Chrétien et Plein d’Espoir capturés par le géant Désespoir (Christian and Hopeful captured by the giant Despair), c. 1897
Seeing Fra Angelico’s frescos on a trip to Italy in 1877 confirmed Eugène Burnand’s intention to turn to religious subjects: from the latter half of the 1890s on, he worked on nothing else. In addition to his monumental paintings, he planned several sets of illustrations, two of which came to fruition – the 1908 Parables, which proved hugely popular, and the Little Flowers of Saint Francis of Assisi, published in 1920.
Burnand’s vision for his new religious art was clear as early as 1893-4. Inspired by Ernest Renan’s 1863 book La Vie de Jésus (The Life of Jesus), he broke with the fashionable sentimental style of Catholic art, aiming instead to create “an absolutely faithful, historical, and scientific re-enactment of our great religious past” – without sacrificing “the ideal vision” that imbued subjects with “a typical, eternal character”.
This drawing was one of a set of illustrations for John Bunyan’s Christian allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). Burnand read the book in the summer of 1896 and began work on the illustrations in January 1897, offering the set to the publishers Georges Bridel in Lausanne, Harper in Paris, and Smith, Elder & Co. in London. None were interested.
This scene comes from the first part of the Progress. The eponymous pilgrim Christian and his fellow traveller Hopeful have been captured while trying to take the easy road to the Celestial City. They learn the hard way that there are no shortcuts to eternal salvation: they are caught by the giant Despair, who ties their hands and imprisons them in Doubting Castle. The realism of the scene and the careful study of their facial expressions, clothing, and landscape make the pen-and-ink drawing touched up with white gouache a striking piece of religious illustration.
Philippe Kaenel, Eugène Burnand, peintre réaliste, exh. cat. Lausanne, Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts, Milan, 5 Continents Editions, 2004: p. 123-125.