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September 21, 2020





Olcott Uses James Tissot's Bible As a storyboard

The Musée d'Orsay in Paris offers a retrospective of the painter James Tissot (1836-1902). The first name he chose maintains the confusion that he is English, even though he was born in Nantes. But his career will take place on both sides of the Channel.
A friend of Degas, he is not one of the Impressionists though he will have relations with Manet and Berthe Morisot. During the war of 1870 against Prussia, he took part in the defence of Paris. After the Paris Commune, he moved to London, where he experienced success and love in a relationship with Kathleen Newton, a beautiful married Irish woman, who became his model.
Her death in 1882 devastated Tissot and brought him back to France. He became a mystic and went on three expeditions to Palestine in 1886, 1889 and 1896, from where he brought back dozens of watercolours of the Holy places, taken in situ and exhibited in Paris, London and New York. They were used as illustrations for a "Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ", published first in France in 1896-1897. Tissot spent the rest of his life painting scenes of the Old Testament which be published in a Bible after his death.

This Bible was used by Sidney Olcott as a storyboard to shoot "From the Manger to the Cross", the life and death of Jesus Christ, filmed in Palestine and Jerusalem. It scrupulously reproduces the places drawn by Tissot. No wonder!
After all, the well of Nazareth, the lakes of Tiberias, the tomb of Bethany... are historical places, open to the eye of all artists. But Olcott doesn't embarrass himself. His frames are perfect copies of Tissot's work.  Thanks to Allen Farnham, his set director, he has reconstructed in his studio the palace of Herod, the home of the Magi, the Temple of Jerusalem, the wedding inn at Cana, the house of Mary Magdalene... George Hollister only has to place his camera at the right angle.

Outdoors, it's a little more complicated! Sometimes Olcott reverses the shot, probably because it is against the light. He could wait until the next day to shoot it in the right direction but that's not the kind of house. "Time doesn't wait," he used to say, and this reversal doesn't interfere with the story of the film.

The Tissot Bible also provides the patterns for all the costumes. Gene Gauntier says, however, that a tailor had to be brought in from Cairo, whose services he had hired during the shooting of the Egyptian films, because they could not find the equivalent in Jerusalem.

The Musée d'Orsay exhibition devotes some panels to this aspect of Tissot's work. There is one with a mistake on the first name of Olcott. Sydney instead of Sidney. A classic!

It also presents some extracts from Alice Guy's films, Olcott and Griffith. Few documents in fact. I could have lent them the original poster of the film, the luxurious press kit edited by Kalem, the producer, and many original photos. But maybe that's not the point.

A real regret, however, is that the exhibition boutique does not have DVDs of the films in question, nor the DVD of "Première Passion", the film by Philippe Baron, produced by Vivement lundi! which tells the story of the filming of "From the Manger to the Cross" and includes a chapter on James Tissot. Obviously, the exhibition curator did not have the information.  It is true that the producer is not from Paris (I’m joking!).

On the other hand, and this is a real blow, it's impossible to get a digital version of the catalog! It doesn't exist. I don't have any more space in my libraries. So I won't buy it. Too bad.

Sorry for my English

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©2009 Michel Derrien