Exhibitions: James Tissot: "The Life of Christ": Sketchbook

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James Tissot (French, 1836–1902). Sketchbook of preparatory drawings for The Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ, late 1880s. Graphite and wash drawings on wove paper bound in leather, 9 1/8 x 6 in. (23 x 15 cm). Brooklyn Museum, A. Augustus Healy Fund, Healy Purchase Fund B and the Alfred T. White Fund, 1992.20

When James Tissot traveled through the Middle East on his various research trips in the 1880s for the watercolor series The Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ, he made elaborate pen-and-ink sketches of the landscape and people he encountered.

Interviews given to magazines in the late 1890s suggest that Tissot worked in the quiet of his travel lodgings during the evening hours—after daily drawing campaigns in the countryside—to compose scenes for his series. First working from sketches and notes the size of "postage stamps," as one commentator observed (examples of these can be seen in the first several pages of this sketchbook), Tissot would, as described in an 1899 article in McClure's Magazine, "enlarge one of these into a more detailed sketch, outlining the background and central figures in heavy black lines; the whole, still formless with only black ovals for the heads and a few rough lines for the bodies." For reasons that remain unclear and require further investigation, he used red and orange pigments or washes to highlight various scenes.

This sketchbook includes a number of preliminary composition drawings for Tissot's watercolors devoted to Christ's Passion and Resurrection. It includes scenes of Jesus before Pilate, the Crowning with Thorns, Jesus Falls Beneath the Cross, the Nailing of the Feet, and the Raising of the Cross, among other subjects.

In the early pages of the sketchbook, Tissot also wrote out a budget for an additional voyage to Palestine, this one to run from March 1888 to March 1889. Although scholars have identified trips taken in 1886–87 and in 1889, it is unclear whether the artist went on the proposed 1888–89 tour or just planned for it.