Acceptance « in lieu » adds five major Bouguereau paintings to Musée d’ Orsay

1. William Bouguereau (1825-1905)
Equality, 1848
Oil on canvas - 141 x 269 cm
Paris, Musée d’Orsay
Photo : E. Michot

19/5/10 – Acquisitions – Paris, Musée d’Orsay – Five important paintings by William Bouguereau were acquired through acceptance “in lieu” in 2009, directly from the artist’s family. We could not discuss them previously as their final destination (should they be placed on deposit in different museums or be kept together at the Musée d’Orsay ?) had not yet been decided. The latter is now the case as these canvases will remain at Orsay and be presented officially on Tuesday 1st June 2010.

These are large formats, all exhibited at the Salon, two of them being early works while the other three were produced late in the artist’s career.

The first in chronological order is Equality (ill. 1), displayed at the Salon of 1849 and painted a year earlier, not long after the Revolution of 1848 when the artist, at 23, was still a student at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The title is explained in a notice found on a preparatory drawing : “Equality . When the angel of death covers you with his shroud, your life will have been meaningless if you did not do good on earth [1]”. This is therefore a modern Vanitas in which the sense of life’s passing accompanies a moral allegory.

2. William Bouguereau (1825-1905)
Dante and Virgil in Hell, 1850
Oil on canvas - 281 x 225 cm
Paris, Musée d’Orsay
Photo : Wikimedia Commons

The second painting is just as spectacular. It represents Dante and Virgil in Hell (ill. 2), already reproduced in our news item last year concerning an acquisition made by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts of one of the artist’s works. An illustration of Canto XXX of the Divine Comedy, it shows Giovanni Schicchi (condemned for having usurped an inheritance) aggressing Capocchio (accused of being an alchemist) and biting his neck [2]. The work was exhibited at the Salon of 1850-1851.

The third painting (ill. 3) in the group was produced much later (1897). Although the subject is quite original, the composition showing Christ expiring on a cross which is not much bigger than He is, supported by a man also bearing a cross, is similar to a painting by Hippolyte Lazerges from the Salon of 1874, Stabat Mater, in which the Virgin is holding her son. The realism of the Christ figure is also close to that of contemporary artists, such as Léon Bonnat and his Crucifixion of 1874. The title, Compassion, reflects an attempt at originality and at renewing religious iconography.

3. William Bouguereau (1825-1905)
Compassion, 1897
Oil on canvas - 280 x 130 cm
Paris, Musée d’Orsay
Photo : All rights reserved

The fourth canvas corresponds to Bouguereau’s amatory vein, of uneven quality, sometimes producing affected scenes, far distant in style from the plastic force of his previous works. However, Assault (ill. 4), exhibited in 1898, depicting a nymph importuned by a legion of Cupids, avoids in a way this criticism. Though his detractors may have been right at times, Bouguereau was in fact trying to reproduce the grace of 18th century tradition, there is no question of his technical quality and of the prettiness of the composition.

4. William Bouguereau (1825-1905)
Assault, 1898
Oil on canvas - 153 x 105 cm
Paris, Musée d’Orsay
Photo : All rights reserved

5. William Bouguereau (1825-1905)
The Oreads, 1902
Oil on canvas - 236 x 182 cm
Paris, Musée d’Orsay
Photo : Musée d’Orsay

The last work in this important ensemble dates from 1902, that is three years before the artist’s death. He often painted flying figures, either religious such as the angels carrying A Soul to Heaven (Musée du Périgord) or mythological as The Ravishing of Psyche (1895, private collection). The Oreads (ill. 5), mountain nymphs, are soaring away gracefully (but without wings…) after being frightened by the satyrs. Here again, Bouguereau displays his talent at painting the female body in a work which, even more so than in the previous one, is far from being affected. The painter may have found inspiration partially in a work by Henri Lehmann, The Desolation of the Oceanids (1850, Gap, Musée départemental).

Thanks to this acquisition, Orsay can now present what is no doubt the largest ensemble of Bouguereau works in any museum. Several paintings are on deposit in other institutions (The Virgin of Consolation in Strasbourg, Philomela and Procne in Fontainebleau and Youth and Love in Lunéville). The Body of Saint Cecilia Carried to the Catacombs in Rome, one of his masterpieces, was also on deposit at Lunéville but, alas, burned in the fire which destroyed the castle. Until now only Dance and The Birth of Venus, as well as a portrait of Monseigneur Thomas, represented Bouguereau at the Musée d’Orsay.

Version française

Didier Rykner, jeudi 20 mai 2010


[1] This information and other facts in this article come from the catalogue of the retrospective William Bouguereau presented at the Petit Palais in Paris in 1984.

[2] "As I beheld two shadows pale and naked,
Who, biting, in the manner ran along
That a boar does, when from the sty turned loose.
One to Capocchio came, and by the nape
Seized with its teeth his neck, so that in dragging
It made his belly grate the solid bottom.
And the Aretine, who trembling had remained,
Said to me : "That mad sprite is Gianni Schicchi,
And raving goes thus harrying other people. » Divina Commedia de Dante Alighieri, Inferno

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