William Bouguereau (1825-1905) was a French academic painter. His works comprised mostly mythological themes and modern interpretations of Classic scenes. His most famous work is of course the Birth of Venus (seen below), painted in 1979. There is a bit of nudity in this piece so please scroll very fast if you do not wish to be startled. The piece I will be discussing today is Dante and Virgil, painted in 1950 when the artist was just 25. It shows a scene from the Inferno where Capocchio, and Gianni Schicchi are fighting. The former is biting the later rather aggressively.
Having failed on two occasions to win the Prix de Rome (1848 and 1849), Bouguereau was hungry for revenge. His early submissions to the Salon reveal this fierce desire to succeed. After his ambitious Equality before Death (1849), the young man aimed to create an impression once again. He put forward an even larger painting inspired by Dante whose work was much loved by the Romantics and who captured all its dramatic beauty. This painting was inspired by a short scene from the Inferno, set in the eighth circle of Hell (the circle for falsifiers and counterfeiters), where Dante, accompanied by Virgil, watches a fight between two damned souls: Capocchio, a heretic and alchemist is attacked and bitten on the neck by Gianni Schicchi who had usurped the identity of a dead man in order to fraudulently claim his inheritance. Museé D’Orsay
Dante and Virgil can be seen in the background witnessing this horrifying scene. The theme of terribilita and horror is one to which Bouguereau would not return. But what a painting! The devil/ demon floating in the background, the anguished look of Dante and Virgil and the mound of tortured souls to the right makes for quite a frightening scene. Of course the main attraction, as it were, are the two fighters in the central foreground. The bite itself is quite beautifully executed. One can see by the exaggerated contortion of the cheek muscle and throbbing vein in the biter’s forehead that he is putting a lot of effort into this act of facial vandalism. The muscles and tendons as well as the poses themselves are exaggerated by Bouguereau to maximise the principle themes in this painting. This is the artist pushing the boundaries of the medium. Notice how the muscles are almost distorted form the strain in a most unnatural way. the interplay between shadow and light added with the mound of souls in the right background is quite startling.
Overall this was a striking piece which I could not quite take my eyes off of when I first saw it. It is masterly done and daring for someone so young. This is a testament to the talent of Bouguereau, I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.