gigatos | February 2, 2022
William-Adolphe Bouguereau (La Rochelle, November 30, 1825 – La Rochelle, August 19, 1905) was a French academic teacher and painter. With a manifest talent from childhood, he received artistic training at one of the most prestigious art schools of his time, the Paris School of Fine Arts, where he later became a much sought-after professor, also teaching at the Julian Academy. His career flourished during the golden period of academicism, a system of education of which he was an ardent supporter and of which he was one of the most typical representatives.
His painting is characterized by a perfect command of form and technique, with a high-quality finish, achieving effects of great realism. In terms of style, he was part of the eclectic current that dominated the second half of the nineteenth century, blending elements of neoclassicism and romanticism in a naturalistic approach with a good dose of idealism. He left a vast work, centered on mythological, allegorical, historical, and religious themes; in portraits, nudes, and images of young peasant girls.
He amassed a fortune and gained international fame during his lifetime, receiving numerous awards and decorations – such as the Prix de Rome and the National Order of the Legion of Honor – but towards the end of his career he began to be discredited by the pre-modernists. From the beginning of the 20th century, right after his death, his work was quickly forgotten, coming to be considered at all empty and artificial, and a model of everything that art should not be, but in the 1970s it began to be appreciated again, and today he is considered one of the great painters of the 19th century. However, there is still a lot of resistance to his work, and controversy remains around him.
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William-Adolphe Bouguereau was born into a family that had settled in La Rochelle since the 16th century. His parents were Théodore Bouguereau and Marie Marguérite Bonnin. In 1832 the family moved to Saint-Martin, the main town on the island of Ré, where the father decided to start a business in the port. The boy was enrolled in school, but spent much of his time drawing. The business was not very profitable, the family had economic difficulties, and so they sent him to live with his uncle, Eugène Bouguereau, parish priest of Mortagne sur Gironde. Eugène was cultured and introduced his pupil to the classics, French literature, and reading the Bible, as well as giving him Latin lessons, teaching him to hunt and ride, and awakening in him a love of nature.
To further his classical knowledge, Eugène sent him in 1839 to study at the school of Pons, a religious institution, where he came into contact with Greek mythology, ancient history, and the poetry of Ovid and Virgil. At the same time he received drawing lessons from Louis Sage, a former pupil of Ingres. In 1841 the family moved again, this time to Bordeaux, where they were to start a trade in wine and olive oil. The young man seemed destined to follow in his father”s footsteps in commerce, but soon some customers in the store noticed his drawings and insisted that his father send him to study at the municipal school of drawing and painting. His father agreed, on the condition that he not pursue a career, as he saw a more promising future in commerce. Enrolled in 1842 and studying with Jean-Paul Alaux, despite attending classes for only two hours a day, he made rapid progress and eventually received his first prize in painting in 1844, which confirmed his vocation. To earn some money he designed labels for foodstuffs.
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Further Education and Early Career
Through his uncle he received an order to paint portraits of parishioners, and with the income from the work, plus a letter of recommendation from Alaux, he was able, in 1846, to go to Paris and enter the School of Fine Arts. François-Édouard Picot received him as a disciple, and with him Bouguereau perfected himself in the academic method. At the time, he said that joining the school left him “brimming with enthusiasm,” studying up to twenty hours a day and barely eating. To improve his anatomical drawing, he attended dissections, and studied history and archeology. His progress was thus very fast, and works from this phase, such as Equality before Death (1848), are already perfectly finished works, so much so that in the same year he shared first place, along with Gustave Boulanger, in the preliminary round of the Rome Prize. In 1850, he won the final competition for the Prize, with the work Zenobia, found by shepherds on the banks of the Araxe River.
Settling in the Villa Medici, as a disciple of Victor Schnetz and Jean Alaux, he was able to study the Renaissance masters directly, feeling a great attraction for the work of Raphael. He visited cities in Tuscany and Umbria, studying the ancients, appreciating especially the artistic beauty of Assisi, copying in its entirety the frescoes by Giotto in the Basilica of St. Francis. He also became enthusiastic about the frescoes of antiquity he saw in Pompeii, which he would reproduce in his own home when he later returned to France, which was in 1854. He spent some time with his relatives in Bordeaux and La Rochelle, decorated the Moulon villa, a wealthy branch of the family, and then settled in Paris. In the same year he exhibited at the Salon The Triumph of Martyrdom, held the previous year, and decorated two mansions. Already his first critics applauded his mastery of drawing, the happy composition of the figures, and his fortunate affiliation with Raphael, from whom they said that although he had learned everything from the ancients, he had left original work. He was also the subject of a praiseworthy article by Théophile Gautier, which did much to consolidate his reputation.
