A Soul Brought to Heaven, 1878
dreamed that one had died in a strange place
Near no accustomed hand,
And they had nailed the boards above her face,
The peasants of that land,
Wondering to lay her in that solitude,
And raised above her mound
A cross they had made out of two bits of wood,
And planted cypress round;
And left her to the indifferent stars above
Until I carved these words:
She was more beautiful than thy first love,
But now lies under boards.
-from 'A Dream of Death'
Grief turned into Inspiration
Bouguereau was no stranger to death. Indeed it was a source of inspiration for his work, whether it was in the form of casualties from political revolution, or personal loss.
Unlike painters such as Courbet and Daumier, who were able to directly use the emotions brought on by political upheaval to generate some of their greatest works, Bouguereau's inspirations from revolution took a much different path. His service in the French National Guard in 1848 came not directly from his political beliefs, but from from his belief that art could not survive let alone flourish in a time of political shakiness. Thus, it was his duty as an artist to restore peace. But this idealism was not to last, as he got into the bitters of war.
|"Death -- a terrible word which I have heard ringing out all around me... Against whom was the fearful rumbling of these canons directed? For whom were these bullets meant? For Brethren, for other Frenchmen -- desolation! desolation! This is not just an omen -- it will end with bloody feuds in which brothers are at each other's throats... Paris, France, are we all done for? I'm afraid the -- general corruption --philosophers, socialists distorting the minds of the masses, decadence is near, signs that have always heralded the fall of the empires." -- Bouguereau|
A New Response
Bouguereau was touched deeply by the violence and bloodshed of 1848. Although he still longed for restoration of law and order in his country, his distress caused him to respond in a new way to the violence. He painted Egalité in response. From then on, he chose to not respond to the revolutions.
Surely no artistic or poetical inspiration is more profound that that of personal loss. During his life Bouguereau was not unfamiliar with this. Indeed the later 1800's was a time of high mortality rates, especially for children. The formal study of bacteria as a disease causing agent and the use of vaccinations were just coming into the scene with the work of Pasteur and Koch. Tuberculosis unrelentlessly ravaged Europe and took with it many helpless victims. Bouguereau lost his fourth-born child in 1872. His 16 year old son soon followed in 1875, which inspired him to paint his Pietà of 1876. In 1877 tragedy hit hard with the loss of his wife and infant son. Virgin of Consolation was painted in response to his grief over the loss. His beloved mother, whom he had been very close to and financially supported much of his life, left him in 1896, and yet again he lost another son, 32 years old, in 1900.
with us he's going,
'The Stolen Child'
Virgin of Consolation, 1877
Bouguereau died himself in 1905 "When the grand old man felt his last hour had come, he gathered his family around him, dictated his last will and testament, and spoke to them. Then he said, "Tell the priest to come now." To the priest he said:
"I'm going to meet my God. What shall I tell him? That I have sinned? Yes, and throughout a long life. What shall he answer?" "That he has forgiven you," replied the minister of God, "for by the tears in your eyes, I can see you have repented." "Then give your absolution to the prodigal son who has returned so late but comes back sincerely to his God. Mark on my body the sign of divine forgiveness." And proffering his trembling hands to the holy oil, he said: "I repent for the sins these hands have committed, for the world and its vanities." The priest anointed him with the holy oil, and the dying man cried out in a trembling voice, "Amen." He repeated the word as his feet were anointed, asking forgiveness for all the wrong steps they had taken, even on the path to glory. He repeated the word again, closing the eyes that had so often known visions of genius and that also had to be forgiven for looking upon sinful things. "Amen!" he cried, "Amen!"
-from The Bulletin Religieux du Diocèse
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