During the last quarter of the 19th Century, every month of May would bring extensive accounts of the Salon de Paris that frequently appeared in the Buenos Aires press, written by Argentinean correspondents or translated from European newspapers, judging which works among the five thousand on exhibit were the most important. In an art culture that was often literary first and only later visual, the Salon’s grandes machines (derisive label applied to academic paintings at the time) were the object of laudatory or negative reviews that could be corroborated at times once the works themselves had actually arrived in Argentina. This was precisely the case for Bouguereau’s Premier Deuil (The First Mourning).
In a public letter to his friend Manuel Láinez—the Director of El Diario newspaper—Carlos Gorostiaga spared no praise in emphasizing that this was a painting that one could not look at without “feeling the impact of a powerful sense of grief […] everything in it is natural: light and shadow. There is not one strong color; nothing, absolutely nothing. This is undoubtedly why it overflows with naturalness, and truth floods in” (1). In this way, the “photographic” skill, veracity and immediate legibility (2) that Bouguereau sought to capture were effective on this observer, who found an “expression of life” in the sorrow the painting contained. On the opposite end of the scale, an anonymous critic from El Censor pointed out what many detractors were observing at the time with regard to academic painting, its artificial quality: “El primer luto (The First Mourning) resembles a group of mechanical figures, Adam and Eve weep over the lifeless body of Abel; they constitute a group without life, their nude bodies look more like ivory than human flesh” (3). All this led Buenos Aires’ readers to prefigure the painting on the basis of the written word; its arrival took place a few years later, and it appeared before the public in a resounding exhibition in the context of a benefit show organized with works offered by the principal local collectors. In this situation, Eduardo Schiaffino, who was not particularly fond of academic art, couldn’t help pointing out the elegant manner in which the painter had resolved the theme’s presentation: “in this beautiful group there is foreshortening, torsion and detailing in which its sculptural grace is made evident” (4).
The First Mourning was a well-loved theme during the 19th Century, since it allowed for a deployment of pained bodies in a significant drama from biblical history (5), and it was a long-term undertaking for Bouguereau. Though it was signed in 1888, he had been involved in its development since 1885, as a sketch pertaining to the Bibliothèque de l’Institut de France attests, and at that date the positions of the bodies that make up this Pietà had already been established, almost identical to the final result (6). The grande machine he exhibited, along with a Baigneuse (Bather) at the 1888 Salon, recalled the pyramidal composition utilized during the Renaissance by both Michelangelo and Raphael; in fact, the artist was frequently called the “French Raphael”. The group’s suffering is contained and staged. The greatest focus of the pain is the weeping mother’s face, but this is also veiled, unseen behind her hands. The handling of flesh tones also alludes to the classical tradition: the man is darker skinned, the woman, lighter, almost ivory-toned. The body of the dead boy is handsome, with an idealized beauty that omits any sign of the violence perpetrated by Cain. The drama is evoked only by the blood stain seen on the ground. It is one of the few spots of contrasting color in a painting dominated by earth tones. In the background, the altar with the smoking offering made by Abel, the cause of his brother’s anger, remits to the events recently transpired (Gen. 4:1-16). The smoke mixes in with the storm clouds that cover the sky, evidencing the episode’s origin and its tragic outcome.
Bouguereau sent this work along with a group of paintings he had produced over the past few years to the 1889 Exposition Universelle. Through his habitually life-size figures, each work represented a different facet of his production, such as scenes of the Virgin (L’Annonciation (The Annunciation), 1888), young women surrounded by little angels (Chansons du printemps (Songs of Spring), 1889), putti (L’amour vainqueur (Cupid Vanquished), 1886), bathers (7), biblical history (Jésus-Christ rencontre sa mère (Jesus Meets His Mother), 1888) and also large, complex mythological compositions (La jeunesse de Bacchus (The Youth of Bacchus), 1884).
At this moment, Bouguereau was one of France’s most celebrated artists (8). He also enjoyed unprecedented commercial success, which turned his case into a veritable market “phenomenon”, above all in the United States and England (9). His career was further solidified year after year at the Académie des Beaux-Arts, which was an inevitable endorsement on top of the enormous fascination his paintings produced among bourgeois buyers in both the Old and the New Worlds. These may be a few of the keys to understanding why his work became an object of desire for his Argentinean buyer, Francisco Uriburu, during the final decade of the 19th Century.María Isabel Baldasarre
1— Gorostiaga, 1888, p. 1, col. 4.
2— Cf. Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner, Romanticismo y realismo. Los mitos del arte del siglo XIX. Madrid, Hermann Blume, p. 196 and ss.
3— L., “Notas parisienses”, p. 1, col. 3.
4— Schiaffino, 1933, p. 346.
5— Cf. the entry for Barrias’ work Los primeros funerales, inv. 3652, in this catalog.
6— Every painting underwent a complex process of execution that went from initial sketches to the final painting, passing through color studies, detailed drawings of all the figures and studies of drapery, heads and hands, etc. Regarding this working process, see: Mark Steven Walker, “Bouguereau au travail” in: William Bouguereau 1825-1905, exhib. cat. Montréal, The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 1984, p. 67-82. At an auction held in 1994, a wood panel (21,6 x 27 cm) was put up for sale with a highly finished preparatory study similar to the final version. See: 19th century European paintings, drawings, watercolors and sculptures. New York, Christie’s, October 13, 1994.
7— In addition the MNBA has in its collection a bather from 1873 by Bouguereau, disguised under the mythological title La toilette de Vénus (Venus at her Toilet), inv. 2673, donated by Federico Leloir in 1932.
8— He had been a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts since 1876, President of the Salon’s painting section since 1881 and of the Société des peintres, sculpteurs, architectes et graveurs (1883-1905) and a maestro sought after by students everywhere looking to study with him, whether at the École des Beaux-Arts or in his atelier at the Académie Julian.
9— Cf. essays by Louise d’Argencourt and Robert Isaacson in: William Bouguereau, op. cit., p. 95-103 and 104-113.
1888. GOROSTIAGA, Manuel, “El Salón de París. Carta de M. Gorostiaga”, El Diario, Buenos Aires, 30 de mayo. — L., “Notas parisienses. Paseo por el Salón de 1888”, El Censor, Buenos Aires, 5 de junio.
1900. VACHON, Marius, W. Bouguereau. Paris, A. Lahure, reprod. byn.
1933. SCHIAFFINO, Eduardo, La pintura y la escultura en la Argentina. Buenos Aires, edición del autor, p. 344-346, reprod. byn p. 345.
2006. BALDASARRE, María Isabel, Los dueños del arte. Coleccionismo y consumo cultural en Buenos Aires. Buenos Aires, Edhasa, p. 152-153, 155, reprod. color nº 54.