ON THE FIELD: ‘The Sower’ by James Tissot

ON THE FIELD: ‘The Sower’ by James Tissot

A new dawn sets in. The Sower begins his day as he treads along his fields. He sows the seeds, hoping for a bountiful harvest.

‘Le Semeur’ or ‘The Sower’ by James Tissot is executed in opaque watercolour over graphite on grey wove paper. It beckons a narrative beyond visual display.

Jacques Joseph Tissot, later anglicized as James Tissot, was born near the busy port of Nantes, France in 1836 to a prosperous draper. At the age of 17, he embarked upon his artistic mission. James Tissot’s career spanned three successful periods. In the first phase in Paris (1859-1870), he enjoyed great success as a high-society painter. He lived among aristocratic neighbours near the Arc De Triomphe in Paris. His leisured and charmed life was soon skewered among the struggles of the French Revolution.

The fall of the Second Empire in 1870 and the bloody Franco Prussian war in 1871 compelled him to flee to London. Here, from 1871 to 1882, his career soared for the second time within the competitive artistic circles. However his successful 11 year sojourn ended in an emotional disaster. In 1882, his dearly loved mistress, Kathleen Newton died of consumption.

While working on a series of paintings themed, ‘The Woman of Paris’, James Tissot visited the Church of St. Sulpice in order to sketch the portrait of a choir singer. Here he encountered a vision of Christ tending to the broken and the down trodden. This was his route to Damascus; his Metanoia! The experience he had led to a renewal of his faith and a shift in his artistic focus.

He took off on a research trip to Holy Land, beginning his 10 year campaign to illustrate the New Testament. The result was ‘The Life of Christ’ popularly called ‘the Tissot Bible.’ It is a monumental series of 350 water coloured imagery with profuse archaeological observation and lucid realism.

‘The Sower’ forms a part of the representations in the ‘Life of Christ.’ It elucidates the Parable of the parables in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 13:1 to 23. Tissot presents the Sower as a 1st century Palestine farmer and not like the 19th century European peasant. This is indicated by the barefooted vigorous sturdy body and the dressing pattern.  The use of the sash was a Jewish custom by law which separated the ‘chosen ones’ from the pagans.  In addition, the scarf was a typical Jewish head gear which held the Jewish name for God (J.H.V.H) at its four corners.

In this painting, the sower moves with an engaging palpability as the elements of the Gospel surround him. His left hand holds on to a robe created pouch of seeds, while his right hand scatters the grain in a sweeping motion of the arm. A flock of birds break forth across the horizon. A group of weeds sway in the morn. The north easterly winds waft the air. The partially rocky terrain flows through the land. Yet the sower walks upright, undeterred. His outstretched arm is reminiscent of the Saviour preaching the Word.

The technique of sowing is evocative of the practice of farming in 1st century Palestine. Sowing often preceded ploughing and followed the broadcast method. The unfenced fields featured as long strips with a common path beaten hard by the feet of passer bys. Occasional patches consisted of a thin skin of earth on top of an underlying shelf of limestone rock. Weeds like tares and thorns laid in ambush. It is this terrain that the painter tries to bring to life to enhance the viewer’s understanding of the parable. Thus the painting by Tissot is a truce of the mystical and the ideal with passionate realism.

Jesus preaches this parable to an audience who is familiar with the agricultural system of first century Galilee. The Sower sows and the seed grows depending on the receptivity of the soil of one’s heart. It draws us to the heart of the Sower Himself who does not force faith, rather advocates Love; Love that respects freedom and truth!

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