He married Marie-Nelly Monchablon in 1856, and with her he would have five children. In the same year the French government commissioned him to decorate the Tarascon town hall, where he left the canvas Napoleon III visiting the victims of the Tarascon flood in 1856. The following year he obtained the first-class medal at the Salon, painted portraits of Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie de Montijo, and decorated the mansion of the wealthy banker Émile Pereire. With these works Bouguereau became a celebrated artist, and became sought after as a teacher. Also in this year his first daughter, Henriette, was born. The year 1859 saw the birth of one of his greatest compositions, All Saints” Day, purchased by Bordeaux City Hall, and his first son, George. Around the same time he decorated, under Picot”s supervision, the chapel of Saint Louis in the Church of Saint Clotilde in Paris, in an austere style that betrays his admiration for the Renaissance. His second daughter, Jeanne, was born at Christmas 1861, but lived only a few years.
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Stylistic transition and consecration
While his initial production had favored the great historical and religious themes, following the academic tradition, the taste of the public began to change and in the 1860s his painting shows a transformation, deepening in the study of color, worrying about a high quality technical finish and consolidating a work of greater popular appeal, for which he would become better known. He made decorations in the Church of the Augustinians in Paris and in the concert hall of the Grand-Théâtre de Bordeaux, always carrying out other works in parallel, which in this period are paints of a certain melancholy. He also established strong ties with Jean-Marie Fortuné Durand, his son Paul Durand-Ruel and Adolphe Goupil, well-known marchands, participating actively in the Salons. His works were well accepted and his fame soon spread to England, enabling him to acquire a large house with an atelier in Montparnasse. In 1864 a second child was born, named Paul.
With Paris under siege in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War, Bouguereau returned alone from his vacation in England, where he was staying with his family, and took up arms as a private, helping to defend the barricades, although because of his age he was exempt from military service. Once the siege was lifted, he joined his family and spent some time in La Rochelle, waiting for the end of the Commune. He used the time to make decorations in the cathedral and paint a portrait of Bishop Thomas. In 1872, he was juried into the Vienna World Fair, when his works already showed a more sentimental, jovial, and dynamic spirit, as in Nymphs and Satyrs (1873), often depicting children. This mood would be broken in 1875, when George died, a hard blow to the family, which nevertheless was reflected in two important works with a sacred theme: Pietà and The Virgin of Consolation. At the same time, he began teaching at the Julian Academy in Paris. In 1876 his last child, Maurice, was born, and he was accepted as a full member of the Institute of France, after twelve frustrated pleas. A year later, new sufferings: his wife died, and after two months he also lost Maurice. As if by compensation, the period was dotted with the production of several of his greatest and most ambitious paintings. The following year he received the grand medal of honor at the Universal Exhibition. At the end of the decade he communicated to his family his desire to remarry, to his former student Elizabeth Gardner. His mother and daughter objected, but the couple secretly got engaged in 1879. The marriage would only be celebrated after his mother”s death in 1896.
In 1881 he decorated the chapel of the Virgin in the Church of Saint Vincent de Paul in Paris, a commission that would take eight years to complete, consisting of eight large canvases on the life of Christ. Shortly thereafter he became president of the Society of French Artists, charged with the administration of the Salons, a position he retained for many years. In the meantime, he painted another large canvas, The Youth of Bacchus (1884), one of the artist”s favorites, which remained in his studio until his death. In 1888 he was appointed professor at the School of Fine Arts in Paris, and the following year he was made Commander of the National Order of the Legion of Honor. At this time, while his fame was growing in England and the United States, in France he began to experience a certain decline, facing competition and attacks from the pre-modernist avant-garde, which considered him mediocre and unoriginal.
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Bouguereau had firm opinions and on more than one occasion clashed with the public, his colleagues and the critics. In 1889 he clashed with the group gathered around the painter Ernest Meissonier over the regulation of the Salons, which eventually resulted in the creation of the National Society of Fine Arts, which held a dissident Salon. In 1891 the Germans invited French artists to exhibit in Berlin, and Bouguereau was one of the few who accepted, saying that he felt it was a patriotic duty to penetrate Germany and conquer it through the brush. This nevertheless aroused the ire of the League of Patriots in Paris, and Paul Déroulède began a war against him in the press. On the other hand, Bouguereau”s success in organizing a show of French artists at London”s Royal Academy had the effect of creating a permanent, annually repeating event.
His son Paul, who had become a respected jurist and military man, died in 1900, the fourth death of a son that Bouguereau had to witness. At this time the painter was with him in Menton in the south of France, where, painting incessantly, he hoped he would recover from the tuberculosis he had contracted. The loss was critical for Bouguereau, whose health from then on declined rapidly. In 1902 the first signs of a heart ailment appeared. He was fortunate, however, to see the work he had sent to the World”s Fair acclaimed, and in 1903 he received the insignia of Grand Officer of the National Order of the Legion of Honor. Soon after he was invited to the centennial celebrations of the Villa Medici in Rome, and then spent a week in Florence with his wife. By this time he was receiving numerous invitations to be honored in European cities, but his poor health forced him to refuse them, and eventually prevented him from painting. Sensing the end, he moved on July 31, 1905, to La Rochelle, where he expired on August 19.
