William Bouguereau
Compassion!

Compassion!
William Bouguereau (1825-1905)
Compassion!
1897
Oil on Canvas
H. 280; W. 130 cm
© Musée d'Orsay, dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt

Compassion!


Bouguereau was particularly proud of his painting Compassion! He presented it twice: firstly at the Salon des Artistes français in 1897, and then at the 1900 Universal Exhibition.
Freed from the constraints of a commission and specially produced for the Salon, this work reveals Bouguereau’s consummate mastery. Everything in this masterpiece (in the somewhat artisanal sense of the word) indicates his faith in academic values: a choice of subject that conforms to the hierarchy of the genres (in which history painting and religious painting are at the top), a monumental format magnifying the scene, and perfect draughtsmanship and painting skills.

The painting is much more than just another Christ on the cross. In fact, Bouguereau called it Compassion! to underline the tragic dimension of this episode which is not based directly on any passage in the Gospels. The dramatic nature of the work breathes new life into a secular subject without falling into the exaggerated suffering seen in paintings by artists such as Nikolaï Gay (The Calvary Paris, Musée d'Orsay).

Finally, one might even see in this painting the reflection of a painful obsession with death. We should remember that Bouguereau in fact had many occasions to mourn: he had buried three of his children (he would lose a fourth in 1900) as well as his wife, Nelly.




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