This is one of James Tissot's earliest paintings, and the first to be published in a photographic print that made the picture available to a wide public across Europe and in America. It encapsulates the fundamental elements of Tissot's work throughout his career: his skills as a painter; his interests in costume and historical recreation; and his ability to respond to fashionable interests and topical issues.
The subject is based on Goethe's drama, Faust, as reinterpreted by Charles Gounod and his librettists, Michel Carré and Jules Barbier, for Gounod's opera of the same title, produced at the Théâtre Lyrique, Paris, on 19th March 1859. Goethe's drama, which first appeared as a completed play in 1808, explores ideas of good and evil, life and death, through the central protagonists of the aged philosopher, Faust, and and the Devil (Mephistopheles). In France, interest in Goethe's Faust centered on its romantic and supernatural aspects. The plight of the female heroine, Marguerite, was an especially popular subject for artists, and Ary Scheffer made it his speciality (see lot 190). Gounod's opera followed the line of French interest in focusing on the love story of Faust and Marguerite, which was original to Goethe and not found in the legends that Goethe had drawn on for the rest of Faust. The opera was a great success and hugely popular. It was produced throughout the 1860's in London, New York and in a revised version again in Paris in 1869.
One of the most significant episodes in Gounod's opera is a cathedral scene, in Act IV. Marguerite, a beautiful maiden, has been seduced by Faust with the help of Mephistopheles, having signed away his soul to Mephistopheles in exchange for wealth, power and youth. Betrayed and deserted, Marguerite enters a church and kneels to pray. Invisible to her, Mephistopheles stands beside her and reminds her of her guilt; a chorus of invisible demons accuses her; the Dies irae, accompanied on the organ, is heard and Marguerite joins in, but when the chant ends, Mephistopheles calls out that she is lost and that for her the abyss yawns; Marguerite flees the church in terror.
It is this scene that Tissot depicts in Marguerite à l'eglise. The setting is a chapel in which Marguerite has flopped kneeling on the right, her prayer book fallen from her hand onto the floor. A yawning gap (perhaps filled by the unseen Mephistopheles) separates her from the devoutly praying family on the left, in front of an altar with a reliquary- a woman at a kneeler, hands clasped in prayer, with a small child and her husband standing beside her. Behind and below them, past the screen, is the main body of the church in which a melée of people are gathered, just visible through the lower piercings of the screen. These people, perhaps, are the ones who sing the Dies irae that Marguerite hears. Behind Marguerite is a wall painting of the crucifixion, with an armorial painting (probably commemorating the dead of the family) above; the edge of a carved memorial tablet can be seen to her left (at the right edge of the painting), and part of the painting of a crucifixion scene, with kneeling penitent patrons, above that.
These details, and the church architecture, would have been based on carefully drawn studies: Tissot had at first considered architecture as a career and had spent time drawing gothic buildings and decorative arts, before deciding on becoming an artist. The figures would also have been based on life and drapery studies, and perhaps on photographs of models in Germanic Renaissance style dress, as known to have been used by other artists later in the 1870s.
Tissot painted at least three other versions of the study of Marguerite in church: an undated oil on canvas now in the collection of The National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, which depicts Marguerite seated at a distance from two children kneeling before a candle-lit altar; Marguerite à l'office, exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1861; and Jeune femme dans une église, exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1866.
Earlier parts of the love story were the subjects of other works, of which four are known: La Rencontre de Faust et de Marguerite, 1860 (Paris, Musée d'Orsay); Faust et Marguerite au jardin, 1861 (Private collection) Marguerite à la fontaine, 1861 (unlocated); and Marguerite au rempart, 1861 (Private collection); all four, like Marguerite à l'eglise, were published in 1860-61 as photographic prints, widely available through small printsellers across Europe and America, disseminating Tissot's paintings to a very wide audience. Given that he had only begun studying art in 1857 and had his first works accepted for exhibition at the prestigious annual Paris Salon exhibition in 1859, this was a considerable achievement in so short a time. Another accolade for Tissot was the recommendation by the by the Comte de Niewerkerke, Minister of Fine Arts, for the purchase of La Rencontre by the French state for the Musée de Luxembourg, and the painting was bought from Tissot in 1860 for 5,000 Francs, before Tissot had even been awarded any medals at the Paris Salon, and prior to the painting's exhibition there in 1861.
Tissot's Faust and Marguerite paintings are part of a group of early narrative works by Tissot set in the 16th century and incorporating Germanic style costumes. These pictures were inspired by the the works of the Belgian artist Henri Leys, who became known for historical recreations of scenes in 15th and 16th century Northern Europe, based on the work of Northern Renaissance artists like Cranach, Dürer, Holbein and Van Eyck. Leys won two gold medals at the 1855 Exposition Universelle in Paris, which also brought his work to wide attention in France and Europe through the dissemination of prints after his paintings. Tissot would have been familiar with the latter and would have also seen further works in the Antwerp studio of Leys, which he visited in 1859, when Lawrence Alma-Tadema was studying there and working on compositions in a similar style. Northern Renaissance style costumes, used to dress models, were readily available in Paris. Tissot would also have had paintings by Cranach and other Renaissance artists to hand for study in the Louvre. For a truly authentic re-creation, he also used thick wooden panels, reinforced with struts, for both Marguerite à l'eglise and La Rencontre, the smooth, hard surface emphasising crisp edges and lack of tonal depth as found in his historical works.
While the works of Leys were admired in France and Britain for their 'genuine' depiction of the artist's national historic roots, Tissot's pictures in the style of Leys were considered by critics to be a pastiche. "Thief! Thief! Monsieur Leys could shout in front of the paintings of Monsieur Tissot", said the critic Théophile Gautier of the works by Tissot in the 1861 Paris Salon: "He has taken my individuality, my skin, like a thief in the night carries off clothes left on a chair." A critic writing in the Athenaeum about another Leys style painting by Tissot, Le retour de l'enfant prodigue of 1862 (Paris, Musée du Petit Palais), when exhibited at the Society of British Artists, London, in 1864, said "It is strange that a man who is so powerful an observer of character should condescend to imitate so bizarre a school of painters as that of ancient Flanders. The delight of artists in M. Leys's works is so proportionate to their sterling value; but apart from his own scholars, some of whom are unfortunate in having imitated him , there are no painters who have gone so far as Mr Tissot in reproduction" and "if M. Leys had never existed, Mr Tissot would not have painted in the way he does."
Despite the negative comments of critics, the photographic prints published by Goupil and Bingham after Tissot's Leys-style paintings appear to have been widely popular: they appear in Goupil print catalogues from their publication in 1860-62 until 1878. The paintings themselves were slow to find buyers as Tissot was asking high prices: A number of the paintings eventually found buyers in England. Marguerite à l'eglise, was brought in 1876 by Henry Martin Gibbs, the fourth son of William Gibbs, who built the Gothic Revival mansion of Tyntesffield, near Bristol, and paid for the erection of William Butterfield's chapel at Keble College, Oxford. Henry's mother had been brought up in a partly medieval house and Henry himself later bought a substantial Jacobean house, Barrow Court, in Somerset. The Gibbs family had wide mercantile interests, in particular guano, and their wealth was matched by religious conviction. Their religious and medieval interests are reflected in their choice of Tissot painting.
We would like to thank Krystyna Matyjaszkiewicz for preparing this catalogue entry.