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Bouguereau flourished at the height of academism, a teaching method born in the 16th century and which by the mid-19th century had achieved a dominant influence. It was based on the fundamental concept that art can be fully taught by systematizing it into a communicable body of theory and practice, minimizing the importance of originality. The academies valued above all the authority of the established masters, especially venerating the classical tradition, and adopted concepts that had, besides an aesthetic character, also an ethical background and a pedagogical purpose, producing an art that aimed to educate the public and thus transform society for the better. They also had a fundamental role in the organization of the whole art system, because, besides teaching, they monopolized the cultural ideology, the taste, the criticism, the market and the ways of exhibition and diffusion of the artistic production, and they stimulated the formation of didactic collections that ended up being the origin of many art museums. This vast influence was mainly due to their dependence on the constituted power of the States, being, as a rule, vehicles for the dissemination and consecration of not only artistic, but also political and social ideals.
Among the academies” most typical practices was the organization of periodic Salons, competitive events of an artistic and commercial nature that showcased the output of the most promising beginners and established masters, offering medals and significant prizes to the winners. The highest distinction at the Paris Salon was the Prix de Rome, which Bouguereau received in 1850, whose prestige at the time would be equivalent today to that of the Nobel Prize. The Paris Salon in 1891 received an average of 50,000 visitors per day, on days when admission was free – usually Sundays – reaching the 300,000 mark annually, which made such events an important showcase for new talents and a springboard for their insertion in the market, being very popular with collectors. Without a reception at the Salons it would be difficult for an artist to sell his work. Furthermore, what was exhibited in the Salons did not remain circumscribed, as the most acclaimed works were staged as “living pictures” in theaters, circulated throughout the countryside, were copied as paintings and reproduced in mass consumer products such as newspapers, magazine covers and widely circulated prints, chocolate boxes, calendars, postcards and other media, thus powerfully influencing the entire society. The most celebrated artists likewise became influential public figures, whose popularity was comparable to that of today”s movie stars.
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The market and the consolidation of your style
Even though the academic system had always placed great value on the classical tradition, from the 1860s on, through the influence of the middle class, which became an important audience at the Salons and began to buy art, the academies were already experiencing a significant change in their emphasis. There was a general interest in the search for truth and how it could be communicated in art. The academies could no longer maintain their old program of offering the public only subjects considered by the ruling elite as noble and elevated, typified in historical, mythological, allegorical, and religious works in impersonal and solemn approaches. In Naomi Maurer”s words, “although once potent, these themes already had little or no relevance to a secularized public that combined skepticism about religion with an ignorance of classical allusions, whose symbolism was rarely understood.” But not only that. Other elements contributed to this diversification. Everyday life became a subject worthy of artistic representation, the concept of art for art”s sake developed, freeing it from the tutelage of morality and public utility, the picturesque emerged as an aesthetic value in its own right, interest in the Middle Ages, Oriental exoticism, national folklores, handicrafts and applied arts increased, opening other avenues for aesthetic appreciation and finding other truths worthy of appreciation, which had previously been despised by the official culture. Finally, the support of the bourgeois to the academics was also a way to get closer to them and clothe themselves with some of their prestige, indicating a desire for social ascension. Interest in the academic proposal in general remained, because of the school”s great reputation and the high level of quality of its product, but it had to adapt by offering not only a thematic variation, but a new style of presentation of these new themes, resulting in a seductive combination of idealized beauty, polished surfaces, easy sentimentality, detailed finishes, decorative effects, scenes of manners, exotic landscapes, and sometimes a piquant eroticism. This change of mentality was so important that, as Bouguereau expressed in an 1891 interview, it determined a transformation in his work:
However, the recognition of the market”s influence on his production caused him to be repeatedly and for a long time accused of prostituting his art, but it must be remembered that artists have always depended on patrons to survive, and patronage was one of the dominant social processes in pre-industrial Europe. Indeed, as Jensen stated, there may have been in Bouguereau”s time an intensification in artistic mercantilism by the increasing independence of bourgeois consumers from the guidance of the scholars, who previously dictated to the elites what was good or bad art, but the idea that art should be created independently of public taste, as the same author warned, was one of the modernist flags, and as such it was used by the avant-garde to attack the old art system, considering not only Bouguereau prostituted, but the whole academic system. The contradictory thing about this argument is that even the Impressionists, the ones who first attacked Bouguereau, depended on patrons and the patronage of the art dealers, and to an even greater degree.
