"Dante and Vigil in Hell" by William-Adolphe Bougereau
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William-Adolphe Bouguereau was an acclaimed artist of his time and produced paintings with realism that verged on photography. This article will discuss one of his paintings with darker subject matter namely Dante and Virgil in Hell (1850). William-Adolphe Bouguereau(November 30, 1825 - August 19, 1905. He was born in the city of La Rochelle in France. He learned drawing from a young age and received instruction from Louis Sage; he was also taught by François-Édouard Picot, who was a Neoclassical artist. Bouguereau also studied at the École des Beaux-Arts as well as gained exposure to art in Italy when he won the Prix de Rome in 1850.


Self portrait of William Adolphe Bouguereau 1879

Self-portrait of William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1879) 

His style was largely characterized by its realism exploring genre paintings around religious and mythological subject matter with a focus on the female form. Some of his artworks include:


LAurore by William Adolphe Bouguereau BMA

L’Aurore - 1881


The abduction of Psyche 1895 by William Adolphe Bouguereau

The Abduction of Psyche - 1895


Reportedly, William-Adolphe Bouguereau did not paint more scenes like the above-mentioned, but it stands as an example of how the artist encapsulated an ideal human form in art, notably within the art styles of Academic and Neoclassical art.


 William Adolphe Bouguereau 1825 1905 The Birth of Venus 1879

The Birth of Venus - 1879 


Dante and Virgil in Hell Meaning William Adolphe Bouguereau

Dante and Virgil in Hell (1850) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau


The painting "Dante and Virgil in Hell" by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, explores a contextual analysis of what inspired it, specifically the Dante and Virgil in Hell meaning, alongside the formal qualities in terms of the art elements and principles. Looking at the significance of the Dante and Virgil in hell meaning, the Dante and Virgil in Hell by William-Adolphe Bouguereau was inspired by Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy (c. 1308-1321), which is a poem about Dante and his travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. These are shown to him by guides leading him through each area, namely Virgil, who was a Roman and a poet, and Beatrice, who had a romantic relationship with Dante.


Devil Form in the Dante and Virgil Painting.jepg

Devil Form in the Dante and Virgil Painting


According to the text, Hell consists of what is known as “The Nine Circles of Hell”. Each circle represents a sin, being Limbo, Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Anger, Heresy, Violence, Fraud, and Treachery.


Domenico di Michelinos 1465 fresco


Dante shown holding a copy of the Divine Comedy, next to the entrance to Hell, the seven terraces of Mount Purgatory, and the city of Florence, with the spheres of Heaven above, in Domenico di Michelino’s 1465 fresco.  In Dante and Virgil in Hell by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, the artist depicts Dante and Virgil traveling through Hell’s eighth circle, which is Fraud, and specifically the “damned” men known as Capocchio, who was known as an alchemist and heretic, and Gianni Schicchi, who reportedly impersonated Buoso Donati in a gruesome fight.


two men in Dante and Virgil CUp


Dante and Virgil in Hell by William-Adolphe Bouguereau is an oil on canvas depicting two fighting men in the depths of hell. It is a visually raw and primal display of the masculine figure in beautiful detail.  The Dante and Virgil painting depicts the two muscular men in the foreground, the man to the left is Gianni Schicchi, who is dominating and biting another man in his grip, known as Capocchio, who is helpless on both knees with his back bent over his attacker’s right knee, which is forcefully pushing into his lower back. Capocchio’s left arm is being stretched out behind him, as if almost out of its range of motion, and his left wrist is held tightly in Schicchi’s right hand, the latter has him in place, as if he is prey, and biting into his neck just below his chin area.


Texture in the Dante and Virgil Painting 1


Capocchio’s right hand is grabbing some of Schicchi’s hair while he is struggling, seemingly in vain. There are two other men standing to the left middle ground behind the fighting men, namely Dante and Virgil, who are keenly observing what is occurring. To the right background is a winged demon in flight his arms are folded and he has an evil grin on his face while his eyes are focused on Dante and Virgil. On the stony ground, just below the fighting men, is what appears to be the body of a dead man or a writhing man in suffering. To the right edge in the background are various naked figures who are known as the “damned” and the entire background appears as a hellish place, with a red sky above and fiery ground.  The dominating color scheme comprises earthy colors from the flesh tones, the grayish hues of the stony ground, and the deep reds of the surrounding hellscape. The two men in the foreground appear lighter in their skin tones as if a light is shining on them, creating further emphasis on them as the main subject matter of the composition.  The background is in darker shadows, which creates contrast.



There is implied texture in the Dante and Virgil painting and Bouguereau showcases his painting skills with smooth brushstrokes leaving the subject matter with as much realism as possible. Examples of textures include the rough stony ground contrasted with the smooth and muscular flesh of the men as well as the soft appearance of their hair. There are strong diagonal lines implied and created from the positioning of the men’s legs in the foreground, which directs a linear force to the right and to the left, which created movement and rhythm. The two men in the background are standing straight, which adds a vertical linearity. There is movement and dynamism in the Dante and Virgil painting, the two men in the foreground are more fluid in their forms compared to the background figures, which appear more vertical and still. The composition is naturalistic with organic forms that appear more three-dimensional from the effects created by other art elements like color, light, and shading.  The spatial composition in Dante and Virgil in Hell by William-Adolphe Bouguereau appears visually layered, in other words, the foreground is where the main action takes place while the two men, Dante and Virgil, occupy the middle ground, and the winged demon is in the background with even more figures filling the space in the far background to the right. The layering effect creates a sense of perspective and depth, which is further emphasized by how the artist portrays the foreground figures with more clarity and definition, and the background figures with less definition and in the shadows.


the flagellation of our lord jesus christ by william bouguereau 1880.jepg

The Flagellation of our Lord Jesus Christ - William Bouguereau - 1880


Bouguereau was a devout catholic and looked upon his religious paintings as a form of his worship of both God and mankind. Bouguereau’s religious belief can be plainly seen in his religious works.  The Flagellation of Christ, which he completed in 1880.  He exhibited this work at the 1880 Paris Salon. It is a monumental work measuring 390 x 210 cms (almost 13ft high and 7ft wide). One can easily imagine how it stood out from all the other works on show at the exhibition. This is acknowledged as being one of Bouguereau’s greatest religious works. In this painting, Bouguereau has depicted Christ, tied to a column. Christ’s body hangs down almost lifelessly with his feet dragging on the ground. His head droops backwards. His eyes are blank and unfocused. He is utterly powerless. He can do little to stop the ferocious onslaught. Unlike Bouguereau’s painting Dante and Virgil, he made no attempt to exaggerate the musculature in his portrayal of Christ’s body. The body of Christ is that of a normal human being. It is just like ours and in doing this Bouguereau has allowed us more easily to empathise with Christ’s suffering and pain.



It is a visual portrayal of masculine muscular definition, highlighting the artist’s skillful hand at executing his subject matter that seemingly bridges the gap between the beautiful and the stark.