Egalité devant la mort
141 x 269 cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France
Equality is Bouguereau's first major painting, produced when he was a young man of 23, after two years at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Paris. Subjected to heavy pressure from his family, the artist knew he had to succeed at any cost. As the critic Léon Plée would write later, he was then "in a hurry to make his name".
For his first submission to the Salon, Bouguereau presented this spectacular, large format painting of an angel of death covering the body of a young man with a shroud. The image would move anyone with its evocation of the inevitability of death. This sombre vision serves as a warning, as this note on a preparatory drawing demonstrates: "Equality. When the angel of death covers you with its shroud, your life will have been meaningless if you have not done some good on earth” But the equality in question is not exactly the same as that which Liberals all over Europe aspired to achieve in 1848. Bouguereau is keeping to a conservative and deeply religious idea, where equality, far from being a social or political objective, only exists in the afterlife. The painting is therefore reminding us of both Bouguereau's anxiety about the political changes of his time and his more personal doubts about his own future.
With its concise style and frieze-like structure, the painting is reminiscent of the purism of the English Neo-Classical artist John Flaxman (1755-1826). Its funereal, dramatic character also links it to the Romantics. We are reminded of the famous painting by Pierre-Paul Prud'hon (1758-1823), Justice and Divine Vengeance pursuing Crime (1808, Paris, Musée du Louvre), and more recently of work by Henry Lehmann (1814-1882), Jeremy dictating his Prophesies (1842, Angers, Musée des Beaux-Arts), featuring similarly implacable angel figures.