Bouguereau devoted much of his energies to satisfying the taste of the new bourgeois public, but it was clear his idealism and his identification of art with beauty, and in this he remained faithful to the ancient tradition. On one occasion he declared his profession of faith:
Even in works that portray beggars, he tends toward idealization, which is one of the reasons for the criticism that already during his lifetime accused him of artificialism. In Familia indigente, the ambiguity of his treatment is obvious: while the image should evoke misery, it is composed with Renaissance harmony and balance and is meant to ennoble the subjects; you can see that everyone is quite clean, they are beautiful, the baby in the mother”s arms is plump and rosy and looks entirely healthy. In Erika Langmuir”s opinion, despite the theme and the artist”s notorious compassion and personal generosity, “the work does not serve as social reportage or call for action (against misery),” as was evident to its critics when it was exhibited: “Mr. Bouguereau can teach his students how to draw, but he cannot teach the rich how and how much people suffer around them.
Nevertheless, this approach was not exclusive to him, and was part of the academic tradition. Mark Walker noted that despite the criticism that could be raised against his idealizations, because they do not exactly represent visible reality, idealization itself, with the fantasy it involves, cannot be considered alien to art. Linda Nochlin added that even if for this reason his detractors accuse him of passadism and of lacking contact with his time, he cannot be considered an anachronism, since the ideology he defended was one of the vital currents in existence in that period: “whether they like it or not, artists and writers are inevitably condemned to be contemporary, unable to escape the determinants that Taine divided into context (milieu), race, and moment”.
Taking into account his context and his personal preferences, one can summarize the description of his eclectic style as follows:
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Method and technique
Like every academic of his time, he underwent a systematic and graduated apprenticeship, studying the renowned masters and the techniques of his craft. Proficiency in drawing was indispensable, it was the basis of all academic work, both for structuring the entire composition and for allowing, in the early stages, the exploration of an idea under the most varied aspects, before reaching a definitive result. Naturally, his working method included making countless preparatory sketches, in a meticulous construction of all figures and backgrounds. Likewise, a perfect mastery of the representation of the human body was fundamental, since all the works were figurative and centered on the actions of man or anthropomorphic mythological gods. The impressive smoothness of texture in the pictorial depiction of human skin and the delicacy of shapes and gestures he achieved in the hands, feet and faces were especially admired. An anonymous chronicler left his impression:
Bouguereou worked in the oil painting technique, and his brushwork is often invisible, with a very high quality finish. he built the forms with their sharply delineated contours, evidencing his mastery of drawing, and defined the volumes with a skillful gradation of light in subtle sfumato. His technique was recognized as brilliant, but in his final years, possibly due to vision problems, he became less rigorous and his brushstrokes were freer.
However, on some occasions his technique could be extremely versatile, adapting itself to each type of object represented, which lent a particular impression of vivacity and spontaneity to the whole, without this meaning great improvisation, as attested by the similarity between his sketches and the finished works. An example of this exceptional treatment can be given by the analysis of his important composition The youth of Bacchus, in the words of Albert Boime:
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Among the changes in the academic universe brought about by the bourgeoisie, a demand for works with erotic content emerged. This explains the great presence of the nude in his work, and several contemporary scholars have been interested in this aspect of his production. Theodore Zeldin stated that despite his undeniable classical culture, even his mythological works are not about the gods and goddesses themselves, but are simple pretexts for the display of beautiful female bodies with their satiny skins, which, according to the author, can be confirmed by his habit of choosing names for the canvases only after they were finished, in long conversations with his wife that often ended in laughter. Among his best-known mythological nude scenes are The Youth of Bacchus, where a profusion of nude and half-dressed figures revel and amuse themselves around the god of wine and ecstasy, and Nymphs and Satyr, in which four nude nymphs with sculptural bodies attempt to seduce the mythological creature known for his lubricity.
Bouguereau was one of the most appreciated painters of female nudes of his time, and Marcel Proust in a letter imagined that he was able to capture and make comprehensible the transcendental essence of woman”s beauty, saying, “That woman so strangely beautiful…. would never recognize and admire herself but in a painting by Bouguereau. Women are the living embodiments of Beauty, but they do not understand it.” The body type that the artist enshrined in his works was the standard model of the idealized female beauty of his time: young women with small breasts, a perfectly proportioned body, an ethereal appearance, often in a frontal pose but without pubic hair, or with the vulva strategically hidden. As James Collier noted, for that society this kind of sublimated, impersonal representation was an acceptable way to publicly display the figure of the naked woman in a moralistic era when gentlemen would not dare mention words like “legs” or “pregnancy” in the presence of ladies. In order to be seen naked, the woman could not be of this world. No wonder, then, the scandal that Manet”s Olympia caused when she was exhibited in 1863, no more naked than Bouguereau”s women, but presented in a prosaic context – reclining on a sofa with a servant girl bringing her a bouquet of flowers, presumably sent by an admirer, which made her in the eyes of the time a mere prostitute. While Olympia embarrassed everyone by her appeal to immediate sex, with Bouguereau”s inhuman nymphs men could quietly and politely fantasize in full Salons.
