A Freak No Longer: An Analysis of Christ & the Disciples at Emmaus

This is my attempt to put into action the principles learned from the book Art and Music: A Student’s Guide. You can refer to my post on What is Beauty? for a full review of that book. Keep in mind that I have zero experience evaluating works of art, and even less skill.


Pascal Adolphe Dagnan-Bouveret in his Paris studio

I first encountered Pascal Adolphe Jean Dagnan-Bouveret at a mall gift shop in 2004. I was thumbing through an eclectic mix of art reproductions, movie posters, and bikini clad women stretched across the hoods of luxury sports cars. I was killing time and not expecting to make a purchase. When I saw the print of Dagnan-Bouveret’s Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus, I knew immediately that I had to own it. Was it because I instantly recognized this as a great work of pictorial art? That didn’t matter to me. I had never heard of Dagnan-Bouveret before that day. What mattered to me was what the painting represented. As it turns out, this artist is not considered one of the Old Masters, and this particular painting is not regarded, at least by most critics, as a masterpiece. However, it may be time to reconsider its place in history. My goal here is to evaluate the work in light of aesthetic principles and theological/biblical considerations, with an eye toward allowing this piece to speak to others just as clearly as it first spoke to me over a decade ago.


Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus by Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret

The history of Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus is one of promise and disappointment. The work was purchased by Carnegie Steel chairman Henry Clay Frick, when he first saw it unfinished on the artist’s easel in the summer of 1897.[1] An avid patron of the arts, Frick immediately donated the work to the Carnegie Institute, where it became one of the centerpieces of the newly established Carnegie Museum of Art. Carnegie’s vision for his museum was not to build upon the acquisitions of Old Masters, but rather to showcase contemporary painters who would in time become the ‘new generation’ of Old Masters.[2] Dagnan-Bouveret was seen as exemplifying that vision. John Caldwell, one of the trustees of the Carnegie Institute’s Fine Arts Committee, was quoted as saying to Frick,

Unless I am greatly mistaken, this is one of the modern paintings that is going to hold its own and remain a ‘masterpiece’ for the instruction as well as pleasure of future generations.[3]

Caldwell was mistaken. Frick purchased a total of three of Dagnan-Bouveret’s paintings.


Henry Frick

After his death his estate was unable to give away one of the more repudiated, the Consolatrix Afflictorum (which to this day remains out of public view in the storerooms of the Frick Art and Historical Center in Pittsburg). While Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus remains on display at the Carnegie Museum of Art, it was subject to mixed reviews when first introduced. Even though the Chicago Tribune declared it “one of the most remarkable works of the modern French school,” it also criticized it for being unoriginal (specifically referencing Veronese’s Supper at Emmaus as an example of the derivative nature of the work).[4] The London Times, in its review of the painting’s London showing, also highlighted this point, referencing Titian and Rembrandt as examples.[5] There is even some insinuation of kitschiness from critics. In 1900, this is exactly what a correspondent for the New-York Tribune implied when describing Dagnan-Bouveret’s body of religious paintings.

As devotional works one cannot take them seriously. The figures are too intensely French; the spirit of each is somewhat lacking in the magic which would stir the emotions of the spectator.[6]

Contemporary art critic Ken Johnson characterizes the paining as “absurdly sentimental.”[7] I wish to counteract these claims and demonstrate that Dagnan-Bouveret has produced something entirely original, transcending any characterization as religious kitsch. Far from being derivative and devotional, Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus should be viewed as Avant-garde.

I have been a Christian educator for over twenty years. In 2004, when I first came across this work of art, I was the principal of a K-12 Christian school in El Paso, Texas. As a mission oriented school, we had an open enrollment and saw our ministry as one of leading students to Christ. The passage of scripture upon which this work is based, Luke 24:13-35, resonated with me as an educator. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, my students metaphorically walked with Jesus. They were exposed to scripture-based curriculum, affording the opportunity to hear about Jesus in each of their classes. They attended weekly chapel services where they were regularly challenged to commit their lives to Christ. They sat under the teaching of fully dedicated Christian teachers, who constantly sought to apply the Bible to every area of the student’s life. And yet, many of the students never came to faith. Luke gives insight as to why.

