Bouguereau’s Angels

Organist Randolph Nichols writes here from time to time on the works of painters inspired by music:

We’ve seen the image countless times on Christmas cards, parish bulletin covers and even coffee mugs, but scarcely give a thought to where, when and by whom it was painted.

Song of the Angels, an oil on canvas measuring 60 x 84 inches, was painted in 1881 by the French artist William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905), an artist who exemplifies, as perhaps no other, how sudden change in fashion can mar a seemingly unassailable reputation. He was as well-known and financially successful in the nineteenth-century as Pablo Picasso in the twentieth. Showered with official acclaim, popular with the art-buying public (especially American millionaires), he was also a highly regarded teacher. But towards the end of his life academic painting, i.e., the neoclassicist rendering of mythical and religious tableaux in which he excelled, fell out of favor. Bouguereau’s reputation ebbed and the artist was considered by many as nothing more than a huckster aiming to please the gullible middle-brow. Such an assessment, however, could not be sustained because Bouguereau, though indeed old-school and at odds with his now famous avant-garde peers, was a brilliantly talented draughtsman and manipulator of paint.

After its debut in France Song of the Angels came directly to the United States and years later (1940) was acquired by businessman and art collector Hubert Eaton to grace a private chapel of his business enterprise, Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. (The painting now resides in the Museum at Forest Lawn, framed by the liturgical enclosure that had held it in the chapel.)

Sentimental, yes, but a masterful composition: a mother and child sleep in a wooded setting while a trio of hovering musician angels offer strains of a lullaby left to the viewer’s imagination. The work demonstrates the artist’s uncanny skill at rendering realistic flesh tones and subtle gradations of white, the latter with a luminance more often associated with watercolor. Color and form lead the viewer’s eye from face to face, hand to foot in a life-like yet supernatural scene. You perhaps may not initially notice that the angels and Madonna are modeled on the same face, thought to be that of the artist’s wife Nelly who had passed away four years before this painting was finished (as had their 9-month-old son). This quiet scene therefore is most likely Bouguereau’s lasting tribute to his departed loved ones.

Where Angels Fear to Tread

As someone who produces art intended for the liturgical use of the Catholic Church, I can testify to the fact that it is a very intimidating ambition.

As Catholics, basically, we’ve already won the art contest. Any historical survey of visual or musical art makes it perfectly clear that the Church is peerless. In order to maintain “top chef” status, the Church in its art simply has to basically not ruin its own reputation.

It is worth asking whether we are currently meeting the standards that have been set over the two millennia. How is our drawing in the churches, for example? How is our sculpture? Do our churches show a concern for proportion and shape? How are we doing with verbal art, in hymnody?

And of course, how is our music?

My sense is that we’ve lost a dimension or two over the last century. For a thousand years, the visual quest involved depth: portraying the third dimension as a way for the viewer to enter into the frame.

Often enough now, and disappointingly, this third dimension is missing from liturgical visual arts. We’ve gone from paintings, which invite the viewer in, to flat cartoons.

Music, uniquely capable of providing a fourth dimension and an artistic representation of life in time, has similarly lost richness and joy. Too often, liturgical music is merely serviceable, barely imaginative, and almost entirely a matter of patching things through from one cadence to the next.

My purpose here is not to cast blame but to suggest that our devotion to God should involve the highest aspirations possible, particularly in our art, which, when excellent, has the power to make one Christian’s devotion accessible to another.

What does the present look like–and what would we like the future to bring?