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Humanizing Bible Characters

James Tissot experimented with painting uncommon biblical scenes that create rich resonance.

In an era of Impressionist artists, James Tissot was different.

His brushstrokes looked painterly up close, but realistic from afar. He preferred painting religious scenes as opposed to Monet’s gardens or Degas’ ballerinas. He garnered massive success and wealth and had many patrons sponsoring his work. A large part of Tissot’s success came from his interpretive approach to painting biblical scenes, going beyond what was explicitly written.

Tissot’s unique artistic vision and perspective attracted the attention of the BYU Museum of Art’s recent “Prophets, Priests, and Queens” symposium on October 21. Scholars and students from the College of Humanities presented on what made Tissot’s interpretation of biblical events so unique.

Professor Corry Cropper (French) and some of his students presented research findings from their French literature course. On the first day of fall semester, Cropper took his students to Tissot’s exhibit, hoping to develop their analytical skills. Cropper noted that most of his students knew and understood the stories behind the biblical illustrations, meaning they could analyze and activate critical thinking skills on a deeper level.

The French students compared Tissot’s depictions of Bible characters with correlating biblical passages. Cropper’s students discovered that Tissot’s unique depictions were actually supported by the text.

He hoped analyzing Tissot’s art would help his students analyze literature in a similar way. He wanted them to see beyond the explicit text and into the subjects’ emotions. “Reading art engages the same analytical muscles as reading literature,” Cropper said. “Our conversation here in the museum set the tone for subsequent discussions in the classroom about literature.”

One of Cropper’s students, Maren Kennedy (Interdisciplinary Humanities, French ’25), analyzed Tissot’s David Sees Bath Sheba Bathing. She noted that David is in agonizing, emotional pain, different from other common depictions where he appears lustful and sensual. His closed-off rooftop space reflects his confined emotions; contrary to Bathsheba, who appears free and in the open. The setting sun in the background reflects the end of David’s righteousness.

David Sees Bath Sheba Bathing
Photo by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (1836-1902) and A. de Parys (1886-1931), ‘David Sees Bath Sheba Bathing,’ c. 1896-1904, gouache on board. 8 x 10 5/8 in. The Jewish Museum, New York. Images provided by the Jewish Museum, New York. Gift of the Heirs of Jacob Schiff.

Tissot depicted other unusual biblical scenes as well. In Bath Sheba Mourns Her Husband, Bathsheba is seen distraught and mourning on the floor. Assistant Professor Elliott Wise (Eucharistic and Liturgical Imagery) initially thought this Tissot painting reflected David’s despair, noting that there is no iconographical tradition depicting a mourning Bathsheba; however, after reading 2 Samuel 11:26, which states, “And when the wife of Uriah heard that Uriah her husband was dead, she mourned for her husband,” Wise concluded that there actually is explicit scriptural support for the scene, and that because most people aren’t familiar with the passage, Tissot had more freedom to develop the scene as he wanted.

Bath-sheba Mourns Her Husband
Photo by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (1836-1902) and A. de Parys (1886-1931), ‘Bath Sheba Mourns her Husband,’ c. 1896-1904, gouache on board. 6 4/5 x 10 7/8 in. The Jewish Museum, New York. Images provided by the Jewish Museum, New York. Gift of the Heirs of Jacob Schiff.

In the painting, Bathsheba lies face down on crumpled blankets. Wise said that the crumpled blankets suggest she had either been lying there for a while or had been writhing in pain. Wise compared Tissot’s depiction of Bathsheba to Tissot’s similar painting of the Lord writhing in the Garden of Gethsemane. Her feet form the shape of a cross, suggesting iconography of Christ’s suffering.

Tissot’s renderings of biblical scenes create interesting questions and present new perspectives on events. How did David and Bathsheba really feel when they made a mistake or lost a loved one? How can we see beyond what is only explicitly written in the Bible? How are biblical characters humanized?

“These images are still applicable and still have beautiful and resonating principles that can be applied to all of us,” undergraduate student Brooklyn Jensen (Art History and Curatorial Studies, ’23) said. “We [must] take [a] second to look and take care in gleaning all the aspects that Tissot intended.”

The BYU Museum of Art will display Tissot’s exhibit Prophets, Priests, and Queens until December 31, 2022. To request a tour of this exhibition and learn more about Tissot, click here.