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Dante and Virgil: Academic Frame Inspired by Divine Comedy

Dante and Virgil

Dante And Virgil | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

It was lang syne when I used to be a horror genre freak and had no story or movie remaining out of my sight. It was like a prize to me when amidst all the hard work and targets on a to-do list, I finally lay down on my cosy bed and watched horror documentaries, movies, and shows. There were days when my library had superb books in the same genre. But up until increased working hours and making out the best-processed information for you to formulate articles, I somehow decreased watching all those. But even today, I can’t resist the new releases. So as Halloween came around, hundreds of stories and haunted houses decoration powered me again to start reading dark fantasy or horror fictional books. I know it is an utter nonsense festival where you ruin your face and body to spill the beans from your inside in the contour of ghosts, but for nerds like me, it’s an inspiration. For those who celebrate it joyfully, never mind and don’t stop doing it, as you are the ultimate source of discovery of ideas within people like me. One more incident which coincided in the past few days is that I started watching Lucifer on Netflix, which is all about hell, the darkest and most mysterious theme. Now, considering all these events, my brain did not take even a minute to fuse and make me search more about hell and other cursed histories. Those on the other side who can relate to me may know that even the art depicting it is a fantasy. So after spending most of my time reading and studying them, I finally thought to talk about the legendary and famous Dante and Virgil’s artwork belonging to dark romanticism. After piling up all the inspiration from even the minutest event from my past days, I decided to analyze the Dante and Virgil painting by Bouguereau and help you to know about it.

General Information About the Artwork.

1. Artist Statement.

“For me, a work of art must be an elevated interpretation of nature. The search for the ideal has been the purpose of my life. In landscape or seascape, I love above all the poetic motif.”

2. Subject Matter.

The painting depicts two naked men, one biting the neck of the other in a twisted body posture. It depicts a scene from one of the layers of hell, according to the Inferno of Dante Alighieri. Besides, these two creatures in a haunted posture, there stands Dante and Virgil, who never met in real life but in hell. In the background, there is a flying monster and several naked women and men tortured.

Complete composition of Dante and Virgil | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

3. Artist.

William Adolphe Bouguereau was a French realist painter who portrayed several mythological scenes, making his modern interpretation of the subject, painting Dante and Virgil. He emphasized the female human body particularly. Born in La Rochelle, France, on 30 November 1825, into a family of wine and oil merchants, Adolphe was the son of Theodore Bouguereau and Marie Bouguereau. As a quintessential salon painter of his generation, he was famous in France and US, but due to his part in changing the tastes of the people in the early twentieth century, his art didn’t gather popularity among the public. However, in the 1980s, there was a revival of interest in figure painting, leading us to the discovery of his works again.

4. Date.

The painting dates back to the year 1850.

5. Provenance.

In 1850, Bouguereau submitted this typical composition at Salon. It was the time when he was in his early career and establishing himself as an Academic painter. The work achieved significant critical praise after the submission. A famous writer, Theophile Gautier, remarked on the attention to musculature and narrative drama of this composition. You must also know that these type of paintings by Adolphe was because of his encounter with the works of the great Neoclassical painter and dark object history from medieval literature.

6. Location.

The painting is on exhibition at Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

ArtistWilliam Adolphe Bouguereau
Year Painted1850
MediumOil on canvas
Dimensions260.4 cm x 170.5 cm
PriceNot on sale
Where is it housed?Musée d’Orsay, Paris

Dante and Virgil | Fast Knowledge

Dante and Virgil is an 1850 academic artwork by William Adolphe Bouguereau. Inspired by the Inferno sequence of Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, the French painter portrayed Dante and Virgil in the eighth layer of hell, witnessing a man biting another man, both in a naked position. One must note that Dante and Virgil never shared a real relationship.

In-Depth Description of Dante and Virgil.

About the Artist: William Adolphe Bouguereau.

Born in 1825 in La Rochelle, William’s father was a modest wine and olive merchant and a Roman Catholic and his mother belonged to a middle-class Calvinist family. The upbringings of William were strict, as his family wished him to be raised like a Catholic. When he was twelve, he went to live with his uncle, a Catholic priest, to prepare for his career in the Church. And when William recalled this time in his later years, he regarded it,

“as the happiest time of my life.”

Exposed to classical literature, outdoor excursions and familial affection, he continued studying religious and secular education. At first, he learnt drawing by Louis Sage, a follower of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, but he was not able to keep them going for long as his father wished him to stay at home in Bordeaux, in south-east France.

