This exceptional oil by the great French master James Jacques Joseph Tissot captures a regal Queen of Sheba greeting the biblical King Solomon for the first time. The subject is one of a series of paintings composed by the artist following his conversion to Catholicism; first executed in gouache, these works were later published in a French edition of the La Sainte Bible in 1904. The present work, dating to his final years, is based upon one of these earlier illustrations and is arguably the more successful of the two. By comparison, the work exudes a drama that is absent from Tissot’s gouache, while this Sheba has a mien that is far more regal and less subservient as she encounters the King on his dais.
The work closely relates to Sir Edward John Poynter’s The visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon (Art Gallery of New South Wales) that dates to 1890, though Tissot chose a far more interesting vantage point that merely suggests King Solomon’s presence beyond the steps to the right of the scene. Rather, Tissot’s focus is solely on the Queen, surrounded by her bowing maidens and watched closely by the King’s armed guards. The result is an anticipatory drama that is even more heightened by Tissot’s muted palette of grey and golds. In both composition and atmosphere, it reveals Tissot’s mastery of light, shadow, detail and form.
Born in 1836 in the port town of Nantes, Tissot traveled to Paris at the age of 20 in order to join the studios of Hippolyte Flandrin and Louis Lamothe. During this period, he became close with James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Edgar Degas and Edouard Manet, and the impact of these friendships is reflected in his portraits of modern life. Having enjoyed considerable success in Paris during the 1860s, Tissot fought in the Siege of Paris, and after the fall of the Commune in 1871, he went to London, where he stayed for the next ten years. He was incredibly successful as a painter there and also met the love of his life, Kathleen Newton, a divorcée, with whom he lived from about 1876 until her death in 1882. Following her death, Tissot returned to Paris.
Distraught over Kathleen’s death, Tissot turned to spiritualism and eventually became quite religious, a change that was reflected in the subjects of his works such as this one. Today he is regarded among the great master of Belle Époque painting, and his works can be found in important collections worldwide, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the National Gallery of Art, the Musee d’Orsay, the Tate Gallery and many others.
The Albums of James Tissot, 1982, by W.E. Misfeldt, p. 120, plate IV.48 (illustrated)