William-Adolphe Bouguereau was a French academic painter. Working in the Neo-classicist style he produced realistic paintings that worked as modern interpretations of classical subjects, both pagan and Christian, with an emphasis on the female human body. The idealized world of his canvases brought to life mythological characters such as goddesses, nymphs, bathers, shepherdesses, as well as madonnas, in a way that appealed to wealthy art patrons of the era. During his life Bouguereau enjoyed significant popularity in France and the United States, receiving numerous official honors and prizes for his work. Nevertheless, his commitment to traditional art as the quintessential salon painter of his generation caused the rejection of his work by the Impressionist avant-garde.
In this painting Bouguereau reproduces the iconographic model of the Virgin Mary with the child surrounded by angels. The Virgin is depicted wearing the typical blue robe, with the child Jesus is resting in her lap, as she represents the throne of the Son of God. Three angels, identifiable as such by their wings, are both praising the Virgin Mary and watching over their sleep while playing music. This still scene set in a clearing probably alludes to the Holy Family’s flee to Egypt. Just as the ideal of earthly female beauty was always sought in the face and form of Mary, in the same way, the angels embody youthful harmony.
Bouguereau employed traditional methods of working up a painting, including detailed pencil studies and oil sketches, and his careful method resulted in a pleasing and accurate rendering of the human form. His depiction of skin, hands, and feet was particularly admired.
A tireless painter, he often completed twenty or more easel paintings in a single year. Throughout his lifetime, he is known to have painted at least 822 paintings, many of which have been lost. By the early twentieth century, Bouguereau and his art fell out of favor with the public, due in part to changing tastes. In the 1980s, a revival of interest in figure painting led to a rediscovery of his personality and oeuvre.