Self-Portrait, 1879, William Adolphe Bouguereau | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

As he followed his father’s instructions, he became acquainted with Charles Marionneau, an artist and a historian who let him gain admission to the Municipal School of Painting and Drawing. At first, as William resumed his artistic training, he financed his education by creating hand-coloured lithographs for food products. Besides painting, he excelled in mercenary work, which let him move to Paris in 1846. He there studied under the Neoclassical painter Francois-Edouard Picot. William learnt basic elements of figurative painting and drawing through lithographs, plaster casts and live models.

With all the savings, he joined the prestigious École Royale des Beaux-Arts, where he was determined to win the Grand Prix de Rome, a prize for young artists that allowed them to study at French Academy in Villa Medici in Rome at no cost.

On a theme previously tackled by Nicolas Poussin, he created the grand historical painting Zenobia Found by Shepherds on the Banks of the Arax (1850) after two unsuccessful attempts. Following his departure for Rome in January 1851, Bouguereau spent the next three years refining his technical skills, studying art collections, churches, architecture, and sculptures on the Italian peninsula. After his scholarship ended in 1854, he returned to La Rochelle instead of returning to Paris.

Now, after you have a brief understanding of the artist’s early life, let us move on to the provenance of the painting.

Looking at the History and Background.

William was inspired by the Inferno sequence of Divine Comedy of the poet, Dante Alighieri, where he writes,

“As I behold two shadows pale and naked, / Who, biting, in the manner ran along/ That a boar does when from the sty turned loose.” 

This painting is strongly relevant to the time when William submitted his macabre work to the Salon in 1850, at the beginning of his mature years of being an Academic painter. 

While he studied under great Neoclassicist painters at the École des Beaux-Arts, and during this period, he absorbed the dark subjects from medieval literature. The Divine Comedy is one of them. When he started to paint as an Academic painter, he drew this painting with all his technical intellect, capturing the strained nude poses of eight layer of hell.

In his own words, he remarked his painting as,

“the horrible, the frenzied, the heroic does not pay”

as the public usually preferred to see Venuses and Cupids. During this same year, he also painted Zenobia Found by Shepherds on the Banks of the Arax (1850), which earned him the Grand Prix de Rome. And this was the time when he got good recognition as an Academic painter.

Style of the Dante and Virgil Painting.

The Dante and Virgil by William-Adolphe Bouguereau is an Academic style painting. Again, you don’t have to bother opening another tab or researching for a credible source to understand the style, as I am explaining here.

Let me briefly tell you about Academi’s approach to the painting procedure. Unlike the most modern and contemporary painting techniques, it differs as even before the painting is realized, sketches and preparatory drawings are first laid on canvas. As per Boime’s details in his book, it says,

“During the preliminary steps, the artist usually proceeded first with the croquis, then with the painted sketch, and finally with the ebauche. The French artist also made preliminary studies of individual details, such as drapery details or hands. These smaller studies, either painted or drawn, were called etudes. In executing his final work, he first arranged, in order, his croquis, his sketch, and his etudes.”

Similarly, following academies teaching, Adolphe used to make dozens of preparatory sketches to execute the optimum arrangements in his artwork. Now, once you know about it, let us finally study the Dante and Virgil meaning in our next section.

Understanding the Meaning of Bouguereau’s Frame.

Before we finally decode the meaning of the epic-historic painting, let me first take you to the pages of History in the 1300s. A famous poet, Dante Alighieri, wrote “Divine Comedy“, explaining the nine layers of hell. It describes a journey of three super-terrestrial reals- Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. Each stage consists of 33 cantos, with the introduction bringing the total piece up to 100. The terrifying images of hell by him shaped the Christian conscience since the medieval age. You can also consider that before Dante, the word sin was a nebulous concept, and after his epic poem, it became a substance. Now you might be confused about the characters Dante and Virgil. So let me quickly tell you about it.

Now, both Dante and Virgil are characters who existed as separate people but never shared any relationship or crossed boundaries in real life. Dante plays himself in the story and is affected by the sin of lust, ending up in hell. At the same time, he meets Virgil, who was a famous writer of the Roman empire. Both tried to avoid obstacles and terrifying creatures to the final meet of paradise.

The intensity of the scene brought hell too close for us. It shows us, Dante with Virgil in the eighth circle of hell, a place for falsified and counterfeiters. Now that you have a clear image of the story of Dante and Virgil’s painting: let us further move on to the formal analysis of the composition.

Subject Matter and Elements of Dante and Virgil in Hell.

