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The Virgin as a Comforter

The Virgin as Comforter

William Bouguereau (1825-1905). Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain. Strasbourg. 1877.

Adolphe William Bouguereau was born in 1825 in La Rochelle, a port town of western France. His grandfather was a professor of English and hence might come his second name. Around 1832 William was sent to his uncle Eugène Bouguereau, a priest in Mortagne of the Gironde region around Bordeaux. This uncle introduced William to the Bible and to classical literature. In 1841 Bouguereau’s family moved to Bordeaux and William learned to paint there, in the classes of Jean-Paul Alaux. In 1846 he was admitted to the Academy of Fine Arts in Paris. He entered the contests to obtain the ‘Prix de Rome’ and he won that price, but only at his third attempt. This allowed his a long stay in Rome. Afterwards, Bouguereau returned to Bordeaux, then to La Rochelle again, finally to Paris. He had great success in Paris and paintings of his were bought by Emperor Napoleon III, which gave him instant fame. He painted oil paintings and decorated official buildings and private palaces in Paris. When the French-German war broke out in 1870, he enlisted in the army and served as a soldier to defend Paris. In 1872 he became a teacher at the Académie Julian. In 1875 his son Georges, aged sixteen only, became sick and died. His girl, Jeanne, had already died in 1866. At the end of his life, William Bouguereau had to see four of his five children pass away, as well as his wife Nelly, who died in 1877. Bouguereau also became a member of the Academy of Fine Arts in Paris and taught there. He wished to re-marry one of his students, the American painter Elisabeth Jane Gardner, but his daughter and mother were opposed to the marriage so that he only married Elisabeth in 1896, when he was seventy-one years old. By then Bouguereau was one of the most famous Academicians of Paris. He died in his hometown of La Rochelle in 1905.

Bouguereau was the ultimate representative of French academicist painting. He represented tradition and ideas that were attacked aggressively by every innovative painter of France from the Impressionists to painters of all subsequent styles. Yet, William Bouguereau made wonderful pictures. The ‘Virgin as a Comforter’ was made after the death of his son George and after or close to the death of his wife Nelly. Bouguereau was struck with grief and made two paintings whose compositions resembled each other much, this ‘Virgin as a Comforter’ and a Pietà.

The ‘Virgin as a Comforter’ is a string, surprising image. We see the Virgin sitting on a throne. A grieving woman lies over her knees and the body of a dead child is at the feet of the Virgin. The Virgin is straight, stern and formidable. She sits on a throne and is an impassible, imperturbable, lonely figure. She sits in a trance, with open eyes but a look that goes into the far. She addresses the forces of the universe and concentrates these onto the woman that claims her help. However, she does not touch the woman and does not reach out for the child. She sits like a god herself. She is not the compassionate and protecting mother that holds the sad woman and touches or supports her physically in solace. She is a God of Antiquity, a female Zeus, and a Sphinx. She does not really comfort. She commands or calls the forces that will not send back a soul and life into the child, but that will merely direct its soul to bliss in the heavens. The woman may have asked for this saving of the soul of the child, but she wants her child back; the Virgin will not grant that wish and she cannot grant that wish: she has not the power.

William Bouguereau did not draw the Virgin as the Comforter. She looks like fate, like the silent figure that can be addressed but that will not answer. She take sin the sadness of tragedies, any sadness of any human, but she remains in her own realm the eternally silent, the eternally wise, but the eternally impassible. What is the sense of praying to a sphinx? The vision of Bouguereau is almost un-religious and almost a silent blame filled with bitterness for the silent God that does not intervene, does not answer, does not comfort. Comfort is only in the mind of the humble, afflicted human that addresses the sphinx. The title given by Bouguereau is thus a terrible irony and a bitter complaint against the non-intervention of God in earthly matters. If this God is so powerful, why does he or she not help the mother and the dead child, why does God allow so much suffering, what is the meaning of the silence? The comfort seems not to be in the act of any figure of the Bible, not with the Virgin or with acts of the Saints, but merely in the act of the human seeking of comfort. But if comfort is only in the act of the human, and if the God does not intervene, why is there need for seeking comfort with a God? Was the God then invented by humans only to serve as this ever-silent mind-image and pillar of lamentations? William Bouguereau probably also asked these hardest questions of any Christian and religious believer while working on his painting.