Among his most ambitious nudes is Two bathers, a major contribution to a traditional genre but in some ways an innovative work. Much of its impact is due to the presentation of the bodies outlined against an open background, which highlights their forms and lends them statuesque monumentality. Again, as was the rule in the theme of bathers, the figures do not seem to belong to the Earth, immersed in a kind of introspection in a wild and remote setting, far from the urban environment, living only in pictorial reality, characteristics that isolate them from the observer safely without producing an effective interaction.
But there was a peculiar development in nineteenth-century European male eroticism, opening new fields of artistic representation into which Bouguereau resolutely plunged. In a period when the adult woman, the real woman, was abandoning her former role as chaste and virtuous diva, as if “losing her innocence,” in part male eroticism shifted to young girls and even, in some cases, to boys, both in their early adolescence, in search of something that could erase the sense of lost purity. As Jon Stratton described it, “there was a convergence. Where adolescent girls had become desirable to bourgeois men, being both desired and feared, it was thought that men might celebrate the adolescent boy without desire but for the feminine virtues attributed to him. But soon the ambiguous male figure became eroticized.” Bram Dijkstra, in this line of thinking, cited Bouguereau”s work Wet Cupid, exhibited at the 1891 Salon, as an example, and said, “The master could not offer a more sexually stimulating adolescent boy than this one, but unlike Oscar Wilde, who had been arrested for pederasty, Bouguereau received awards and honors.” The difference, Stratton returned, was that Wilde had gone on to the real thing, while Bouguereau remained safe in the safe land of fantasy.
Bouguereau”s erotic work, however, did not privilege boys, although he produced several Cupids. Mature or young, they form the great majority of the representations of women in his work, appearing not only in mythological themes, as already mentioned, in allegories and nudes – it is worth saying that his reputation grew largely on the numerous group of paintings showing nymphs and bathers – but also in the depiction of the female rural population in their daily activities. The peasant women were a motif that met enormous popularity in the late nineteenth century, also as a romantic idealization of innocence and purity, as well as health and vigor, despite the harsh reality in which they lived at that time, which was quite different from that in which they appeared in the paintings of Bouguereau and others who followed the same aesthetic, always immaculately clean, happy, carefree, and well-dressed. The popular urban imaginary also saw them as particularly close to nature, to the earth, and, by extension, they were supposed to be more ardent in love. As Karen Sayer analyzed,
It is not difficult to see the broad political and social connotations of this vision, as the consolidation of an ideology of domination, prejudice, and exploitation of peasant women. In analyzing the work The Broken Jug, Sayer said that the image of the peasant girl, sitting at the edge of a well, with bare feet, hair loosely tied, gaze fixed on the observer, the broken vase at her feet, is a metaphor of seduction and at the same time danger, of knowledge and sexual innocence, and clearly indicates the power of sexuality, a power that requires a reaction that dissolves the threat and contains such power, through the distancing of pastoral idealization, and especially when the figure was a young girl and not an adult woman.
In the case of boys, the neutralization of their sexual power begins with their mythologization, showing them in the form of Cupids and thus transferring them to the supramundane sphere. Also symptomatic is their preference for the Roman form of the god of love, in theory less sexualized than the Greek form of Eros, generally a virile adult male. The treatment of these works, delicate and sentimental, also collaborated to increase the distance from reality. The artist painted many Cupids, saying that he met the demands of the market: “Since humble, dramatic, and heroic themes do not sell, and since the public prefers Venuses and Cupids, I paint them to please them, and I devote myself mainly to Venuses and Cupids. Alyce Mahon, exploring the canvas Young Woman defending herself from Cupid, stated that the neutralization occurs, in this case, also through the composition, where the said young woman smiles at the god of love, but at the same time pushes him away with her arms, and the setting, again an idyllic country landscape, while offering attractive details such as the young woman”s beautiful half-naked body and the pink exposed buttocks of the little god.
On the other hand, for the more conservative public, his erotic works were often a cause for scandal. Nymphs and Satyr, although it became his most popular work in the United States in his day, being reproduced countless times throughout the country, Invading Cupid”s Kingdom was attacked by one critic as being suitable for a brothel; A Nude that was shipped to Chicago unleashed a storm in the local press, which called Bouguereau “one of those bastards who with their talent aim to corrupt the morals of the world,” and The Return of Spring, when it was exhibited in Omaha in 1890 ended up being vandalized by a Presbyterian minister, who took a chair and charged at the painting, opening a large tear in it, indignant at “the impure thoughts and desires that the work had aroused in him.” However, McElrath & Crisler state that even in his explicitly erotic works, he never descended into what was not considered “good taste,” nor did he work the sordid, the lugubrious, and the repulsive as his contemporaries such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, and Courbet did. Other authors, such as Mittchel & Reid-Walsh, John Brewer, and Tobin Siebers have reiterated the complexity and pointed out the ambiguities and tensions underlying Bouguereau”s erotic work. Conveying so many meanings, this facet of his work provides a remarkable visual testimony to the ideologies of his time and the changes that were underway in that society.