While formally analyzing Dante and Virgil in Hell, we see two figures on the right of the composition. Standing with a grimace, the first man wears a leaf tiara and a long white dress. Furthermore, standing with the support of the first man, the second wears a red-blue dress. As they pass by, they witness infernal combat, which is the opposite of death. Now, you have to guess who these are.

Left side of the composition showing Dante in red and Virgil in white clothing | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

The main subject matter of the composition is the two naked men, whose positions demonstrate a tense, desperate environment filled with agony. They have strained muscles with rather combative and angry faces. Though they are in static positions, they still display a complete movement, which is bold. The bitting man is Gianni Schicchi, a usurper who adopted an identity of a dead man to acquire his property and inheritance, whereas the other figure is Cappocchio, an alchemist.

Central subject of the composition | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

The background of Dante and Virgil in hell has a red sky indicating danger, and a rock bed, which represents hell. On the right side of the composition, there are seven more naked figures in the distance. Furthermore, there is a flying creature with a monstrous smile and deadly eyes, flying in the sky with his greyish-black coloured body.

Right side and background of the Dante and Virgil in Hell | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

There is colour harmony in Bouguereau’s work with a perfectly geometrical and realistic human body. With the artwork, he carefully composed the bodies in a way that significantly conveyed the illusion of hell. The perfect muscularity of the well-rounded bodies has an authoritative presence that fills the canvas with the energy of reality. The light placement is on the centre subject, which apparently shines from the top and creates a shadow at the bottom.

Learning Dante and Virgil Painting Analysis.

1. Line.

In the painting, there is a vigorous use of diagonal lines, giving the message of strenuous circumstances and instability. For example, the man biting the other has his legs over in a diagonal posture, similar to the biter’s hand. The monster flying in the background have also the posture and direction of flying diagonally. Further, if you look closer, the eyesight of the monster, Dante and Virgil over this torture is in diagonal lines. And finally, the naked woman ladder also rests in a similar way.

Line Analysis of Dante and Virgil; Red (Diagonal Line), Yellow (Vertical Line), Dotted white (Sight)

Dante and Virgil show the presence of vertical lines, which signifies stability in the composition as a whole. 

2. Light and Value.

The painting has a higher brightness and contrasts with the subtle use of light and shadows. During the horrific incident, the naked men participate in torture with bright bodies, while the background is dark, which enhances the hellish darkness. The darker colours and landscape is the artist’s way to convey misery and a sense of foreboding.

Light and Value of Dante and Virgil Painting

3. Colour.

To move on to the critical part of colour analysis, the reddish-black sky of hell and the brown rock bed layer form the composition’s background. Furthermore, there is the use of whitish skin colour on the prime subject bodies. The usage of red is drastic in the hair of bitter, the wings of the devil, and a cornered man on the left. 

In the background, the distant flexed bodies in the right corner have similar body colour tones, but they seem faded. They have flexed muscles, which denotes the tension in the surroundings of hell. There are also shades of green and black in the tiara, the eyeballs, and the hairs of the male figures respectively.

Opinions and Conclusions

After carefully analyzing Dante and Virgil by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, it becomes scary to see through it, as it represents the inside of the most petrifying place, hell. Could you add anything to the composition to splash your dark thoughts upon me? The legendary artwork chilled our spines, but it also taught us a lesson through it. Our deeds are counted and will count. Do you believe in the message of this artwork? In either case, let me know in the comments below.


1. William Bouguereau: His Life and Works by Damien Bartoli, Frederick C. Ross.

2. William Bouguereau: The Essential Works by Kara Lysandra Ross, Frederick C. Ross

Frequently Asked Questions.

Who painted the Dante and Virgil painting?

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, a French academic painter, created the artwork Dante and Virgil in 1850. The painting portrays a horrifying imaginary scene from hell depicting Dante Alighieri and Publius Vergilius Maro.

What do Dante and Virgil shows?

The painting depicts Dante Alighieri and Publius Vergilius Maro visiting the eighth layer of hell and trying to avoid obstacles and terrifying creatures for the final meet of paradise.

What type of art is Dante and Virgil?

Academic style art.

What is the relationship between Dante and Virgil?

Dante and Virgil were two people who never shared any relationship in real life. However, according to Divine comedy, the Roman poet, Virgil is a guide and friend who leads Dante through Hell (in Inferno) and Purgatory (in Purgatorio).

What is the Dante and Virgil based on?

Dante and Virgil painting by William Adolphe Bouguereau is based on Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri.

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