Les saintes femmes au tombeau

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) was one of the most popular and well regarded of the high Victorian school of French painting. Idealized, hyper-realist, and rich in detail, his draughtsmanship of the human form is exceptional (far better than his older contemporary Ingres, for example). He produced sentimental pictures of young women and children, and classical subjects which provided the proper excuse for sinuous nudes.

In the midst of this secular production, he also painted a smaller number of traditional Christian subjects in the same intense and colourful style. If they evoke a devotional response, it is not one of any great passion, but they are certainly gorgeous, more than merely decorative, and his Virgin Mothers are certainly stronger than most we see from the same period in our churches.

This, Les saintes femmes au tombeau, was first exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1890.

The colours are severely muted; the robes and gestures, even the stonework, show a family likeness with his classical subjects, though coarser and less delicate. If Athens is for the aristocracy, Jerusalem is for a poorer class of people.

The young man in white, only just visible in the light that comes from the tomb, is there presumably because he has to be; in terms of the painting he is largely redundant. The first and third women are well composed, but all the meaning and power of the picture is focussed in the central figure, in her face and her clasped hands.

Influenced by photography, there is an immediacy and vividness. And then what? Surely, it takes more than a facial expression to convey meaning. For all its effectiveness, there is surprisingly little depth to this depiction of the empty tomb. This is Easter day, but not the 49 other days of the Easter season.

Anthony Saville