William-Adolphe Bouguereau - The first mourning

by Alexandra Tuschka


In a barren landscape, Adam and Eve - the first humans - weep for their son Abel. He was slain by his own brother Cain. His body is already pale and bloodless and lies limp in the bosom of his father. The latter is young and strong, has dark hair and a full beard and devotes himself to his wife, who buries her face in her hands in deepest grief. There is no trace of the perpetrator. Only the two sacrificial altars in the background refer to the previous episode.

Cain and Abel wanted to offer a sacrifice to God. Cain was a farmer, but Abel was a cattle herder. Cain offered the best fruits of his field, Abel slaughtered a fine animal. When both lit the fires of the altars, only Abel's sacrifice was recognized by God. Cain, enraged in his despair, was warned by God, but envy overcame him, so that he slew his own brother in madness. As a result, God cursed Cain and gave him a distinguishing mark for his guilt - the so-called "mark of Cain."

This distinction was often solved by artists in such a way that both altars can be seen in the pictures. Abel's fire thereby rises upwards from the picture, Cain's fire usually dodges to the side. In this way, the painters ingeniously expressed that only a sacrifice reaches God "in heaven" outside our picture background. Bougheareau also resorts to this solution, showing one sacrificial altar visible on the right, suggesting the other hidden behind Eve. Otherwise the painting appears strongly reduced.


We hardly find any vegetation. A lone branch has ventured into the picture, hints of green blur with the brown tones and remain inconspicuous. The fact that none of the mourners makes eye contact with us, the self-contained composition, the unity of color even in the bodies - all this conveys a devout and intimate image, which seems almost meditative.


There is no mistaking the painter's training at the Academy. There is no lack of twists and turns in the bodies. The clear composition is also well thought out. On the one hand strict horizontals, on the other hand a rough triangular composition in the middle. The theme of the "first lamentation" is not common and begins to gain popularity only in the late 19th century. Possibly the artist is also processing his own grief here - his 2nd son died shortly before this work was created.


The theme of the painting inevitably reminds us of "Piéta" depictions, but it is an unusual choice for the Cain and Abel episode. Much more often we find the murder of Abel in art, showing a dramatic and morally charged moment. There is not much of the brutality often shown in this painting. The beautiful body of Abel is shown to be unharmed at first glance. Only the bloodstain under the head hints at the bloody deed. Adam's dark skin stands out clearly against the ivory tone of the other two. This depiction was not uncommon in the distinction between men and women in the 19th century.


William-Adolphe Bouguereau - The first mourning

Oil on canvas, 1888, 203 x 250 cm, Museo National, Buenos Aires


Michiel Coxie - The dead Abel

Oil on canvas, c. 1540, Museo del Prado, Madrid

Visit us 

  • Instagram
  • Youtube

© 2021 the artinspector