After years in storage, James Tissot's "Life of Christ" paintings are on display at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Va.
The rare 19th century art collection is considered a treasure, not only for art lovers, but for anyone wanting a better understanding of the life of Jesus.
"He's trying to create as truthful of an image of the original story as he possibly," Chrysler Museum Curator Jeff Harrison said.
Tissot was known as a high society painter. But according to Harrison, he later experienced a vision of Christ that changed his life.
"He turns his back on the material world and goes for a new spiritual goal," Harrison explained.
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In the late 1800s, Tissot's depictions became the first major attempt to realistically portray the Savior. In all, Tissot created 350 watercolors over a 10-year period.
"He makes two visits to the Holy Land in the 1880s and he sketches obsessively -- the people, the landscape, the setting -- and he becomes an expert on daily life in the Holy Land," Harrison said.
Harrison explained how Tissot's painting of Jesus' crucifixion shows how the artist brings a fresh take on the familiar images.
"You are one with Christ looking down at his family, his followers, his tormentors - all assembled in front of him," Harrison said describing the painting.
Many art lovers also appreciate Tissot's attention to detail. He produced the miniature gems not just for public viewing, but for later publication in a biblical storybook. It became known as "The Tissot Bible."
"These watercolors they're so small and full of detail," Tissot admirer Hilda Andres said. "It was just amazing."
Harrison says the response to the original exhibition in Paris was overwhelming. Some visitors even went through on their knees, as if on a pilgrimage. Even those who claim they're not religious say the works move them.
Many of Tissot's peers, however, criticized his work, saying it was too realistic and too detailed. The painter's response? The spirit is in the detail and in the truth.
The Tissot exhibit at the Chrysler Museum ends June 5. The collection will then go into storage for several years to allow recovery from light exposure.. However, you can view a number of Tissot's works a the Brooklyn Museum website.
--Published April 22, 2011.