It comes as no surprise that Bouguereau should choose the subject of Charity, probably the most emphasized of all virtues in Christianity, Judaisim - Tzedakah - as well as in Islam - Zakat -, for one of the pieces he submitted to the Exposition Universelle of 1878. Although a great challange, if successful, with La Charité he would not only have proven his mastery over compositional challenges but also would have demonstrated his skill as a great draughtsman. Superfluous to say, at the Exposition Universelle of 1878, Bouguereau, at the zenith of his artistic career, would not only be granted the honor of hanging his paintings in the first room, salle Bouguereau (fig. 1), he would also win the medal of Honor for his achievement.
The Western civilization envisioned Charity as an embodiment of both a love for God, amor dei, and a love for one's neighbor, amor proximi. Visually depicting and interpreting the latter was a far simpler task for the artist than the former. For example, in Gothic art , Charity is portrayed through the six works of mercy - tending the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the prisoner. Later on, these six acts of mercy were represented through one symbol, that of clothing the naked. The love of God was only to be introduced to the composition by the late 13th Century. For centuries to follow, the greatest structural challenge for an artist in depicting Charity remained in establishing a balance between these two elements of love.
In 1859, when he was only 29 years old, Bouguereau depicted the subject of Charity for the first time in his career (fig. 2). The end result was a beautifully painted, yet a simple, three-figure composition, which essentially suffered in portraying Charity as a refinement of goodness and selflessness. In 1874 at the request of Samuel P. Avery, Bouguereau painted a second version of La Charité for the American Collector A.W. Hart, which is currently lost (fig. 3). By 1874, Samuel Avery had been active for over a decade as an art advisor to many American buyers in Paris, most importantly to William T. Walters of Baltimore and to William H. Vanderbilt of New York. What we do know about La Charité of 1874 is that Bouguereau and Avery had a disagreement over the price of 32,000 francs. Preparatory drawings for La Charité of 1874 reveal that Bouguereau did indeed have a much larger composition in mind - he wanted five children and not two (fig. 4) - but disagreements on the sale price withheld him from painting the ambitious project he had in mind. It was not usual for an artist to depict Charity with less than three children, for both the public and the academic vocabulary would tend to interpret such a structure as a traditional Madonna and Child with St. John the Baptist composition. The end effect of Bouguereau's 1874 version is very much that of a strong, yet pensive mother with two sleeping children in her lap. Although this figure provides protection and hospice for the two children it is difficult to imagine her as anything more than a young mother and a metaphor for The Virgin Mary.
Bouguereau embarked on preparations for the Exhibition Universelle in 1877. Of the four paintings he submitted to the Exposition, one was the present painting, La Charité, which he had previously worked on in two occasions, once in 1859 and once in 1874. Bouguereau's achivement in painting depends very much on the placid elegance of his contour, on the smoothness and polish of his style and on our satisfaction of the beauty of his form. Yet, in his art there is no space for the instantaneous, the unplanned and the instinctive.
It only makes sense that Bouguereau, who was at the peak of his career in the late 1870's, would have wanted to impress the Jury of the Exposition Universelle. He returned to a theme that allowed him to excel in constructing a multi-figured composition. The end result, La Charité, a perfect balance of color and structure won him a medal of Honor at the 1878 Exposition Universelle.
In his preparatory drawings for La Charité of 1878 (fig. 5) Bouguereau added anywhere from one to four infants to his second composition of 1874. Yet it soon became clear to him that it was the figure of Charity and not the children that would most successfully personify the virtue itself. The figure of Charity needed to appear safe, act calm, sit gracefully and reflect a sense of control yet project warmth, love, and purity. The most prominent difference between his 1874 version and La Charité of 1878 is in his depiction of the female figure. In real life his choice of the model also differed from the earlier versions - in La Charité, of 1878, Bouguereau employed Augustine, one of his favorite models, to represent Charity. A head study for La Charité was sold at Christie's New York on 19 May 1987 as lot 41A (fig. 6). Augustine was also the model for important paintings such as La nymphée, Les joies d'une mére and fameux Promenade à âne. Bouguereau abandoned the seated contraposto position, which he utilized in the 1874 version and painted Augustine sitting firmly with an upright posture, almost resembling a solid castle, a true refuge for the needy, 'subject to no change, no chance, no caprice.' (E. Strahan, The Art Treasures of America, Philadelphia, 1879, vol. II, p. 30.)
Bouguereau also introduced a much greater and refined symbolism in the 1878 version. In the Middle Ages the opposing vice to Charity was Avarice, frequently depicted with moneybags or a purse. In the present painting Bouguereau placed a large, tipped-over container pouring with gold coins prominently under Charity's left foot, hence, symbolizing her victory over Avarice. Yet another opposing vice of Charity, in 14th Century Italy, was Cruelty - Crudelitas, usually depicted as a person chasing a child. In Bouguereau's La Charité of 1878 an indirect referral to Cruelty is made through the child at the bottom right in fetal position leaning against Charity's left leg. He is the only figure who stares out of the picture into the viewer's realm. This figure in particular emphasizes the level of protection provided by Charity - he has found safety and protection. The child to the right of Charity is caught reading the Evangelium, the gospel, while leaning against two volumes of books, possibly the Old and the New Testaments. Yet, a far more prominent and ingenious referral to the love of God is established through the brilliant golden sunrays that light up the sleeping blond child in Charity's left arm. Here, Bouguereau finds the perfect balance between quoting the traditional aesthetics of the Renaissance Madonna and Child compositions and preserving the identity of his subject, La Charité.
Joseph Drexel purchased La Charité in 1878, which coincidentally, was two years after his retirement from the world of finance and banking. He had been spending increasingly more time directing the Philharmonic Orchestra of New York, acting as a trustee of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, collecting an extensive library of music, as well as collecting paintings by masters such as Jean-Léon Gérôme, Canaletto, Caravaggio and Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot. He has also been noted in many biograophical sources as a man of great charity himself. He is known to have worked on the promotion of sanitation studies, as well as on the relief of the poor, the sick and the imprisoned. Hence, it would be fitting to assume that Bouguereau's La Chartié would have been the jewel in the crown of Joseph Drexel's collection.
This work will be included in the upcoming Bouguereau catalogue raisonné currently being prepared by Damien Bartoli with the assistance of Frederick Ross, the Bouguereau Committee and the American Society of Classical Realism.
Plan of the Fine Arts rooms at the Exposition Universelle of 1878
William Bouguereau, Charity, 1859.
University of Michigan Museum of Art.
Bequest of Henry C. Lewis, 1895-96.
William Bouguereau, Charity, 1874 (Current location unknown).
William Bouguereau, Pencil study for Charity, 1874.
William Bouguereau, Pencil study for La Charite, circa 1877.
William Bouguereau, Study for La Charité, circa 1877.