When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?”[8]

These disciples did not recognize Jesus until he broke the bread and their eyes were opened. They did not, and could not, see Jesus on their own. He needed to open their eyes and make them see. It is this precise moment that Dagnan-Bouveret has chosen to capture. Seeing the painting for the first time, I suddenly realized that it was not my job to convert students to Christ. I could present him daily. I could open the scriptures just as Jesus did to these unknown disciples. But a person only comes to faith when God himself chooses to open the eyes. When this authentically happens, it is the most spectacular thing that can be witnessed. While it’s true that this passage is well depicted in European art, in my opinion, Dagnan-Bouveret is the only one to capture it with such vivid realism and emotion.

When looking at the painting, one cannot help but first be drawn to the figure of Christ. He sits at the center, surrounded in a glow of radiant light (reminiscent of Dagnan-Bouveret’s most famous work, La Cena). His hair is auburn, not typical of depictions of


La Cena

Christ, but adding to a heightened sense of awe and intensity. This stands in contrast to the drabness of all other colors in the painting. The artist wants Christ to be the focal point. His eyes are looking straight ahead, as if focused directly on the viewer, instantly drawing him or her into the image. In fact, from whatever angle the picture is viewed, it appears that Christ’s eyes follow the observer. His two hands are spread out, the bread now divided, and the eyes of the three supper guests clearly opened. Their bodies are largely situated in shadow and darkness, with the light that radiates from Christ shining upon each of their faces. The light even seems to wash out the background scenery making it impossible to discern what is back there. This effect adds to the notion that at this moment, nothing else matters; everything else is obscured by the risen Savior. Two of the supper guests appear to be disciples, and the third a servant. There is a gradation in the responses of each. The servant girl, dinner platter in hand, appears to be in shock as she realizes that Christ is sitting before her. The disciple immediately next to her has his hands thrown up in wonder, as if amazed and entirely speechless. The disciple on the opposite side of Jesus has pushed his chair back, dropped to his knees, and has his hands clasped in worship. The progression of responses moves from fear and terror, to awe and wonder, then finally to total submission.

There is no doubt that the artist is attempting to paint a biblical event in the style of the Renaissance, and both The London Times and Chicago Tribune are correct that other European artists have painted this same scene. However, while this may be a biblical story


Supper at Emmus

commonly depicted in European artwork, Dagnan-Bouveret captures the intensity and wonder of it better than any other. Take for instance the aforementioned Supper at Emmaus. Veronese seems more concerned with capturing the intricate detail of clothing than the intensity of the moment. Christ’s radiance extends barely beyond his own head. In contrast, Dagnan-Bouveret has Christ’s radiance overtaking everything in the photo. Where there is darkness, one gets the sense that the light is quickly chasing it away. You cannot help but conclude that this is a life changing event. Then there is the comparison of the people surrounding Christ. In the Supper at Emmaus, many of them seemed disengaged and unaffected. Nowhere in this work does anyone come close to capturing the mood and feeling that certainly must have accompanied this moment. In contrast, Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus is filled with emotion.

But both the Tribune and Times were referring to something more than simply the style, when accusing the artist of being unoriginal. Off to the right of where Jesus sits, Dagnan-Bouveret has inserted three figures dressed in contemporary clothing. Numerous renaissance painters often did the same thing. Veronese was reportedly called before church officials because of this, being cited for the crime of heresy.[9] But whereas Veronese was clearly doing nothing more than embedding a family portrait into his painting (often wealthy donors would be included in religious depictions to display their adoration and worship), Dagnan-Bouveret is providing commentary on the biblical scene. In addition to the very clear biblical message, which I believe Dagnan-Bouveret has captured faithfully, he has added an additional layer of meaning, one that is in tension with the original.

