We would like to thank Damien Bartoli for kindly contributing to this catalogue note. This painting will be included in the forthcoming Bouguereau catalogue raisonné being prepared by Damien Bartoli with the assistance of Fred Ross, the Bouguereau Committee, and the Art Renewal Center, www.artrenewal.org.
Bouguereau was 35 years old when he submitted La Première Discorde to the Salon of 1861 (fig. 1). As an artist trained in Paris at the École des Beaux Arts and as a candidate for the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1848, 1849 and 1850, he understood that critical success in these important institutions meant playing by the rules. Large scale paintings that depicted historical, mythological and religious subject matter were more likely to be greeted with critical success. Bouguereau's depiction of Cain and Abel is one such example of a preferred subject. The critics were positive in their reviews, citing the sculptural quality of the figure group. The well known critic, Théophile Gautier remarked that it brought to mind the works of Michelangelo (Théophile Gautier, Abécédaire du Salon de 1861, Paris, 1861, pp. 63-65).
While the composition of La Première Discorde finds precedent in the older prototypical figure groups by Michelangelo, or even perhaps the Virgin and Child compositions by Raphael and other Renaissance masters, Bouguereau's novel interpretation of the subject depicts the origins of the well-known, and ultimately deadly, sibling rivalry between Cain and Abel. Traditional representations of the Biblical story (Genesis 4:1-16), have the rivalry between the two brothers emerging only in early manhood. Bouguereau on the other hand, opts to show the first seeds of Cain's jealousy in their infancy. Bouguereau would have been no stranger to the emotions of sibling rivalry, being a father of five children with his first wife, Marie-Nelly Monchablon (three sons and two daughters). While Bouguereau would certainly never have compared any of his children to the evil Cain, daily life in the Bouguereau household would nonetheless have included episodes of quarreling children and a gently intervening mother. In La Première Discorde, Eve, draped in a soft animal hide, shows no signs of favoritism toward either of her two sons, but acts as a mother, arbitrating a sibling dispute. Bouguereau hints at the events to come by showing the young Abel, frightened and seeking protection from his brother, while Cain stands defiantly, his brow furled in anger, barely tolerating his mother's embrace. The setting may have been inspired by the countryside outside of Rome, a landscape Bouguereau would have seen during his Prix de Rome days. The "sequel" to La Première Discorde appeared at the Salon of 1888, when Bouguereau submitted Premier Deuil (The First Mourning), a work that showed a prostrate Adam and Eve mourning the death of Abel.
Adolphe Goupil became Bouguereau's exclusive dealer after October 1866. By this time, Bouguereau's reputation had been established by the critics, and all that was required for financial success was a new direction in subject matter. Goupil understood that the market - a market that was starting to announce itself in America - was looking for scenes of domestic sentimentality. While Bouguereau would always regret not being able to follow his vocation as a painter of religious subjects, perhaps he was at least able to take comfort in the knowledge that the prototypes for his later shepherdesses, young girls and infants were his first paintings of Eve, Mary, the Infant Jesus, the young Saint John the Baptist, and the angels or cherubs who often accompanied them. That is to say, Bouguereau's earliest sacred subjects later found expression in secular scenes of familial bliss.
La Première Discorde was copied by the American painter Evans DeScott and is in the Collection of Oberlin College.
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