The art essay

Journey of the Magi (1894) by James Tissot (1836–1902)

Like the Magi, James Tissot went searching for truth in the desert. Born to a successful, devoutly Catholic family in Nantes, France, Tissot began his career as an artist by painting lovely young ladies in sumptuous fashions. Emigrating to England in the wake of war and revolution, Tissot produced even more frivolous works, forming a partnership with Thomas Gibson-Bowles, the founder of Vanity Fair magazine, to paint glamorous beauties, drawing room flirtations, and luxurious lifestyles. One critic dubbed Tissot’s work “ladies in hammocks,” and many of the artist’s contemporaries thought his subject matter betokened moral decadence. Tissot’s private life did not assuage these concerns. Having fallen in love with one of his models, Irish Catholic divorcée Kathleen Newton, he bought a house for the two of them, where they lived, unmarried. Tissot was ostracized for openly flaunting this adulterous relationship, but remained loyal to Kathleen, living a seemingly happy, bohemian existence in his home in the lovely London village of Saint John’s Wood.

A personal journey

Unwittingly, Kathleen Newton became the star that would lead Tissot on his great journey back to faith. In 1882, Kathleen, in the last stages of tuberculosis, took her own life, leaving a forty-six-year-old Tissot bereft. He returned to Paris and sought consolation in faith. In the magnificent church of Saint-Sulpice, Tissot experienced what he described as an ecstatic vision. That vision, which he would reproduce in his painting called Inward Voices, consisted of a destitute man and woman surrounded by the rubble of a crumbled building. They have lost everything, but find themselves comforted by the presence of a third figure, the suffering Christ, who shares their pain. This experience transformed James Tissot.

Tissot described his work as learning to understand “the meaning of atonement through suffering—that ransom of the soul—that redemption by sacrifice.” From the rubble of his life, Tissot arose to seek Christ, following his own inward voices.

Those voices drew him to the Holy Land. He made three voyages to the cities and the deserts of the birthplace of salvation history. He studied the nuances of the land, the light, the topography, and the transformations wrought by the many events that had taken place on that soil.

Journey of the Magi was painted in 1894, after his second trip to Palestine. Painted in oil, it is one of the more finished works in his Holy Land series (most of the others were executed swiftly using watercolors). At first glance, it resembles the numerous paintings of Berber shepherds in the desert that had been filling the Paris salons since the French conquest of Algeria in 1847. Yet where those shepherd scenes seemed like slightly more exotic entries in the landscape genre, Tissot’s work is haunting.

The Magi’s journey

Hills encroach on either side of the stately cavalcade winding through the desert. Scattered stones pepper the sandy trail, reminiscent of the debris of Inward Voices. The ancient pagan world with its aspirations to eternity is crumbling, and the time has come to seek something new. Tissot studied the topography of the Holy Land, rhapsodizing over “the brilliant light, almost amounting to divination, which was thrown on various points by the sight of certain stones.” His passion for biblical archeology led him to set his scene in “the volcanic hills on the shores of the Dead Sea, between Jericho, the Kidron Valley, and Jerusalem.”

Tissot penned a book to accompany his Life of Christ series, in which he described his painstaking research to prepare for the works. The Magi in his painting are a far cry from those that graced Florentine chapels for centuries; instead of embroidered, feathered, and brocaded Renaissance fashions, Tissot’s Magi wear bright yellow robes, dyed with costly saffron, an indication of their rank and profession. In another difference from northern versions, no Europeans form part of this group. All three wear beards, eliminating the youthful smooth-faced character often called Caspar, symbolic of philosophers and wise men. A close study of their faces reveals that the man on the left has features reminiscent of the Arabs of Syria, Parthia (Iran), and Babylon (Iraq), and the one on the right bears the features of sub-Saharan Africa. Tissot presents a new “anthropologically correct” version of the story.

After reading many theories regarding the Magi, Tissot decided that the three men had begun their journeys in different places. For that reason, he chose to depict the moment that the three seekers, having crossed into the Promised Land, converged onto the same path as the star led them to their common destination.

A common journey

The three Magi stare straight ahead, fixed upon a shared vision. Here, Tissot made his most striking innovation to this age-old story: the cavalcade does not traverse the foreground of the canvas but appears to be bearing down upon the beholder. The low vantage point of the spectator renders these brilliantly robed men, astride their proud camels, mighty and iconic. Not to be mistaken for desert merchants posing for an academic genre scene, the Magi are on a special journey, one not meant to be taken alone.

Tissot’s composition frontally lights the Magi as they draw closer to the border of the canvas. This implies that the star is behind the viewer, a mysterious light that illuminates and guides the three sages. Past joins present in this painting, uniting the Magi’s pilgrimage of faith with those of the generations of the people who have stood before the image. All the spectator has to do is turn toward the star, and—like Tissot, who himself converted to Christ—join the many others who are seeking Truth.

Elizabeth Lev

Writer and professor of art history in Rome, Italy


Journey of the Magi (1894), James Tissot (1836–1902), Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis, Minn.

© Bridgeman Images.