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Religious and historical works
Bouguereau”s sacred production constitutes a minority in his body of work, but at least a brief reference should be made to this thematic group. He worked most emphatically in the sacred genre before the 1860s, considering it “the mainstay of Great Painting” and giving it a conservative and grandiloquent treatment that affiliated him with the classicist school of Raphael and Poussin. His religious works were highly esteemed and Bonnin, a critic of the time, praised the authenticity of his Christian feeling and the nobility of his figures, as expressed in the Pietà, considering them of better inspiration than his profane creations. Related to the Pietà is the Virgin of Consolation, a solemn and hieratic composition reminiscent of Byzantine art, where the Virgin Mary welcomes into her lap a distraught mother who has her dead son at her feet. It was painted shortly after the Franco-Prussian War, honoring French mothers who had lost their children in the conflict. Later his interest turned to other areas, and the artist himself recognized that the market for this type of art was rapidly declining, in a trend that as early as 1846 Théophile Gautier had detected.
Even so, throughout his life he occasionally produced a few pieces, including important commissions from the Church, such as the decoration in 1881 of the Church of Saint Vincent de Paul in Paris. In his later works he would maintain the same high tone of his early production, although the style was more flexible and dynamic. When he painted groups of angels, he often derived the figures from the same model, ethereal and sweet. In Regina angelorum (in Song of Angels (1881) the same thing happens, and in Pietà (1876) the eight angels are basically just two different models. This procedure signifies, perhaps, as Kara Ross believes, a principled statement about the nature of the divine, emphasizing that the divine presence can be felt through the multitude of souls, but being in essence a single power.
He could also express the pathos of religious feeling, as in Compassion! (1897), where Christ on the cross is depicted against a desolate landscape of great dramatic efficiency, and in the same overcited Pietà, painted soon after the death of his son George, with the figure of the dead Christ tightly wrapped in his mother”s arms, having a circle of angels around him in agitated composition. Jay Fisher, for his part, finds it surprising that even in religious works signs of eroticization are visible, giving as an example the Scourging of Christ and saying that the work caused apprehension when it was presented to the public, with critics seeing in the martyr”s body somewhat feminized forms and disapproving of his languorous abandonment to the ordeal.
The historical works, in the concept of the time, were rhetorical visualizations of eminently didactic purpose, drawing their motifs from literature, folklore, and antiquarian scholarship, or they brought to the scene recent events considered worthy of artistic consecration. Usually large in size, they emphasized positive values in an approach that was somewhat sensationalist in order to make an impact and excite the public. Although such works were often sentimental evocations, in other cases there was a serious concern to recreate the historical past accurately or to convey a valid moral message for the education and upliftment of the collectivity. Typical examples of this approach can be seen in the work that won him the Rome Prize in 1850, Zenobia found by shepherds on the banks of the Araxe, which defended moral and pious values by narrating the episode of the pregnant queen stabbed and abandoned by her husband but saved and cured by kindly shepherds, and in the one commissioned by the State in 1856, Napoleon III visiting the victims of the Tarascon flood, which carried a civic and social motif.
In the same field can be included allegories, such as Alma parens, a representation of the Motherland charged with civility, where a woman of august bearing and crowned with laurel, seated on a throne, is surrounded by children who represent the citizens and run for shelter. At her feet, the symbols of the earth”s wealth: a vine branch and ears of wheat. Similar is Charity, also a maternal and protective figure. As with religious paintings, historical subjects began to fall out of fashion around the 1860s in favor of more prosaic subjects. Bailey Van Hook pointed out that despite the differences in subject matter, Bouguereau”s formal treatment in many cases was quite similar for all genres, establishing the same pattern of figure construction and ways of composing scenes. Laura Lombardi seems to agree in part with this idea, but emphasized that the main thing in his historical work is a happy interpenetration of classical references and evocations of his own time, citing the example of the canvas Homer and his guide, which, bringing to light a motif from Ancient Greece, did so with the vivacity of a live study.
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Much appreciated in his lifetime, his portraits are generally romantic representations, showing a remarkable ability to capture the emotions and spirit of the subject. In this field he apparently felt freer from conventions, and could explore the figure with frankness and without having to reference it with classical tradition. His portraits, moreover, were important models to stimulate the artistic production of women and make their insertion in the market feasible. He started in the genre still young, portraying people from his native region, and one of his most celebrated creations is the Portrait of Aristide Boucicaut, of great formal rigor.
