‘I am humanity’s hope, I am their comfort’.”
After her introduction of Tissot, Whitaker introduced BYU Museum of Art Head of Education Philipp Malzl to continue the lecture. Whitaker said Malzl, a native of Austria, studied Tissot’s artwork and life during his PhD studies.
Malzl said that Tissot was interested in truthful depictions of the Old Testament, as well as the life of Christ. “He was very much interested in trying to correct what previous artists had done wrong,” Malzl said.
Tissot then began his collection of Old Testament centered artwork, which he intended to publish into books of commentary. Though he was unable to finish the series before he died, Malzl said a group of Tissot’s trusted collaborators finished the series for him.
Malzl said that early religious artwork was often depicted with European-style backgrounds and settings. “Most artists didn’t travel to the holy land until the 19th century,” Malzl said.
Tissot eventually traveled to Jerusalem and was able to incorporate accurate depictions of the landscape into his artwork, Malzl said.
Malzl said that although the palm tree was a common motif in early religious art, Tissot arrived in Jerusalem to find that there weren’t many palm trees. However, the artist decided to continue to use the motif in his work as a symbol of righteousness.
“The righteous shall flourish like a palm tree,” Malzl said, referring to Psalm 92:12.
Malzl also said that Tissot was very preoccupied with the mechanics and workings of his art subjects. “In his depiction of Abraham and Isaac, Tissot was clearly very thoughtful about the altar and how it must’ve worked,” Malzl said.
Malzl said that Tissot felt that his work in accurately depicting the Old Testament was a way of setting things right and an indicator of his religiosity.
“I think he was personally very devoted to this project and I think he was trying hard to draw out a spiritual truth that he saw in the Old Testament,” Malzl said.
Referring again to Tissot’s depiction of Abraham and Isaac, Malzl noted the difference in Tissot’s depiction of Isaac.
“Many other religious depictions of Isaac make it seem as though he doesn’t want to be a part of the sacrifice,” Malzl said. “However, it’s clear in Tissot’s depiction that Isaac went willingly. In many ways this Isaac was a type of Christ.”
Above all, Malzl encouraged participants to examine Tissot’s “Prophets, Priests and Queens” gallery featured in the BYU Museum of Art.
“I doubt any of us will have another chance to see these in our lifetime,” Malzl said.