Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Tissot & Rockwell

James Tissot (1836-1902) was a French painter known for a series of paintings on the life of Christ, and an uncompleted series treating stories from the Old Testament. In pursuit of historical accuracy, he made assorted trips to the Middle East. Tissot researched its architecture, clothing and other details which are evident in his work.

I like to use his paintings in Wednesday Sunday School, and can usually recognize a Tissot. This is a personal favorite:

Sarai Is Taken to Pharaoh's Palace

Pharaoh: "Hey baby, you're lookin' good...can I get you a beer? That putz you're traveling with says you're his sister... izzat right? Sarai...what sorta name is that? Cat got your tongue? You no speaka Egyptian? Hey, look at me when I'm talking to you."


New topic: this afternoon I was surfing around and found a Prodigal Son that I wasn't familiar with:

I use Rembrandt's Prodigal Son in class, and am familiar with others, including Tissot's, but never saw this one before today. Based on the buildings and the clothes, I'd say the parable is set in a Dutch/ Flemish medieval context, which was a typical way that Dutch/ Flemish medieval artists would paint Bible stories. After chasing several Dutch/ Flemish dead ends, I accidentally learned that this painting was done in 1862 by...Tissot!? (he painted more than one Prodigal Son). I'm not sure what moved him to paint the story this way (I suppose it's an homage to Northern Renaissance artists), but Tissot shows all the expected details. There are steep Flemish roofs; a stepped gable; flying buttresses on a Gothic church. Faithful Fido. The Jewish family's father is well-dressed, and the women wear their wimples. Leaning on the half-painted green wooden porch, the elder son, who couldn't be happier to see his brother, is a bit less finely-clad than his father.

But looking at Tissot's painting reminded me of a 1945 painting that wasn't a Prodigal Son, but rather its thematic opposite, the Responsible Son. A painting in which a son, having also suffered much, returns from "his journey into a far country" not having shirked responsibility, but having borne it. Whose family and dog "receive him safe and sound," and are uniformly happy to greet him from a half-painted green wooden porch.

Was Rockwell influenced by Tissot? I don't know beyond my own opinion. Born and bred in New York City, Rockwell would've had ample opportunity to see scores of Tissot's paintings in local collections. But you may wonder, if Rockwell was influenced in this case, then why is his composition vertical rather than horizontal?

Because his format was fixed:

Let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.