My blog today looks at another of Bouguereau’s great history paintings. This is one of his religious works and has all the ferocity of his painting Dante and Virgil, which I featured in my last blog. Whether you are a lover of religious historic paintings or not, I defy you to be unmoved by the beauty of this work. Bouguereau was a devout catholic and looked upon his religious paintings as a form of his worship of both God and mankind. Bouguereau’s religious belief can be plainly seen in his religious works. The painting I am featuring today is entitled The Flagellation of Christ, which he completed in 1880. Before I discuss the painting let me tell you a little about his life.
Adolphe-William Bouguereau was born in the French Atlantic coastal town of La Rochelle in November 1825. His father was Theodore Bouguereau, a seller of wine and olive oil. His father struggled to make much money from his business and because of the financial hardship and family tensions William was sent to live with his uncle Eugène Bouguereau, who was curate in the town of Montagne, some twenty kilometres from Bordeaux. This enforced move to his uncles was to prove highly fortuitous for the young boy as it was his uncle who introduced him to the world of Roman and Greek mythology and had him read the stories from the Old and New Testaments. At the age of thirteen, William’s uncle arranged for him to attend the high school at Pons where he attended his first drawing classes under the guidance of Louis Sage, a young classical painter who had once studied under Ingres. He remained at the school for three years. In 1841, he eventually moved to Bordeaux where his father had set up his business and once again William was with his family. William joined in his father’s business but at the same time, in 1842, he was allowed to enrol on a two-year part-time course at the city’s École Municipale de Dessin et de Peinture. Here he studied under Jean-Paul Alaux, the French landscape painter and lithographer. He could not attend full-time because of his promise to help his father during the day, and so, he only attended art classes in the early morning and in the late evening. Despite being a part-time student he excelled in what he did and in 1844 he won first prize for the best History painting with his depiction of Saint Roch. Following this award William Bouguerau realised that his future was indelibly tied to art. To earn some money for himself he designed lithographic labels for jars of jams and other preserves.
Bouguereau realised that to progress with his art he needed to be in Paris which was, at that time, considered the capital of the art world. However to live in the French capital required money, a commodity he lacked. His father’s business was not successful enough for him to give his son the money but fortunately for William, his uncle Eugène, the curate, once again proved to be his salvation. He arranged for William to paint portraits of his parishioners for a fixed fee and after months of portraiture he had amassed nine hundred francs. A similar sum was given to him by his aunt and he was all set to head to Paris.
In my third and final blog about Bouguereau I will finish his life story but for today I want to focus on another of his great History paintings, his religious work entitled The Flagellation of Christ. He exhibited this work at the 1880 Paris Salon. It is a monumental work measuring 390 x 210 cms (almost 13ft high and 7ft wide). One can easily imagine how it stood out from all the other works on show at the exhibition. This is acknowledged as being one of Bouguereau’s greatest religious works. In this painting, Bouguereau has depicted Christ, tied to a column. Christ’s body hangs down almost lifelessly with his feet dragging on the ground. His head droops backwards. His eyes are blank and unfocused. He is utterly powerless. He can do little to stop the ferocious onslaught. Unlike Bouguereau’s painting Dante and Virgil which I featured in the last blog, he has made no attempt to exaggerate the musculature in his portrayal of Christ’s body. The body of Christ is that of a normal human being. It is just like ours and in doing this Bouguereau has allowed us more easily to empathise with Christ’s suffering and pain.
We see Christ’s tormentors, two men, who stand on either side of him, arms raised in mid swing with their knotted rope whips airborne. In the right foreground we see a third man kneeling. He is in the process of tying up birch branches which will be used later to flagellate their prisoner. Look at his facial expression. It is one of concern. It appears that maybe he is not convinced that what he sees before him is justified. It is if he is beginning to question his part in the flogging. In the background an inquisitive crowd gather to witness the flogging. This is not a leering and jeering crowd we have seen in many of the crowd scenes in Northern Renaissance works. This group of people cannot be likened to the snarling mob we have seen in earlier Passion of Christ depictions.
An old man in the crowd, maybe the father, lifts a baby aloft for him or her to get a better view. There is little sign of compassion on the faces of the crowd. Maybe they have accepted the charges that have been laid against Christ and feel that he needed to be punished. However there is one exception.
Look closely at the far left of the background. We see a young boy in a long green tunic who has turned away in horror of what is happening and has burrowed his head in the clothing of the woman who has wrapped her arm around him in a comforting gesture. Maybe it is his mother. Maybe she is horrified by what her young son has witnessed and is trying belatedly to protect him. In the mid-background, there is a man wearing a white vest and grey headband. He grips a sheath of birch branches and is readying himself to take part in the flogging. There are a number of examples where the artist has decided to insert his own image into a work and Bouguereau has done the same in this painting.
Look at the face in the background to the right of the man wearing the white top and head band. There, gazing between the spectators is a man with red hair and a red beard. His brow is furrowed signifying his unease of what he sees before him. This is believed to be the face of the artist himself. He, like us, looks on at the terrible scene.
The size of the work almost certainly precluded the sale of it to a private individual and in 1881 Bouguereau gave it to the Society of Friends of the Arts in his home town of La Rochelle. This majestic work can now be found at the Baptistery of La Rochelle Cathedral, France.
Bouguereau never lost his love of Greek and Roman mythology which he had been brought up on from early age by his uncle Eugène. As I said earlier, Bouguereau was a very religious man and religious imagery was a persistent theme in his paintings. Often his religious works focused on sad and moving events and it is believed they mirrored the anguish and suffering he endured with the loss of loved ones in his own life, which I will talk about next time.