If you saw this work and thought “Bougeureau,” you could be forgiven. Hugues Merle (French, 1823-1881) is in many ways a forgotten proto-Bougeureau. Merle and William-Adolphe Bougeureau (1825-1905) knew one another well and, for a time, were represented by the same gallery.
Their penchant for mythical, allegorical and literary scenes combined with mastery of the monumental human figure, made them competitors for the same pupils, positions, prizes and patrons. Mary Magdaline is known for her remarkable understanding and appropriation of Jesus’ teaching, and is at the center of the controversy reflecting a developing tension between those who claim authority based on the idea of succession and those who claim authority based on spiritual gifts, especially prophetic experience.
As a result, she is usually remembered as a woman of questionable reputation rather than as the first witness of the resurrection. The face in this painting, to me, depicts a women, chosen by God, to be the first to proclaim the most essential truth of the Christian faith: that He is risen!