Breaking the Social Stereotypes of the 19th Century French Poor

Discussion about Les Souers

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"Les Soeurs de Charite" a painting by Francois Bonvin (1851)

Discussion on "Les Soeurs de Charite"

Bonvin creates a pleasant scene with "les soeurs" as the main focus of his painting. The church in France (and many places around the world) was a place people associated with charity. Bonvin paints a colorful picture of the less unfortunate, (not the lowest class of poverty) most likely the working class as indicated by their attire. The two main characters are the nun giving something to the lady in red.

The Players: As you can see the people waiting in line are not in rags. They are not dressed like a bourgeoisie either, they seem to represent the working class in France at the time.The children interacting in the bottom right hand corner are fully dressed. The clothes the people are dressed in are not torn, they fully cover the people. The women waiting in line to the left of the two main characters seem to waiting in an orderly fashion, some are chatting and some are simply waiting to receive any form of charity from the nuns. The women looking in the basket (bottom left) seems to be satisfied with a full basket of goods received. However, this picture is suppose to represent a positive theme. A theme indicating the charity of the church to the lower classes. The peaceful setting on the street and the people patiently waiting in line show an orderly event.

The Analysis: Even though one gets the sense that the main theme of the picture is positive, there exists some underlying themes and ideas. The old man in the bottom right hand corner is poorly dressed in dark clothing, he does not fit in with the rest of the line of people waiting to receive charity. (Dark clothing seems to be a theme of the poor class in many paintings, see Daumier). This aligns with the many stereotypes of the poor. The church may have given out charity, but they might be neglecting the people who really need it. Bonvin puts the nun on top of a few steps from the lady. Something that is indicated, yet not clearly seen. The nun is raised like a Christ-figure above the common people of France handing out the charity of the church. Although the people and nuns are bright in color, the background colors are dismal and dark, perhaps indicating the streets where the destitute come from are also the same way.