William Bouguereau, Dante and Virgil, 1850
Happy Halloween! I've already written about Botticelli's depiction of Dante's Hell, but the story isn't why I wanted to discuss this painting. I just thought it was creepy, with its vampiric and demonic elements. William Bouguereau (1825-1905) is mostly known for his traditional paintings of classical themes––nude women, cherubs, mythic scenes, nymphs––that are quite well done and generally pleasant and agreeable. This painting demonstrates that he also had a talent for high drama. The scene is based on a minor episode from Inferno where Dante and Virgil witness a fight between two damned souls, and one gets bitten on the neck. Bouguereau interpreted the incident with this extremely sexual, homoerotic cast. Bouguereau's skill is evident, showing great realism in the contortion of the men's muscles, and he uses vivid color and excellent shading throughout the canvas. The image of the attacker as a vampire is difficult to ignore; even his ravenous eyes and burning red hair contribute to that impression. The overall creepiness is enhanced by the pile of bodies engaged in orgiastic suffering on the right and the demon leering above the whole scene.
I saw this painting in a fascinating exhibition at Musée d'Orsay entitle Angel of the Bizarre: Dark Romanticism from Goya to Max Ernst. The exhibition explored the romantic fascination with the dark and gothic over the course of about a century in a half. Among the other pieces included there were Henri Fuseli's The Nightmare (1781) and Sin Pursued by Death (1797), Edvard Munch's Vampire (1895), Francisco Goya's Witches' Flight (1798), Louis Boulanger's Les Fantômes (1829), Franz Stuck's La Péché (1893), Serafino Macchiati's The Visionary (1904), Gustave Moreau's Victim (which was quite unsettling in situ), and Carlos Schwabe's Death of the Gravedigger (1895). It was a fantastic exhibition and had so many perfect Halloween paintings that I couldn't resist sharing them.