“The Virgin with Angels” – Story Behind the Painting
The cover image on our Christmas edition is titled “The Virgin with Angels” and was painted in 1900 by the French realist painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905). It is currently displayed in the Petit Palais in Paris.
Bouguereau’s body of work is diverse and mostly secular, but he produced a number of paintings of the Virgin Mary.
His “The Madonna of the Lilies”, painted in 1899, depicts the Virgin with the baby Jesus. Here the Mother of God is a younger version of the Mary in his “Pieta” of 1876. In both artworks the Blessed Mother is holding her Son: she holds him at the beginning of his earthly life, and she holds him again at the end of it.
Bouguereau—who once began studies for the priesthood — produced two paintings of the Virgin with angels. In 1881 he produced a life-size painting of angels serenading the sleeping Jesus in the arms of the young Mary.
The painting featured on our cover depicts the Virgin Mary holding her baby while seated on the throne as angels admire and praise the newborn Son of God with incense.
The focus is on Our Lady—the same face as that in “The Madonna of the Lilies”“ — and her infant. But the painter gave each of the angels surrounding them their own character.
The angels are wearing white gowns with golden trimmings, but, the Virgin wears a black gown, foreshadowing the grief that awaits her.
The baby is depicted naked to show that the Incarnation was indeed fully human. His hands are raised and spread out to reach all people who are willing to embrace him and his message; the right hand displays a sign of peace.
The Virgin sits on a throne, a crown of stars above her. She is the Queen of Heaven.
The angels are depicted with wings to symbolise their supernatural powers, but neither the Virgin nor Jesus have wings because they are ordinary human beings.
Still, all the angels are either kneeling or standing around her throne and burn incense as a sign of their veneration and submission.
Bouguereau’s message was to depict the holiness and purity of the Virgin and her baby, and the recognition they have among angels and other heavenly beings.
Hugely popular with the people, Bouguereau’s art was dismissed by the critics of his time, when the Impressionists were coming into fashion, for its supposed sentimentality and “social conservatism”.
For many decades it was controversial in art circles to admire Bouguereau, with his rehabilitation starting only in the 1980s.
Yet, Impressionist giants Monet and Degas both believed Bouguereau would be considered the greatest 19th-century artist.