In his teaching career, in which he trained countless students, he adopted the same method he had been educated in, which demanded strict discipline, in-depth study of the ancient masters and nature, and perfect mastery of techniques and materials. In the academic method there was no room for improvisation. As he once said to his students: “Before you start work, immerse yourself in the subject of the work; if you don”t understand it, study it more, or look for another subject. Remember that everything must be planned beforehand, down to the smallest detail. This does not mean that he was dogmatic. Although he saw the need for thorough training and intense dedication to the work, according to Zeldin he “did not instill doctrines in his disciples, he encouraged them to follow their natural inclination and find their own originality through individual research and the development of their special talents. He thought there was no point in trying to produce painters according to the Renaissance model. He himself showed no interest in philosophy, politics or literature; he gave no importance to theories about painting and rejected prolonged analysis.” The artist himself wrote:
He did not maintain a private school, but taught at the Julian Academy from 1875 and at the School of Fine Arts in Paris from 1888, teaching only drawing. Among his many disciples, some who gained notoriety may be mentioned: Lovis Corinth, John Lavery, Jean-Édouard Vuillard, Augustus Koopman, Benedito Calixto His pupils were particularly devoted to him, considering him, for his extensive experience and excellent reputation, more than a simple teacher, but a mentor for life. Some were even moved to veneration, collecting objects he had touched, even as insignificant as a used matchstick, as relics. It is also worth noting that his influence was important for women to gain more respect in the artistic environment of that time, and thanks to his recommendation many of them got jobs in the market.
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Fame and Disrepute
At first he was not sure of his worth. In a note written in 1848, when he was 23, he longed to be able to create works “worthy of a grown man. However, with time he became more confident: “My heart is open to hope, I have faith in myself. No, the hard studies have not been useless, the road I walk is a good one, and with God”s help I will achieve glory. Indeed he did. Working tirelessly, and being highly disciplined and methodical, he became rich, famous and left a vast work, with 828 catalogued pieces.
Throughout most of his career Bouguereau was considered one of the greatest living painters and the most perfect embodiment of the academic ideal, being compared to Raphael. His happy combination of idealism and realism was much admired, and Gautier said that no one could be so modern and so Greek at the same time. His works fetched astronomical prices, and there was a joke that he lost five francs every time he left his brushes to go pee. He educated a legion of disciples and having him as a master was almost always a guaranteed passport to a position in the market. He dominated the Parisian Salons at a time when Paris was the Mecca of Western art, and in his heyday his fame within France was only comparable to that of the President of the Republic. North American collectors had him as the best French painter of his time, and he was also highly regarded in Holland and Spain.
However, at the end of the 19th century, when Modernism began its rise, his star began its decline. Degas and his colleagues saw in Bouguereau mainly artificiality, and “bougueresque” became a pejorative synonym for styles similar to his, although they recognized that he should in the future be remembered as one of the greatest French painters of the 19th century. He came to be considered an old-fashioned traditionalist, of scarce originality and mediocre talent, whose pontificating in the academies undermined the students” creativity and freedom of expression. In the early 20th century his preoccupation with minute, satiny finishes, his basically narrative style, his sentimentality, and his attachment to tradition made him to the modernists an epitome of a decadent bourgeois society that had given rise to World War I.
Then his work fell into oblivion, and for decades he was considered futile, vulgar, and irredeemable. His paintings disappeared from the market, and it was hard to hear any reference to him even in art schools, except as an example of what not to do. Lionello Venturi even claimed that Bouguereau”s work did not even deserve to be considered “art”. But it is interesting to point out that over the years some important artists of the avant-garde – few, it is true – have given positive opinions. Van Gogh wished he could paint as correctly as he did, Salvador Dali called him a genius, and Philip Guston said that “he really knew how to paint.” Andy Warhol owned one of his works.
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A controversial rehabilitation
His rehabilitation began in 1974, when an exhibition was mounted at the Luxembourg Museum that caused some sensation. The following year the New York Cultural Center held a retrospective. John Ashbery, commenting on it in an article in New York Magazine, said that his work was totally empty. Ten years later her output was the subject of a major retrospective show that toured the Petit Palais in Paris, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. Although the curator of the Petit Palais claimed that it was time to revisit his work and dispel certain modernist myths, The New York Times columnist Vivien Raynor received the exhibition with skepticism, saying that he remained a banal and boring painter. In the same way, the opening of the Musée d”Orsay in 1986, restoring visibility to numerous long-forgotten scholars, among them Bouguereau, became a bone of contention in the art world.
