Tissot’s interest in occultism was coupled with the rediscovery of his Catholic faith. A few months after Kathleen’s apparition, he experienced another vision, of Christ, in Saint-Sulpice church in Paris. This event persuaded him to turn his back on modern subjects and instead devote himself to illustrating the Gospels. This decision coincided with the unfavourable reception of the series Women of Paris, exhibited in Paris and London in 1885-1886.
His aim was to re-establish the truth of the Bible story in a Christian world whose imagination was “distorted by the fantasies of painters”. In order to achieve this, the painter travelled to the Holy Land in 1886-1887, in 1888-1889, and in 1896; he carried out research and immersed himself in places where he believed he could rediscover the true message of the Scriptures.
This quest for a historical Jesus, which had affinities with Ernest Renan’s project for his Life of Jesus (1863), was accompanied in the case of Tissot by a fondness for supernatural iconography and an original apologetic and mystical dimension. His search for authenticity was founded in his faith, and the images he painted translated his “visions”.
The 270 watercolours (out of a total of 365) presented at the Salon in 1894 were hugely popular. Published by Mame in 1896 with the title The Life of our Lord Jesus Christ, the work was a bestseller and was considered to be one of the finest books of the century.
After accompanying his illustrations on a triumphant touring exhibition in North America, Tissot began illustrating the Old Testament. The artist died aged sixty-five at his property at Buillon in 1902, before completing this project.