The modern figures are that of a man standing, a woman kneeling, and a small child immediately in the forefront, kneeling next to the woman. While all three figures are more obscured than any other in the work, the faces of the boy and woman reflect the light radiating from Christ, while the man remains obscured in darkness with what appears to be a dubious demeanor. More than anything else, it was the image of this modern man that caused the Chicago Tribune to title its 1898 review, “Frick Buys A Freak.” The paper also included multiple sub-headlines with the piece: It Will Cause A Shock; Europe Considers It Scandalous and Sacrilegious; Boldness Of The Artist; and, His Cynical View Of Religion. History has left us with the artist’s own words responding to this criticism and explaining the meaning of the three figures. For Dagnan-Bouveret the man clearly is skeptical, finding himself unable to accept the truth of Christ as easily as the boy and woman. This is reflected in the positioning of each of the modern figures’ hands. The child’s hands are clasped near his waist, the woman’s hands are prayerfully at her chest, and the man’s hands are touching his face as he considers what is before him. The move is from childlike faith to the uncertainty of modern man. Dagnan-Bouveret explains that it is the man, enlightened by the advances of philosophy and science, that struggles with his own religion.[10]

But perhaps there is more to be seen here then the artist conveys in his own words. Upon closer examination, it appears that the child is the only one in the frame not looking at Christ. A child accepts the faith of his or her family, often without question. But while children understand the form of piety, they do not necessarily have a heartfelt devotion. This child appears distracted by something else, as children so often are. On the other hand, the woman is filled with devotion as she gazes upon the scene before her. There is no question of her sincerity or acceptance of the truth of Christ. But what of the man? Does Dagnan-Bouveret intend to communicate that educated man cannot, and must not give in to the superstition of religion? While the work does not reveal the man coming to faith, perhaps the radiance and intensity of the rest of the scene provides some insight as to the ultimate outcome of the struggle between faith and reason. The artist asks the question of his own work:

Have scholars and philosophers succeeded in giving satisfaction to the human soul? I don’t believe it. The figure of Christ remains, after 1,900 years, as effulgent as ever. His rule of morals is as sublime as ever.[11]

In providing a retrospective analysis of Dagnan-Bouveret’s work, modern critic Gabriel Weisberg concludes that the artist must be understood in light of the deeper meanings that are reflected in his paintings.

He was certainly one of the most personal of the academic painters, and perhaps the key artist who interiorized academic image-making in a way that reveals the doubts and traumas of an era in which traditional ideology was under severe stress.[12]

Of course, Dagnan-Bouveret did not limit his doubt to traditional ideology in artistic styling. In Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus, he is clearly expressing doubt over the traditional ideology expressed in the very content of art, distinguishing this work as far more than sentimentality and devotion. This is the juxtaposition of two worlds in conflict: the enduring legacy of religious  art verses its rejection by modernity. Is that legacy merely the product of a time when scientific ignorance made room for naïve faith? Even though Dagnan-Bouveret entertains this idea, the transformative power communicated in this painting suggests otherwise. Ultimately, it is today’s viewer that finds herself in the exact same position as the skeptic within the painting, coming face to face with the figure of Christ. His eyes connect, his radiance overwhelms, and he draws the viewer into the scene. Will the response be doubt, fear, wonder, or submission? Whatever the response, Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus compels us to decide.

[1] Gabriel P. Weisberg, Against the Modern: Dagnan-Bouveret and the Transformation of the Academic Tradition (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002), 267.

[2] Ross Finocchio, “Frick Buys a Freak: Dagnan-Bouveret and the Development of the Frick Collection,” The Burlington Magazine, December, 2013, 827.

[3] Ibid., 828. 

[4] W. R. Hearst, “Frick Buys a Freak,” Chicago Tribune, February 6, 1898, accessed November 13, 2016, http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1898/02/06/page/2/article/frick-buys-a-freak.

[5] “M. Dagnan-Bouveret’s New Picture,” The London Times, December 21, 1897, accessed on November 13, 2016, https://www.newspapers.com/image/33185176/?terms=M%2BDagnan-Bouveret%27s%2BNew%2BPicture.

[6] Finocchio, Frick Buys a Freak: Dagnan-Bouveret and the Development of the Frick Collection, 830.

[7] Ken Johnson, “A Timid Academician, Tempted by Modernism,” The New York Times, September 20, 2002, accessed November 9, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2002/09/20/arts/art-review-a-timid-academician-tempted-by-modernism.html.

[8] Luke 24: 30-33 (English Standard Version).

[9] Hearst, “Frick Buys a Freak.”

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Weisberg, Against the Modern, 10.

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