Obelisk Art History
William-Adolphe Bouguereau

The First Mourning

The First Mourning, William-Adolphe Bouguereau
The First Mourning, zoomed in
203 cmThe First Mourning scale comparison252 cm
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The First Mourning is an Academic and Neoclassical Oil on Canvas Painting created by William-Adolphe Bouguereau in 1888. It lives at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Argentina. The image is in the Public Domain, and tagged Adam and Eve. SourceDownload

“The day came when Cain brought a gift of the fruit of the ground to the Lord. But Abel brought a gift of the first-born of his flocks and of the fat parts. The Lord showed favor to Abel and his gift. But He had no respect for Cain and his gift. So Cain became very angry and his face became sad ... And when they were in the field, Cain stood up against his brother Abel and killed him.” — Genesis 4:3-5 & 8

If you happened to grow up going to a Christian Sunday School you likely remember the story of Cain and Able. Adam and Eve, the first people created by the Hebrew god had two sons, and the older son Cain kills his brother in a fit of jealous rage. As it is often told, the story is either a blunt caution against violence, or proof that it didn't take humans long to decide to kill each other. But this painting by William-Adolphe Bouguereau reframes the parable, showing us two parents devastated by the death of a beloved son—a pain Bouguereau only too well.

In 1877, Bouguereau’s wife, Nelly Monchablon, and their infant son Maurice died of tuberculosis. The following year he painted Adam and Eve in mourning. Low clouds and somber palatte are a bleak departure from Bouguereau’s sensual, crowd pleasing academic work, and his Adam and Eve look like they will never be same. The First Mourning is a silent painting, breath caught before a rending sob.

Reed Enger, "The First Mourning," in Obelisk Art History, Published November 25, 2015; last modified May 19, 2021, http://arthistoryproject.com/artists/william-adolphe-bouguereau/the-first-mourning/.

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Bouguereau and America, Recommended Reading

Bouguereau was a one of the top dogs of the French art world, but this unique book documents how and why his work absolutely exploded in the United States (insert bougie pun here)

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