11107 A PAIR OF WATERCOLORS DEPICTING THE FIVE WISE AND THE FIVE FOOLISH VIRGINS AFTER ENGRAVINGS BY ABRAHAM BOSSE (CIRCA 1602-1676) German. Seventeenth Century. Measurements: Height: 10 1/4″ (26 cm) Width: 12″ (30.5 cm)

Watercolor on paper.

This pair of carefully observed watercolors follows closely two prints produced by one of the most recognized graphic artists of seventeenth century France, Abraham Bosse.  However, rather than being reproduced many times over like the original work, these watercolors were painted by hand, and are, therefore, unique. They depict two scenes from Bosse’s series of seven prints illustrating the Parable of the Ten Virgins, a moral lesson on spirituality that was especially aimed at women and girls. The remarkable skill in their execution, particularly the rendering of the fabrics of the clothing, and the technically difficult effect of darkness in the night scene, would suggest a professional painter. One might speculate given their subject matter, that the watercolors were commissioned as a gift to a young girl on the occasion of her first communion.  That the text on the present watercolors has been translated from the original French into German, carefully rendered in traditional gothic script, reminds us of the widespread reach and appeal of Bosse’s engravings, which were exported across Europe, becoming as popular in Britain, Germany and the Netherlands as they were in the artist’s native France.

The Parable of the Ten Virgins, which only appears in the gospel of Matthew1 was a popular subject for artists in the renaissance and early modern period. An especially comparable example to the present watercolors is the painting by the Flemish artist Hieronymous Francken the Younger (1578-1623), datable to around 1616 (figure 1). The parable recounts the story of ten virgins selected to take part in a wedding procession. All ten await the arrival of the bridegroom, five bring their lanterns, whilst the other five bring their lanterns but additionally remember to bring oil to use in them. When the bridegroom arrives, the five foolish virgins are unable to light their lanterns and are therefore excluded from the procession whilst the five wise virgins with oil are able to join. It is a parable that has a clear Christian moral message; that one should always be spiritually prepared for the second coming of Christ. It has often been interpreted as having specific relevance to females; it reminds that virtuousness means nothing without contemplation and application.

The original engravings are dated to around 1635.2 The first is after Bosse’s original entitled les Vierges folles s’entretiennent des plaisirs mondains (the foolish virgins occupy themselves with worldly pleasures) where a group of fashionably-dressed young ladies are shown in an ornately embellished interior, engaging in mundane conversation and passing their time with frivolous distractions, such as playing cards, music, reading romances, and examining themselves in the mirror (figure 2). On the present watercolor the artist has been able to further embellish their clothing with bright colors and elaborate patterns. The rear wall is decorated with a painting that appears to show Danae and the golden rain, an overtly erotic and pagan subject; in the lower right corner we can clearly discern the carelessly discarded empty lanterns and oil urn. The German text below the image translates as:

Here you can see these foolish virgins / amusing themselves uselessly / with frivolous things / which they keep close by // The games, the treats, the music / Dance and books of romance / That is where they apply their spirit / There they pass the night and day // O that these senseless souls / Cherish the worldly things / Their words and their thoughts / Attached only to vanities // In a false luster their lives pass by / They love what hurts them / And as the world flatters them / It both enchants and destroys them

The second watercolor is after Bosse’s engraving Les Vierges sages somnolent en attendant l’arrivée de l’époux (the wise virgins rest in wait for the arrival of the bridegroom) (figure 3) which shows the wise virgins in an organized interior, divested of unnecessary decoration and surrounded by symbols of piety, their five burning lanterns arranged at the ready in front of a painting of the Adoration of the Magi. Instead of the frivolous accoutrements like the cards, fans and musical instruments of the foolish virgins, they bear prayer books and reliquaries. On the table, items that could distract have been replaced with a crucifix and bible. Even the clothing of the wise virgins shows higher necklines and plainer collars, fabric and hats. In the original engraving the crescent moon is clear to view through the window, perhaps a reference to the Virgin Mary’s appearance on a crescent moon at the end of the world as described in the Book of Revelation.  The painter has managed to perfectly render the effect of the darkness of night.  The text beneath reads:

