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Nymphs and Satyr, by William Bouguereau (Detail)
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William Bouguereau and his Religious Works
By Kara Lysandra Ross


illiam Bouguereau (1825-1905), although well known for his paintings of peasant girls and mythological scenes, has also become one of the most beloved religious painters of all times. As a devout catholic, Bouguereau, as so many other religious painters, viewed his work as a form of worship both of God and of his most beloved creation, mankind.  Bouguereau's love of Christ can be clearly seen in his religious paintings for which he took no short cuts and spared no time and dedication in creating.  In the weeks leading up to the holidays, it seems an appropriate time to revisit some of these most important religious works.

Vierge Aux Anges, Song of Angels, 1881, hangs at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park, CA, USA.  It became re-appreciated from an exhibition at the Getty Museum, where the full size masterpiece was hung next to the reduction. The precision of the perfect copy, also one hundred percent by Bouguereau, and the overall power of both pieces, became one of the most popular exhibitions the Getty had ever had. The serene Mary and baby Jesus sleep, surrounded by nature, as three angels play them a lullaby. All the figures are painted with beautiful, ethereal, perfection.  When Bouguereau painted a series of angels, he usually used the same figure multiple times. In the Pieta, 1876, the eight angels are only two different individuals, and in Regina Angelorum, 1900, all twenty-one angels are the same girl. Song of Angels is no different. Bouguereau strived for perfection and would often use the hands of one model, the eyes of another, hair from yet a third, etc. In his religious works and his depictions of the holy, he took extra care in finding a compelling human image that could capture the divine, and once he found what he wanted, he did not stray. I believe this was also a statement on the nature of the divine; that a holy presence may feel as powerful as the souls of many, but in truth, it is one power.  The three angels in Vierge Aux Anges are also a foreshadowing of the nature of the holy trinity, and are representative of the father, the son and the holy ghost. The mother and child sleep in peace unaware of the suffering that is destined to follow.

The Flagellation of Christ, 1880 is one of Bouguereau's masterpieces, and today hangs at the Baptistery of La Rochelle Cathedral, France. Christ, tied to a column, limply hangs, his feet dragging on the ground and head hung back, he submits to his fate. Two men stand in mid swing with their whipping ropes, with a third kneeling to the lower right fastening birch branches for the next stage of the torture. Unlike the two men who are whipping or the forth man standing behind with birch branches in the ready, the kneeling man tying the branches appears to show some remorse for his actions as his hand muscles loosen slightly with the pull of the string. The viewer can feel the pain of Christ's torment, though his eyes are vacant of expression as if his soul is in another place. The crowd surrounding this event is filled with curious spectators. To the left, a young boy shelters his eyes from the horrid sight by turning his back and pressing himself against his mother. To the right, just above Christ's head, a baby looks down at him sympathetically while hoisted up on his father's shoulders. Through the crowd, a bearded man looks directly at the viewer, thereby pulling the audience into the scene as if they are too part of the crowd. It is possible that this bearded man with furrowed brow is a self portrait, so both Bouguereau and the viewer are witnessing this scene. This life size capa d'opera is every bit as magnificent as any religious works done by Raphael, Caravaggio, or Velasquez. The harmonious interplay of drawing, paint handling, composition, perspective and emotional thrust are second to none in their expressive power.

