Education Week: BYU Art Museum’s Curator of Education Discusses 19th-Century Religious Painter in Bringing Art to Life Series

BYU Art Museum Head of Education Philpp Malzl and Curator Ashley Whittaker taught Education Week participants about the artwork of 19th-century religious painter James Tissot in a session of their Bringing Art to Life series on August 17. Malzl said that Tissot was interested in the truthful depictions of the Old Testament as well as the life of Christ. (Megan Zaug)

BYU Art Museum Head of Education Philpp Malzl and Curator Ashley Whittaker taught Education Week participants about the artwork of 19th-century religious painter James Tissot in a session of their Bringing Art to Life series on August 17.

Whittaker introduced the life of James Tissot, explaining his educational, personal and artistic background. Born in 1838, Whittaker said the artist grew up in a strong Roman Catholic family.

“Tiso was well educated in the Catholic tradition, and that tradition was part of his life,” Whittaker said.

Throughout his life, Whittaker said Tissot encountered many different religious traditions and movements, including Spiritualism, a movement of people who believe in communion between the living and the dead.

“Tiso told of a vision he had of the Savior comforting a couple in distress,” Whittaker said. “He later depicted the vision in his work and said that Christ was saying ‘I am the hope of mankind, I am their consolation.’

After introducing Tissot, Whittaker introduced BYU Art Museum Education Department Chair Philip Maltzl to continue the lecture. Whittaker said Malzl, who was born in Austria, studied the art and life of Tissot during his doctoral studies.

Malzl said that Tissot was interested in truthful depictions of the Old Testament as well as the life of Christ. “He was very interested in trying to correct what previous artists had done wrong,” Malzl said.

Tissot then began his collection of artworks focusing on the Old Testament, which he intended to publish in commentary books. Although he was unable to complete the series before he died, Malzl said that a group of trusted Tissot associates completed the series for him.

Malzl said 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.

BYU Art Museum Head of Education Philpp Malzl and Curator Ashley Whittaker taught Education Week participants about the artwork of 19th-century religious painter James Tissot in a session of their Bringing Art to Life series on August 17. Malzl said that Tissot was interested in the truthful depictions of the Old Testament as well as the life of Christ. (Megan Zaug)

Malzl said that although the palm tree was a common motif in early religious art, Tiso arrived in Jerusalem to find that there were not many palm trees there. However, the artist decided to continue using the motif in his work as a symbol of righteousness.

“The righteous will blossom like a palm tree,” Malzl said, citing Psalm 92:12.

Malzl also said that Tissot was very busy with the mechanics and working of his art objects. “In his depiction of Abraham and Isaac, Tissot was obviously very careful about the altar and how it should have worked,” Malzl said.

Malzl said that Tissot felt that his work to accurately depict the Old Testament was a way of getting things right and an indication of his religiousness.

“I think he was personally very committed to this project, and I think he was trying hard to extract 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 like he doesn’t want to be part of the sacrifice,” Malzl said. “Nevertheless, it is clear in Tissot’s depiction that Isaac went willingly. In many ways this Isaac was a personification of Christ.”

Above all, Malzl encouraged attendees to check out Tissot’s “Prophets, Priests and Queens” gallery on display at the BYU Art Museum.

“I doubt any of us will have another chance to see them in our lifetime,” Malzl said.

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