In William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s 1878 allegorical reproduction of Charity, the artist demonstrates the highly skilled and traditionalist style of genre painting that helped him establish himself as one of the leading painters of his time. Bouguereau’s realist paintings enunciated themes from the classical era, as well as mythological subjects and Biblical tales. He was an accepted and lauded member of the French Academy. The painting’s subject, the Christian virtue of Charity, was frequently reflected in the artist’s personal life. Despite being a member of the often-derided Academy tradition, Bourguereau used his position in the art world at the time to allow women to study at many of France’s leading art institutions, including the Academie Francaise. Although the idealised, photo-realistic world of his painting, which was popular with patrons and commissioning bodies at the time, was frequently criticised by more radical elements of society, Bourguereau’s attitude toward his — often female — subjects was one of respect and inclusion.
Charity is a painting that is both allegorical and didactic. Theological notion of charity is regarded as the highest of the virtues in Christian dogma. Charity is more related to interconnection and friendship than to ‘love,’ and it exists as an intrinsically human and lived virtue. Many theologians believe that charity is a prerequisite for happiness, but the female figure in Charity appears to be only concerned with meeting the needs of her children, as the rigidity of her form contrasts with the sprawling, eager reproductions of the children. Charity exemplifies Bourguereau’s command of the contours and anatomical expressiveness of the human body, and elegantly reflects within the subject matter his attitude toward the education of the next generation of art Academicians, regardless of gender.