As the world responds to the growing concern about the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, commonly known as the novel coronavirus, I am led to question my own understanding of compassion.
What is compassion? What does it mean to care directly or indirectly for those who suffer? During our current times, the significance of this question cannot be overstated. I look to art for insights.
A Mourning Artist
William Bouguereau, a French academic painter, was one of the most gifted artists of the 19th century. He was also resolute in his desire to be good at his craft. In his early career, he spent long spans of time attempting to master the complexities of color and form, and in 1876, after 12 failed attempts, he was elected to the French Institute’s prestigious Académie des Beaux-Arts.
Bouguereau’s hard work and determination paid off for him: He often won competitions at salon and international exhibitions. He was elected president of several different organizations, including first president of the Society of French Artists, the benevolent association founded by Baron Taylor to help less-fortunate artists, and the alumni association of the college in Pons.
Despite his many successes, however, Bouguereau also endured many hardships. He had five children with his first wife, and four of them died from illnesses. Even his wife died, soon after giving birth to their fifth child.
In the book titled “William Bouguereau: His Life and Works,” authors Damien Bartoli and Fred Ross suggest that Bouguereau dealt with these hardships by “[re-immersing] himself in his art, his only effective palliative against grief.”
‘The First Mourning’
Bouguereau poured his pain and grief into his art, expressed by way of his pencil and brush. His sketchbook became a diary made by way of images. One of these images later became “The First Mourning.”
“The image is truly heart wrenching, causing the viewer to feel a great sense of compassion for the grieving couple. … “First Mourning” was painted directly after the death of [Bouguereau’s] second son. This piece is well titled because [for Judeo-Christians], it is the first time a human has had to suffer the loss of a loved one.”
“The First Mourning” depicts the moment in which Adam and Eve find the lifeless body of their son Abel, who was slain by his brother Cain over a sacrifice. Bouguereau organized the composition like a classical “pietà”—an Italian word that translates to “compassion” or “pity.” Figures are organized within a triangle—the most stable compositional structure—and a figure sits with another figure sprawled across the seated figure’s lap. This way of organizing a pietà is clearly seen as far back as the High Renaissance with Michelangelo’s famous sculpture.
There is tension, however, between the triangular composition and the emotion displayed by the figures. The contortion of Abel’s body also adds to this tension. Arranging the figures in this way has allowed Bouguereau to create a sense of movement within the stable, triangular composition. We are meant to recognize the solemn nature of the event through the triangle but feel the pain of the event through Bouguereau’s masterful depiction of human emotion through body language.
Bouguereau also muted the colors, neutralizing their intensity. The gray smoke from the sacrificial altar in the right side of the background appears to fill and dominate the entire sky, and even envelopes the figures. The background and the use of subdued colors reinforces the solemnity of the event.
Compassion for Suffering
This painting makes me feel the pain of Adam and Eve, the pain that comes with losing a loved one. In this sense, Bouguereau has accomplished, at least for me, the task of a pietà: compassion. I feel compassion for the suffering Adam and Eve endured and the great losses Bouguereau experienced.
Through composition, subdued color, and human emotion, Bouguereau has created a mood that is haunting because of the pain it depicts, a pain that has been universally experienced from the beginning of human history.
So what is compassion? It may not be something that can be completely described in words, so I have no absolute answer to this question. I think that part of its nature is a willingness to consider others, to put oneself in another’s shoes, and to act in such a way as to cause as little harm as possible. Why? People are already suffering. Everyone is suffering. There is no reason to add more suffering to the world due to a lack of consideration.
It’s easy to look at someone else’s successes and come to the determination that they need less compassion. If we only look at Bouguereau’s artistic successes, for example, we’d miss the fact that he suffered greatly from the deaths of four of his children and his first wife. If we remain open-minded, we might also determine that his suffering didn’t stop there.
This painting reminds me that suffering isn’t a competition. Life isn’t a contest about who suffers more. No one wants to suffer, yet everyone does. Suffering is real, and everyone who suffers—irrespective of their social class, economic class, gender, race, and so on—is deserving of consideration and compassion.
As I navigate this period of the CCP virus pandemic, I am reminded to consider others. Some of us are not sick or in need, but some are. Unnecessarily traveling and panic-buying is putting others at risk. I need to be able to take care of myself and my family during these trying times, but I also need to consider that others need to do the same.
The Epoch Times refers to the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, as the CCP virus because the Chinese Communist Party’s coverup and mismanagement allowed the virus to spread throughout China and create a global pandemic.
Art has an incredible ability to point to what can’t be seen so that we may ask “What does this mean for me and for everyone who sees it?” “How has it influenced the past and how might it influence the future?” “What does it suggest about the human experience?” These are some of the questions we explore in our series Reaching Within: What Traditional Art Offers the Heart.
Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist. He is currently a doctoral student at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).