To support the stern image of the Virgin, William Bouguereau used old style elements. He emphasised the vertical lines and horizontal lines in a rigid structure. The sides of the throne are high and are in cold marble. In the marble we see sculpted flowers, which remind of the white irises that were always a symbol of the purity of the virgin. In wood, sculpture like this would remind of the Empire style of furniture and add to the image of supreme command. Bouguereau painted behind the virgin a vividly coloured curtain with blue motives, traditionally a colour symbolic for the heavens and also one of the colours associated with the Virgin. The colours are furthermore with golden threads of majesty. To indicate how ancient the image of the Goddess could be, Bouguereau groped back to Gothic style elements. The emphasis on verticals itself is Gothic, and in those times painters often depicted the Madonna against a curtain adorned with flowers. The flowers were usually red roses then, but the colour red would have been too warm for the cold, impassible image that Bouguereau wanted to create for his version of the Virgin. Behind and above the Virgin also is a large cross studded with precious stones. The cross is only a pattern of the tapestry, but the gems are a very ancient symbol. They were the blue and red square and round diamonds that were shown from Byzantine to Gothic times on the crown of the Virgin. These stones once represented the heavenly stones with which shone the walls of Jerusalem. We find these patterns in many old pictures of the Madonna, from the first times of fresco paintings on. Finally, Bouguereau painted a halo of gold, which built a fiery sun of light around the face of Mary. This golden halo draws the Virgin’s face into the first attention of the viewer. The black hood of the Virgin hides her hair, making her face the more strict and unworldly. The hiding of the hair is likewise an old symbol of purity and distance, new continued in the Muslim shawl drawn over the head of women. The viewer sees only a face with rather long features. Yet, the traits of the virgin are soft. She has an enigmatic face that is between utter, unyielding strictness and soft female beauty. It remained a young face, but is not the face of youth. The Virgin is determined, looks upwards to appeal to god, and yet inspires only coldness and absence. The Virgin also holds her hands to the high, in a gesture of calling to God. Her hands are thus around her face, supporting it also in the picture and adding to the vertical directions in the structure of the picture.

The mother lies in grief over the knees of the virgin. The Virgin does not touch her, as any human would have done surely. Bouguereau tells that this Virgin is a statue, alive but un-involved and non-committed. He plied the mother around the knees of the Virgin because she holds her arms downward and links her fingers in the gesture of a prayer. William Bouguereau contrasted sharply the dark blue and the red colours of the Virgin and the woman’s robe with the white nakedness of the mother’s arms and the whiteness of the dead child. Bouguereau also gave no headdress to the mother, so that her hair flows more humanly around her shoulders. Just the Virgin and the mother would have been enough to make a striking picture of grief that would have reminded of the epic picture of Zeus and Thetis of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. Bouguereau however added a gruesome image of death to the painting. He showed the dead boy lying white and with outspread arms and legs at the feet of the statue. Here we see the marble, hard and very cold steps of the throne and the inscription in Latin, ‘Mater Afflictorum’ or ‘Mother comforting’. The child however is therefore lying as the image of a sacrifice to a God, lying on the stairs of a temple. A few white carnations, once again symbols of purity lie around the boy, lined with the delicate red hues of blood. Without the corpse of the child, we might have seen the Virgin as an afflicted person, interceding to God, helping the grieving mother. With the image of the dead child, the horror of death strikes the viewer more immediately, crudely and cruelly. One understands the less the seemingly impassiveness of the Virgin on her throne. She leaves the mother alone with her earthly grief. She does not touch mother or child. She has seen and known such grief so many times before, that the only thing she can do and really cares for to do is to call to God to ensure the spiritual fate of the child. The mother remains alone with her grief. She finds solace in her own gesture to pray to the Virgin, but the sorrowful image of the dead, cold son will irremediably stay. The mother is thus caught between two cold figures of death. There is no consolation.

Adolphe William Bouguereau painted a terrible picture. It is hard to love or feel sympathy for his scene and its figures. The ‘Virgin as a Comforter’ is of course a very striking painting in its implacable coldness. One would like to feel pity for the mother, butt he image of the dead child repulses. The Goddess holds no pity and seems to care only for her spiritual task. In that, she offers the mother the only solace that could be brought according to the natural order of life. The mother could have expected and desired the child to live again, but the Virgin can not realise that. The Virgin therefore has to stay the enigmatic and distant figure, but in her silence one senses also her helplessness. After all, she has no power. She can only appeal to god and God and this of course is the great absent from Bouguereau’s picture.

For decades of the twentieth century, paintings like this ‘The Virgin as a Comforter’ of Bouguereau have been sacrificed as easy academicism by critics and newer painters devoted to the abstract avant-garde art and to the newer figuration. William Bouguereau’s painting however is worth of respect if only for the circumstances during which he made it, after the death of his son. His painting is indeed in the line of Neo-Classicist Academicism. It has therefore all the great qualities of a masterpiece. Bouguereau brought old symbols in a modern presentation and he dared to make a deranging picture that evokes very powerful emotions of pity, and accusation. Bouguereau was a master of composition and of the judicious application of contrasts of colours. He was a rather sentimental man who made many sweet portraits of children, of small girls. He was also capable of strong emotions such as shown in the ‘Virgin as a Comforter’. Bouguereau therefore was a great master, who should be thus respected.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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