When one looks at The Compassion, 1897, at first glance the viewer may interpret this painting be simply a depiction of Christ on the Cross, with perhaps another saint, or victim. A depiction not too different from thousands of other paintings of the subject; but in fact, the subject of this painting is not simply the event, but the conversion to Christianity through the compassion for the sacrifice Jesus made. The man with his head on Jesus' chest is a representation of every man and mankind as a whole. The man in the painting shows the same empathy and bearing his own symbolic cross, has found his way to Jesus and his own redemption. Many Christians wear crosses around their necks to represent the same conviction, that they too have been sacrificed with Christ. In the bible, when Jesus fell on his way to Calvary, a man from the crowd, Simon of Cyrene, went to Jesus and carried the cross for him, which was the inspiration for this widely accepted symbol. The blood of Christ falls onto his hands, reiterating the blood sacrifice that was made for his benefit. On top of the cross a letter is posted which reads "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews" in three languages, Greek, Latin, and Aramaic. Although in many depictions, Christ is crucified at the top of a mountain, Bouguereau chooses to depict the savior on a barren wasteland, symbolic of the man"s spiritual life before finding his way to Christ. Bouguereau chose to keep this painting, which shows the importance his religion played in his own life, and it remained in his studio until its recent donation to the Musèe D'Orsay, Paris, France.

The Pietà, 1876, provides a very unique depiction of this most famous of imagery. The weeping Mary cloaked in a robe of black is mourning the death of her son whom she holds to her chest. The dead body of Jesus limply hangs in her arms while eight weeping angels surround them. The angels are clad in the colors of the rainbow and create an arc over Mary and Jesus. In the Old Testament, after the great flood had ended, Noah and his family saw an arcing rainbow, which was a sign from God that the flood was over and the world could be born anew. In Bouguereau's Pietà, the rainbow symbolizes that the sacrifice of Jesus was complete and that the human soul can be born anew and ascend to God after death. Mary looks out and up. It is intended to be unclear whether if from her seated position she is focused on the viewer or the heavens with her swollen red eyes, filled with sorrow and accusation. Most likely as a mother mourns the loss of her child, she is accusing both the heavens and the earth for the pain she and her son has suffered. This interpretation of Mary is different from Michelangelo's Pietà or many other versions, where Mary is offering her child to the world. Bouguereau's Mary clutches Christ, not offering him to a sinful world that required her son's sacrifice. At Jesus' feet lies the crown of thorns used to mock him during the Crucifixion; it lies on a white cloth covered in the blood of Christ, showing the torment Jesus went though in order that humanity could attain salvation. The white robe and pitcher of water represent the purity of Jesus' soul. Both Jesus and Mary are surrounded by a halo of light indicating their holiness. This painting was inspired by the death of Bouguereau's eldest son, George, who died directly before Bouguereau started work on this piece in 1875.  Bouguereau had the grave misfortune to have lost 4 of his five children during his lifetime.

Le Saintes Femmes au Tombeau, 1890, translated to The Holy Women at the Tomb, depicts the three Marys, Mary the Mother of James, Mary Magdalene and Mary of Cleophas, at the tomb of the resurrection. The viewer, compositionally, is placed in a prostrated position and looking up first notices the expressions of bewilderment on the central Mary's face before looking past the three women and into the tomb. The tomb is filled with light and the viewer can only catch a glimpse of the "angel of the resurrection" with his arm raised. This is a very clever arrangement. The viewer feels as though they are there with the Marys and that they have stumbled onto this event, bringing it into the present. This painting was first exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1890, and though a critic after viewing the piece at that time said that Bouguereau "always showed the same thing", the perspective used in this painting and the overall composition is most original and was a tour de force of perspective and foreshortening; which can be clearly seen in the severe angle of the tomb entranceway.  The painting now hangs in the collection of the Musée Royal des Beaux-Arts, Antwerp, Belgium.

These are only a small portion of Bouguereau's religious paintings of which there are approximately 65 which makes up about eight percent of his total oeuvre. The recently published Catalogue Raisonné on the artist by Damien Bartoli and Fred Ross, clearly illustrates through over 760 examples of this artist's work, the tremendous fortitude of Bouguereau's prowess with the brush. Winning almost every award and accolade during his life, and residing as president of many institutions, Bouguereau's fame was equal to that of Victor Hugo, his contemporary, and as an artist, he was as well known then as Picasso is today. His death in 1905 was mourned throughout all of France, and by others around the world as well.

This article was first published in the Epoch Times on December 22nd, 2011

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