One of the highlights of Forest Lawn’s art holdings is unquestionably the painting The Song of the Angels by the 19th century French master, William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905). Known for his beautiful images of women and children, Bouguereau was a lifelong practitioner and proponent of the classical, academic style during a time when taste in art was shifting towards Impressionism and its more modern, less precisely finished expression. Nevertheless, he was consistently popular among American collectors, and many of his works came directly to this country, as did this painting shortly after its debut at the 1881, state-sponsored Paris Salon. By 1940 The Song of the Angels had found its way to the “City of the Angels,” acquired by Dr. Eaton to grace a private chapel in Forest Lawn’s Church of the Recessional. It now resides in the Museum at Forest Lawn, framed by the liturgical enclosure that had held it in the chapel.
Looking Closely: The image is one of pure poetry, a mother and child calmly asleep in a sylvan setting while a trio of musician angels hovers nearby, the sweet strains of their lullaby left to the viewer’s imagination. The scene is masterfully created, showcasing the artist’s uncanny skill at rendering realistic flesh tones and subtle gradations of white. Color and form are organized to move the viewer’s eye from face to face, hand to foot in pondering this seemingly real yet utterly supernatural scene. The angels bear a strong resemblance to the artist’s wife Nelly, whom he often used as a model for his mother and Madonna figures, but who sadly had passed away four years before this painting was finished, as had their 9-month-old son. This quiet, sentimental scene of angels serenading a sleeping mother and child may well be a tribute to the artist’s departed loved ones, a tender and beautiful mingling of images representing heaven and earth that is certainly in harmony with the theme of Forest Lawn—that of a peaceful, eternal life.