No vain object can distract / These Virgins, always wise / To foolishness their humor is contrary / They seek a steady pleasure // The night when the others sleep / In a repose that appears sweet / These here discuss and watch / Waiting for their celestial groom //The world in vain they made war / then it is certain that their eyes / Closed to the shadows of the earth / will become open to the clarity of the heavens // It is only wisdom / that they propose for certain/ and that guides their address / in the true way of salvation

Abraham Bosse grew up in Tours in central France in a French Protestant, or Huguenot, family. He was among the most successful artists of the mid-seventeenth century in France and certainly one of the most prolific; 1600 separate works have been confidently attributed to him. They deal with a wide range of subjects from religion and morality as seen here, to science, geography, fashion plates and illustrations for contemporary novels. It is a mark of Bosse’s success that his prints are reproduced in a variety of media, not just painted as the present examples, but also in furniture, silver and mural decoration.3 Bosse engraved designs for the architect Jean Barbet’s (1605-1654) Livre d’architecture d’autels et de cheminées of 1633, and reused one of the chimneypieces from the publication in his print of the foolish virgins; it also appears in the present watercolor (figure 4).4 Not only was he a prolific and skilled producer of engravings but he also painted, as well as being an outspoken art theorist. Perspective plays a crucial role in much of his work, and in this regard he was heavily influenced by the mathematician, engineer and designer Girard Desargues, now considered to be the founder of projective geometry.5 Although initially closely involved in the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture established in 1648 by Cardinal Mazarin, Bosse’s strident beliefs on perspective provoked a serious quarrel with Charles le Brun, the director of the Academy, which precipitated Bosse’s resignation in 1661.

Bosse’s work has always been recognized by historians for its faithful reproduction of clothing and interior decoration. His father was a tailor, which may explain the particular skill in depicting costume and fashion. Indeed it is easy to perceive a certain irony apparent in vilifying the exquisite clothing and interior decoration, whilst rendering them in such careful and loving detail. However, this was a secret of his success as it added to the appeal of his prints immensely, especially among the provincial middle classes and foreigners who would have bought them primarily as an insight into the latest Parisian fashions. For this reason two prints from the Ten Virgins series, including the original to the present painting of the foolish virgins, were selected by the eminent art historian Peter Thornton for illustration in his pioneering publication Seventeenth Century Interior Decoration in England, France and Holland (1981).6 Thornton cites the print of the foolish virgins, source of one of the present paintings, as an example of how uniformity in an interior first becomes favorable in the mid-seventeenth century, noting the exciting appearance of sash windows, an early parquet floor and an architecturally designed chimneypiece. That our painted versions feature color certainly adds yet more significance to the image in this regard. Thornton proposes that the cultural salon of the kind presented in “the foolish Virgins” is perhaps intended to evoke and satirize the activities of Catherine de Vivonne, Marquise de Rambouillet (1588-1665), who was known as the leading hostess in Paris, and has remained famous for fomenting the tradition of the cultural ‘salon’ which would be prominent in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the city. Given Bosse’s apparently cantankerous character, and the element of satire in many of his other works, perhaps we should consider this to be very likely.

Bosse’s engravings would certainly have been disseminated in England, and no doubt played a significant role in promoting the advanced Parisian tastes in fashion and interior design.

1. Gospel of Matthew, 25:1-3
2. “Les Vierges Sages Et Les Vierges Folles.” British Museum, No. 1927,1008.128. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Feb. 2016.
3. Sophie Join-Lambert et al, Abraham Bosse: savant graveur, Paris 2004, p. 148
4.  Ibid., p. 129
5. See Judith V. Field, Jeremy Gray, The Geometrical Work of Girard Desargues, New York 2011
6. Peter Thornton, Seventeenth Century Interior Decoration in England, France and Holland, London 1981, the prints are reproduced on pages 9 and 11.

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