James Tissot's "Self Portrait," ca. 1865. (Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Though James Tissot was a highly celebrated artist in his time and a colleague of several of the most well-known French impressionists, he is now largely unknown or underappreciated.

This may not be the case for very much longer.

The current comprehensive exhibition of his work at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco — the first American exhibition in over 20 years and the first ever on the West Coast — ably makes the case for Tissot’s place among the great French artists of the 19th century, not only for his paintings, but also for his watercolors and cloisonne pieces.

Titled “James Tissot: Fashion & Faith,” the show — co-organized with the Musée d’Orsay museum in Paris, to which the exhibit will travel after leaving San Francisco — highlights the range of the artist’s career. Known initially for the his highly detailed, perceptive and exquisitely colored paintings of contemporary figures and society life in Paris and London, the artist later completely changed his subject matter.

In his later years, he made dramatic illustrations, often in watercolor, of biblical scenes. This shift from contemporary life to the Bible as the subject of Tissot’s art corresponded to a radical change in the source of his inspiration — from a beautiful Irish woman living in London to the world of spiritualism and religion after her untimely death.

James Tissot’s “The Circle of the Rue Royale,” 1868. (Photo courtesy of Musée d’Orsay)

One of Tissot’s later works, a mezzotint of a séance titled “The Apparition,” was formerly believed lost, but is on public display here for the first time since the artist’s death, hinting at the shadowy world of spirits reached through séance.

As curator Melissa Buron explains, Tissot was a storyteller, whose works — both secular and religious — involve unfolding narratives. He was also a “cinematographer before cinema,” whose scenic depictions directly influenced several contemporary

This ability to suggest a narrative context beyond the canvas surface is evident in Tissot’s series of paintings of women of Paris in various settings.

Five of the 15 paintings in the series are shown together in one gallery, representing the largest number of paintings in the series ever shown together. They range from elaborately costumed women riding chariots in a performance space to a group portrait of artists’ wives.

A painting of a milliner’s shop, a familiar impressionist subject, is fraught with hints of a rich narrative underlay. And “October,” the painting which introduces the exhibit, is a portrait of Tissot’s companion, Kathleen Newton, whose fashionable animated form in black cuts a mobile diagonal across brilliant yellow leaves.

James Tissot’s “October” (detail), 1877. (Image courtesy of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts)

The first few of the chromothematically arranged galleries show the influences on Tissot, of Japonisme and textiles, to Ingres and later Degas. In another gallery, Tissot’s accomplished portraits include “The Circle of the Rue Royale,” showing 12 men in various positions, and the portrait of the Marquise de Miramon, whose pink dress is depicted in extraordinary detail.

Tissot’s time in London is represented by scenes of tourists in the city, domestic scenes with his companion’s children, scenes in Japan and tipsy boaters on the Thames.

Tissot’s later biblical scenes display his skill as well as his faith.

“What Our Lord Saw From the Cross,” for one, faithfully renders the perspective from an undepicted elevated cross, the emphasis being on the effect of the crucifixion on its witnesses.

Another depicts a kneeling Moses and Joshua in the Tabernacle, the scene closely cropped, the men’s dusty soles revealed.

Steven Spielberg used Tissot’s depiction of the Tabernacle as a basis for the ark in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” while Cecil B. DeMille borrowed from Tissot’s biblical scenes for his religious epics.

During Tissot’s life, these scenes were enormously popular. Ironically, they now serve as the explanation for his relative obscurity, as the subject matter has fallen out of favor.

The “James Tissot: Fashion & Faith” exhibit will be on display through Feb. 9 at the Legion of Honor.