These criticisms indicate that efforts for its recovery have been controversial and bumpy. It is interesting to point out some recent opinions to attest to the controversy that still surrounds him. Not long ago John Canaday wrote: “What is wonderful about a Bouguereau painting is that it is so completely, so absolutely integrated. Not a single element is inharmonious within the whole; there is not a single flaw in the complete union between conception and execution. The problem with Bouguereau is that the conception and execution are perfectly false. Still, it is a kind of perfection, even if it is of a perverse kind.” The curator of an exhibition of French artists in the 1990s at the Denver Art Museum said:
For Hjort and Laver, he is a mostly kitsch artist, which is equivalent for them to say that his art is of poor quality:
Frascina, Perry & Harrison, writing in 1998, said that he possessed remarkable rhetorical ability and rich symbolic language, which he used to illustrate the dominant ideologies of his time, and therefore had historical value, but thought that he regrettably gave in to the temptations of fashion and lower public tastes in order to make success. Interestingly, the same Frascina and Harrison held different ideas on other occasions: in 1993 Frascina had warned against judging ancient art from a contemporary perspective, and in 2005 Harrison considered that Bouguereau”s work is more complex than one might judge at first glance, possessing high formal qualities and a fertile fantasy that contribute to the efficiency of a subtle narrative style full of psychological content.
Also ambivalent are the appreciations of the well-known critic Ernst Gombrich. He once described the canvas The Birth of Venus as an overdose of sugar and said that “we repel what is too good,” but earlier he recognized that its technique, in the field of representation, meant an advance toward modernity. He added, “Why do we vituperate the masterpieces of Bouguereau and his school for being cunning and perhaps revolting? I suspect that when we call paintings like his expressive Elder Sister insincere, for example, or unveracious, we are talking nonsense. We shelter behind a moral judgment that is totally inapplicable. After all, there are beautiful children in the world, and even if there were not, the charge would not apply to painting.” The same Gombrich raised the ironic hypothesis that the recent revaluation of academics like Bouguereau may be due to the fact that, within the context of the twentieth century, steeped deep in the principles of Modernism and multiple avant-garde currents, academic art appears to new generations as alien to the establishment, and therefore becomes attractive.
On the other hand, one cannot ignore the historical context and dispute his vast influence in his time, which surely grants him a place in the history of art. Robert Henri, giving a somewhat jocular example, warned that evaluations are relative: “If we judge a Manet from the point of view of Bouguereau, Manet is not finished; if we judge a Bouguereau from the point of view of Manet, Bouguereau has not even begun. In the same vein followed Robert Solomon, saying that value judgments and ideas about beauty are inconsistent concepts, and the same caveats about sentimentality and self-complacency that are often leveled against Bouguereau could be applied, for example, to pre-modernists like Degas, and even to current criticism that considers his point of view the only correct one. Moreover, he questioned whether it is fair for us to consider sentiments such as tenderness, innocence, and love, which are so often found in the painter”s work, as unworthy of artistic treatment, just because certain portions of contemporary criticism hold them to be false, old-fashioned, or banal, in an ideological program that is as exclusivist as the one it condemns.
The same opinion regarding a Modernism that is totalitarian and excluding otherness was held by Jorge Coli, explicitly citing Bouguereau”s case, but recognizing that the “tradition” created by Modernism has become so dominant throughout the twentieth century that today it is difficult for both critics and the public to disentangle themselves from it. Trodd & Denis agree, saying that academic culture has been wronged, and find Bouguereau”s originality in his innovative use of the formal repertoire that tradition had bequeathed to him. For Theodore Zeldin Bouguereau”s sincerity was as authentic as that of his modernist rivals, although the values they defended were quite different, and Peter Gay suspected that the feuds between Bouguereau and the Impressionists were rather due to the envy that the celebrated master”s enormous success caused them. The influential critic Robert Rosenblum said that in his paintings of gypsies Bouguereau had actually made sacred art and with it proved that in his veins ran the blood of Raphael and Poussin. For Fred and Kara Ross, connected to the Art Renewal Center, an institution strongly committed to the rescue of academic art,
In 2012 Fred and Kara Ross, along with Damien Bartoli, after research of over thirty years, published the first catalog raisonné on Bouguereau”s output, accompanied by a 600-page biography. However, Mark Roth has said that the Art Renewal Center is known for its tendency to apologist and mythify the artist, which undermines its credibility, and in the words of Scott Allan, curator of the Getty Museum, this catalog, despite its great documentary value, suffers from the same problem.
Despite the controversies, considerable space has already been opened up for him. The Grove dictionary of art, published by Oxford University, credits him as one of the great painters of the 19th century, and after so many years hidden away in storage rooms, he is back in the galleries of some of the most important museums in the world, such as the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Art Institute of Chicago. His paintings are extensively copied in commercial studios around the world, many located in the East, which resell them over the Internet. In 2000 the canvas Charity fetched 3.52 million dollars at auction at Christie”s.
This critical assessment can be closed with an excerpt from an article by Laurier Lacroix, who, writing for the magazine Vie des Arts on the occasion of the 1984 traveling retrospective, at the beginning of its rehabilitation, captured the nature of an impasse that seems to remain current, saying:
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Bouguereau”s artistic efforts were widely recognized in his lifetime, earning him a large number of official distinctions: