Adolphe-William Bouguereau. Part 1 – The History Painter and his painting, Dante and Virgil

Self Portrait by William Bouguereau (1879)

Self Portrait by William Bouguereau (1879)

In my next three blogs I want to look at the life and some of the works of one of the greatest and most prolific nineteenth century French painters, Adolphe-William Bouguereau.   At a time when many of his contemporaries were railing against academic art, Bouguereau was a staunch supporter of it.  He was a pure traditionalist.  So why did he support the establishment’s stance on art and the establishment’s method of training aspiring artists when many of his contemporaries were vociferous in their condemnation of all that the art establishment stood for?  To answer that question, one must look at the way art was taught in France or more precisely in the case of Bouguereau,  how it was taught in Paris which was then considered the art capital of the world.  Artistic training in that city was centred on the government-sponsored art school, the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, which was founded in the mid seventeenth century as the Académie des Beaux-Arts and once it had become independent from the government in 1863 changed its name to L’École des Beaux-Arts.

Viila Medici, the French Academy in Rome

Viila Medici, the French Academy in Rome

It was here that young men (women were not admitted until 1898) were taught how to draw.   The actual teaching of putting paint on canvas was carried out in private studios which were often run by the professors of the school.   Artistic training was thorough and aspiring artists had to reach high standards before they were allowed to proceed with the course.  They would also have to enter work into a number of in-house competitions.  The most prestigious award being the Prix de Rome, which was given to the artist who submitted the best History painting.  Bouguereau won the coveted Prix de Rome in 1850, with his painting  Zenobia Found by Shepherds on the Banks of the Araxes. His reward was the chance to attend the Villa Medici, which was the French Academy in Rome, and remain there for four years.  During that time the student would have the opportunity to study the classical art of the Italian Renaissance masters.  The reason why the French art establishment believed that this was so important was their belief that no artist had ever achieved the level of excellence attained by the likes of Raphael, Titian or Michelangelo.  In their opinion, every aspiring artist was duty bound to emulate this type of art.

The Parisian art establishment which oversaw the running of L’École des Beaux-Arts issued artists with an official list detailing which genre of paintings they considered more important than others.  This hierarchy of genres was headed by History painting and the reason for that was that it somehow represented all the artistic skills the young artists had been taught during their passage through the Academy system. History paintings were generally very large works, and thus were nearly always destined to be hung in public places such as in churches, or the spacious rooms of government buildings or on gallery walls. History paintings delved into the world of classical, mythological, literary and religious events which had taken place in bygone days. Within this top-placed genre there was the allegorical works which, through their depiction, carried symbolic messages about good and evil. It was in these works that the depiction of nude figures, were considered acceptable and it was from years of studying the human figure in life drawing classes at the Academy that the aspiring artists were able to skilfully show off what they had been taught.

Once an artist had trained at the academy, he and later she, had to face up to the fact that to survive they had to sell their work.  In the past the government, the church and the wealthy aristocracy were the buyers of art works but it soon became obvious that their commissioning power was becoming limited and the new buyers of art were the Parisian people of middle and upper-class standing who had the money and wanted to fill their grand houses with fine art.  So where could these new buyers get their hands on fine works of art?  Parisian art dealers such as Paul Durand-Ruel and Adolphe Goupil did not become buyers and sellers of art until the mid nineteenth century.  Before then the most prestigious way of selling your paintings was to get them accepted at the Paris Salon’s annual exhibition.  Simply referred to as the Salon, it began in 1725 as the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. These were massive exhibitions in which artist’s works, once they had passed the scrutiny of the Salon jurists, were exhibited floor-to-ceiling and on every available inch of wall space.   Potential buyers were then able to see, in one space, the art work that was on offer.  One can therefore realise that for a work to sell, not only had it to be pleasing on the eye of a potential buyer but it had to have been hung in a prominent position at the Salon exhibition.  The advantage the History painters had over others was the monumental size of their works which often dwarfed their “competition” and therefore were always placed in a prominent position.  

Dante And Virgil by William Bouguereau (1850)

Dante And Virgil by William Bouguereau (1850)

In my next two blogs I want to look at two monumental history painting completed by Bouguereau, one secular, the other religious, but both follow the artistic traditions laid down by the Academy.   Today I am featuring the secular work, entitled Dante and Virgil in Hell, which is housed at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.  This is a truly breathtaking work and is a prime example of classic art with so much attention paid to the musculature of the human body.  The first thing that strikes one about this painting is its unfettered ferocity, which has the effect of either you wanting to turn away from it in shock or you stare at it in a mesmeric state.

The setting for the work comes from Dante Alghieri’s 14th century epic poem, The Divine Comedy, which recounts the journey made by Dante through Hell along with his guide the ancient Roman poet, Virgil.  The poem tells us that Hell is made up of nine concentric circles within the bowels of Earth.  Each of the circles houses people who have committed certain types of sin.  Bouguereau’s painting depicts the two travellers arriving at the Eighth Circle of Hell.  This is the Circle which houses the deceased falsifiers.   This Circle, nicknamed Malebolge (evil pouches) is unlike the other Circles for it is surrounded by a wall of dull iron-coloured stone, and the valley itself is divided into ten secondary circles or pouches.  The setting for Bouguereau’s work is the tenth pouch of the eighth Circle of hell. We see Dante and Virgil watching a fight between two damned souls. 

So who are the two main characters depicted fighting in the painting and why are they condemned to stay in this Circle of Hell, which is the home of alchemists, counterfeiters, perjurers, and imposters?  Dante Alghieri would have known about the two men.  One is Capocchio, a heretic and alchemist from Sienna who was put to death by public burning at the stake in August 1293.  The other is Gianni Schicchi who is condemned to Hell for impersonating Buoso Donati and making his will highly favourable to himself.  The story goes that after the wealthy Florentine, Buoso Donati, died in 1299; his relatives conducted a frenetic search for his will.  The will was eventually found but to the relatives’ horror Donati had left most of his money and possessions to the local monks. The relatives then turn to the scheming but ingenious Gianni Schicchi, who has the gift of mimicry, to help them find a solution and save their inheritance.   Schicchi has no love for the money-grabbing relatives but however agrees to impersonate Buoso Donati, as nobody, other than the relatives, knows of his death.  Schicchi successfully passes himself off as the deceased Donati and changes the will.  The irony is that Schicchi, in changing the will, ends up giving himself most of the possessions belonging to the dead man.  The relatives were powerless to do anything as they were involved in the deception!   This usurping the identity of a Donati in order to fraudulently claim his inheritance has condemned him to the Eighth Circle of Hell.

The bite to the throat

The bite to the throat

The foreground of the painting is well lit and like the powerful light almost acts as a spotlight which has picked out the two fighting adversaries, Schicchi and Capocchio, in the foreground,.  Capocchio, the heretic and alchemist is attacked and bitten on the throat by Gianni Schicchi, the usurper.  He acts like a vampire.  In the background shadows we see Dante and Virgil standing together.  Virgil is dressed in a red cloak and hat and Dante is dressed in grey.  Virgil looks down at the fighters but Dante has covered his mouth in horror at what he sees before him.  However Dante’s eyes are not fixed on the fighting but at something to the right, out of picture.  So what is he looking at?   Maybe it is more naked writhing bodies similar to those which we see below the winged demon.  

Dante and Virgil the onlookers

Dante and Virgil the onlookers

Virgil has taken hold of Dante and wants him to move on away from this horrific scene.  Hovering above them is a flying demon which we see depicted against the fiery red background of Hell. 

The smiling flying demon

The smiling flying demon

The demon has a wide smile as he sees the men below tearing each other apart.  On the floor by the fighting couple we see a man wracked in pain, the punishment for his past sins. 

Nails dig into flesh and draw blood

Nails dig into flesh and draw blood

Look carefully how Bouguereau has embellished the muscle structure of the two men.  Look how the distortion of the bodies in their over-elaborate poses has added an animal-like ferocity to the painting.  I particularly like the way Bouguereau has exaggerated the depiction of Schicchi’s violent stretching of Capocchio’s skin, his finger nails starting to draw blood whilst his knee, which has slammed into Capocchio’s back, bends his victim’s spine.

The 19th century French art critic and poet Théophile Gautier was very complimentary about Bouguereau’s painting, saying:

“…Gianni Schicchi throws himself at Capocchio, his rival, with a strange fury, and Monsieur Bouguereau depicts magnificently through muscles, nerves, tendons and teeth, the struggle between the two combatants. There is bitterness and strength in this canvas – strength, a rare quality!..” 

It is a magnificent work of art albeit a very disturbing one.   In my next blog I will feature another of Bouguereau’s history paintings, a religious one, which like today’s work has an undeniable feel of savagery, which makes the viewer nervously unsettled by what they see before them.

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About jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.
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