When I have a free afternoon, I love to go visit “old friends” at the Minneapolis Institute of Art: paintings or sculpture that I have shown to students and community members on tours over the years and some that have offered gifts of personal spiritual insight.
One of my dearest old friends is “Temptation” (1880) by William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905). Bouguereau is considered one of the great 19th-century French painters in the classical school and known for his opposition to impressionism. He himself was a one-time seminarian, and many of his sacred works are still used for holy cards and other Catholic publishing, especially “Innocence” (1893), “Song of the Angels” (1881), and “Queen of Angels” (1900), though a greater part of his work depicts classical and mythical subjects with female nudes, or pastoral scenes of children in regional costume.
In “Temptation,” the meaning is more ambiguous and draws in the viewer. It has an everyday subject of – presumably – a mother and child and shows off Bouguereau’s skill both in scenic background and the subtle lighting of the figures’ faces. With the looming woods behind them, it has a strong chiaroscuro (light and dark contrast) effect and, when viewed in person, the painting glows and shimmers, particularly in the water’s reflective light on the woman’s face.
Remarkably for Bouguereau, the two subjects are facing each other; what is happening between them? The title, “Temptation,” along with the apple in the woman’s hands, draws our reflection back to the Garden of Eden. Could this be a mother telling her daughter the story of the Fall?
And yet, if we look closely at the woman and the girl, we see that they have matching burgundy velvet ribbons and similar hairstyles. It seems more likely that they are, in fact, the same woman, caught in a moral quandary, or are a symbolic contrast between naked Innocence in direct light and covered Experience in shadowed half-light.
As Catholics we are taught to reckon with the chiaroscuro in our own lives. Psalm 116:6 says, “The Lord protects the simple; I was helpless, but he saved me” (NABRE). This is why Christ came: to save and to heal; to sweep clean the dark infested corners of our lives. To expose sin as a shabby substitute for true charity and trust in our Maker. Through the tangible reality of the sacraments, we are invited again (and again) to acknowledge our helplessness and receive salvation.
So, imagine with me what might happen if this woman turned toward the light over her right shoulder, to see its source, as pure Innocence can see from her point of view. To expose Experience’s face to the cleansing light and so be healed and transformed into light. Perhaps she would set down the apple and take Innocence up into her arms, walking out of the dark woods and into the sunlit meadow beyond.
This story is featured in the fall-winter 2022 issue of Lumen.