19th Century European Art

19th Century European Art

View full screen - View 1 of Lot 417. WILLIAM BOUGUEREAU | ORA PRO NOBIS.

Property from a European Private Collection


Auction Closed

January 31, 04:23 PM GMT


500,000 - 700,000 USD

Lot Details


Property from a European Private Collection



1825 - 1905


signed W-BOUGUEREAU and dated 1903 (lower right)

oil on canvas

45¼ by 29¼ in.

115 by 74.5 cm

Arthur Tooth & Sons, Paris, no. 3256 (acquired directly from the artist, September 1903, as Madonna with Cupids)

Possibly, Deumé (possibly acquired from the above, November 1905)

Sale: Christie’s, New York, October 11, 1979, lot 64, illustrated (as Madonna with Angels)

Private Collection (acquired at the above sale)

Thence by descent

"The Royal Academy Exhibition of 1904," The Art Journal, London, 1904, p. 182

"William Bouguereau," Médaillons bordelais, Bordeaux, n.d., series 3, no. 65, n.p. (as Vierge en prière)

Braun & Clément, Oeuvres choisies des maîtres anciens et moderns, n.d., n.p., no. 3557, illustrated 

Mark Steven Walker, "William Bouguereau: A Summary Catalogue of the Paintings," William Adolphe Bouguereau, L’Art Pompier, exh. cat., Borghi & Co., New York, 1991, p. 75

Damien Bartoli and Frederick C. Ross, William Bouguereau, Catalogue Raisonné of his Painted Work, New York, 2010, p. 352, no. 1903/06, illustrated; and in the revised 2014 edition, p. 352, no. 1903/06, illustrated

From his youth, William Bouguereau held a strong religious faith, which was further fueled by his education at seminary schools, where he studied religious texts alongside classical history and poetry. In his twenties the artist traveled throughout Italy (sponsored by his winning the Prix de Rome in 1850), where he made numerous copies of Renaissance masterpieces in museums in and around Rome; studied Giotto in Padua, Assisi and Florence; and saw Ravenna's famous Byzantine mosaics (fig. 1). In particular, the works of Raphael (among Bouguereau’s favorite artists), Andrea del Sarto, and Leonardo da Vinci informed his early depictions of both secular and divine subjects. On his return to Paris, Bouguereau completed decorations for several churches, including the Basilica of Sainte-Clotilde in 1856, which helped launch his early reputation. At the height of his career in the 1880s, he accepted a commission to provide murals for the Chapel of the Virgin at the Église Saint-Vincent-de-Paul. Throughout his diverse religious works, the Virgin Mary was a predominant subject; in her, he found both a symbol embodying his private feelings of grief, expressed in La Vierge, L’enfant Jésus et Saint Jean Baptiste (1875, sold in these rooms, May 26, 1993, lot 45, illustrated, fig. 2), painted as he cared for his critically ill son, and, as with Oro Pro Nobis, a comforting image of strength, serenity and forgiveness.  

With Oro Pro Nobis, as with La Vierge aux lys of 1899 (Private Collection) and the La Madone aux roses of 1900 (Lyndhurst, a historic site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Tarrytown, New York, fig. 3), Bouguereau places the Virgin Mary at the frontal center of the picture space, a compositional strategy often used by Italian Renaissance masters he admired. In the present work, the Holy Mother is surrounded by a retinue of cherubs, similar to the host of angels in his Regina Angelorum of 1900 (Musée du Petit Palais, Paris, fig. 4). While his subject’s identity is unmistakable, the artist includes tall lilies, long associated with the Virgin Mary— they bloomed at the Annunciation, when Gabriel proclaimed she would be the mother of Christ, and filled her tomb at her Assumption (which is celebrated in August, the month the white lily blooms). The flower itself came to represent the Virgin’s attributes: the stem her faith, the petals her purity, the scent her divinity, and the leaves her humility (Frederick C. Ross and Kara Lysandra Ross, William Bouguereau: The Essential Works, New York, 2018, p. 140). Beyond symbolic associations, Bouguereau heightens Mary’s religiosity through the Byzantine element of a gilded halo, like those he saw in the mosaics of Ravenna, which contrast with the rough spun cloth of Mary’s tunic and the frayed edges of her cloak, alluding to both her humility and recognition as Queen of Heaven. 

The relationship between artist, viewer, and subject is further emphasized in the work’s title Oro Pro Nobis (Pray for Us), a phrase within the litanies of the Catholic church, officially sanctioned call-and-response chants between priest and congregation such as The Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary (also known as the Litany of Loreto, the place of its first usage recorded in 1558). Within this litany, a long series of invocations to the Virgin Mary are issued in uniform rhythm to create a stream of prayer, of praise and supplication. The invocations, generally very short, have two parts: the first of praise (Virgo Clemens/Virgin most merciful), the other of supplication (Ora Pro Nobis/pray for us). Similarly, the multiple elements of Bouguereau’s masterful, Academic technique allows his Ora Pro Nobis to connect the viewer with its spiritual subject. The sculptural modeling of figures provides illusionistic dimensionality; as she looks upward, the Virgin’s hands, held palm out, appear to project out of the picture space, while the overlapping wings and clasped hands of the surrounding angels create a sense of depth, suggesting these Holy figures are part of the world shared by the artist and his patrons. 

Bouguereau once said, “in spite of all that is written to the contrary, an artist only reproduces what he finds in nature—to know how to see and how to seize what one sees-there is all the secret of the imagination (as quoted in Fronia E. Wissman, Bouguereau, San Francisco, 1996, p. 64). Though set in an ideal realm, Ora Pro Nobis is informed by Bouguereau’s brilliant technique in recording detail and his commitment to the subject, combining the real and the theological, presenting sublime, spiritual beauty. The artist’s skill in depicting skin texture, shifting light, and expression allows the viewer to both identify the sacred subject of Ora Pro Nobis and connect with it emotionally. Both immediate and eternal, this profound composition was the culmination of a series of religious works that defined the artist’s mature career.

Soon after its completion, Ora Pro Nobis was sent to London for exhibition at the Royal Academy, in 1904. There, an appreciative critic noted “Bouguereau does honor to the R.A. walls with one of those exquisite chefs-d’oeuvre which have made his name honoured [sic] in all the world” (“The Royal Academy Exhibition of 1904.” p. 182). While the artist did not visit London until 1898 (when he attended the Lord Mayor’s banquet at Guildhall to honor French artists), England had long been an important part of building his international reputation. From 1867 to 1871, the artist showed regularly at Henry Wallis’ French Gallery at 120 Pall Mall, and in the decades following, Arthur Tooth became the artist’s most important dealer in England. In 1905, Oro Pro Nobis was sold by Tooth, and outside of its auction in 1979, the painting has not been exhibited in public until today and is illustrated for the first time in full color.