A Bouguereau in the basement

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Dear Artist,

I’m willing to bet that lots of artists have never heard of William Bouguereau. He was, however, one of the most celebrated artists of his time — admired, collected, lionized — President of the French Academy, Head of the Salon, President of the Legion of Honour. He won the Grand Prix de Rome in 1851 when he was twenty-six. When he died in 1905 his reputation started to slip. His work disappeared into the basements of obscurity. Most encyclopedias stopped mentioning him, and those that did used words like “competent” and “banal.”

bouguereau_la-charite_1878

“La Charite” 1878
oil on canvas by
William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905)

The fortunes of Bouguereau (pronounced boo-grow) reached a low ebb about 1970 when his work could be had at auction for under a thousand dollars. About that time ordinary folks started to realize what a darn good artist the guy was. Year by year his prices doubled — recently a work (illustrated left) went for $3,500,000. Not that prices mean much, but even institutions like the MOMA in New York, that for years had been embarrassed to have Bouguereaus in the basement, now dragged them upstairs to be displayed front and center. It’s all such an interesting comment on art criticism and art fashion.

bouguereau_nymphs-and-satyr

“Nymphs and Satyr” 1873
oil on canvas by
William-Adolphe Bouguereau

Fact is Bouguereau’s paintings are somewhat flawless. Top quality anatomy and composition are enhanced with professional surfaces as well as an understanding of human nature and psychology. His figure subjects seem to be real people, not idealized archetypes or neo-classical echoes. While he was a part of the 19th century boom in feminine purity, the floralization of women, floating in air, nymph-and-satyr stuff, as well as re-workings of Renaissance religious motifs, his work charms and transfixes with high ideals and exalted spirits. Retro subject matter aside, a lot of his latter-day success is part of the flight to quality that is taking place these days. No one can stand in front of the 6 foot by 9 foot “Nymphs and Satyr” (illustrated right) without being knocked over.

paul_cezanne_bacchanal

“Bacchanal”
by Paul Cezanne

There’s a similarly large painting on the same subject by Paul Cezanne called “Bacchanal.” My friend Joe Blodgett remarked of the Cezanne: “A composition by a person who doesn’t understand composition, drawn by a non-draughtsman, painted by someone who can’t paint.” One could not say that about a Bouguereau.

bouguereau_naissance_de_venus_1879

“Naissance de Venus” 1879
William-Adolphe Bouguereau

Best regards,

Robert

PS: “Many with careers in the art world are intimidated, and afraid to speak out against the gospels of Modernist theory.” (Kara Ross)

Esoterica: One of the repeated stereotypes of the work of Bougeureau and others of his time was the depiction of men. Women, while interminably playful, were for the most part innocent, ultra-white and pure. The male figures were often dark, with either Arab or Jewish features, their hairy bestiality suggesting an un-evolved and brutish state.

This letter was originally published as “A Bouguereau in the basement” on December 12, 2003.

bouguereau_self-portrait_1879

Bouguereau self-portrait

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“Each day I go to my studio full of joy; in the evening when obliged to stop because of darkness I can scarcely wait for the morning to come… if I cannot give myself to my dear painting I am miserable.” (Adolfe-William Bouguereau)


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25 Comments

  1. I’ve been a Bougereau fan since seeing one of his portraits at the Vancouver Art Gallery’s Faces show a few years ago. Thanks for sharing your dad’s tribute, Sara.

    Clare Thorbes

  2. Kathryn Taylor on

    Hi. Interesting email on William Bouguereau. I first saw a painting by him at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, while visiting there for another exhibit. I immediately fell in love with his work! And when I went back again, I looked for his paintings. Also, when I go to other museums, like the Philadelphia Museum of Art, or the National Gallery in D.C., I look for his work, and am always happy when I find one or two of his paintings there!

  3. Thoroughly enjoyed this. I’m a big fan of Bouguereau. Also of Cezanne. The quotes made me smile. Thanks for sharing this thought provoking and educational post. I think its important to build a strong foundation, learn the basics and more, and also important to step out of the box. Thank you once again. Always excellent reading here.

  4. “A composition by a person who doesn’t understand composition, drawn by a non-draughtsman, painted by someone who can’t paint.” (Joe Blodgett) Hilarious.
    “Many with careers in the art world are intimidated, and afraid to speak out against the gospels of Modernist theory.” (Kara Ross) Still accurate today? Absolutely.
    The male figures were often dark, with either Arab or Jewish features, their hairy bestiality suggesting an un-evolved and brutish state. (Robert Genn) Type casting- even racial profiling. Sad. My hairy bestiality suggests nothing like an un-evolved- nor brutish- state. Sorry.
    “Each day I go to my studio full of joy; in the evening when obliged to stop because of darkness I can scarcely wait for the morning to come… if I cannot give myself to my dear painting I am miserable.” (Adolfe-William Bouguereau) Why I get up- walk across the room- and go to work every single day. It is the only way to stay out of the depression. Of course- electric light helps! We can now work 24/7/365.

    • What happened with respecting an honest opinion without bringing-up “racial profiling” and the such? Just expressing what I feel. Live and let live people, please.

    • CAROLE, I HAVE SO ENJOYED H ER TOO IN MY VISITS TO THE SAN DIEGO MUSEUM OF ART, AND ALSO SHOWING HER OFF WHEN I WAS A DOCENT OF THE MUSEUM TO HUNDREDS OF PEOPLE OVER HALF A CENTURY…….HER PURITY SURELY SHOWS THROUGH………..

  5. Looking at even just the thumbnails, it is hard for me to believe that the paintings of Bouguereau were relegated to basements in about 1970. To my mind, they are fabulous!!! And to think that he didn’t have models or photographs to look at to render his diaphanous creations, is even more astonishing. I couldn’t even draw a rabbit unless I was looking at it or seeing a photo of one. Also, I like the colour contrasts between his women and men – perhaps even erotic in appearance. So go with that thought, J. Bruce.

    • Hi Verna

      What makes you think he didn’t have photographs to work form? In fact there is considerable evidence that he did – see D avid Hockney’s book ‘Secret Knowledge’, page 195, for example. In my view, Bougereau’s work is sentimental at best and soft core pornography at worst. But – as others here point out – each to his or her own.

  6. My favorite painting in the Minneapolis Museum of Art was “The Bohemian”. I used to rush to see it. Stand there and love it to death. Then the museum sold it. Have never quite forgiven them and the museum has never felt the same again.

  7. Although I do love the impressionists, he does put them all to shame. Renoir and Monet mention him as the best painter. Look at a few paintings by Renoir, and then some by Bouguereau for comparison. You begin to see how the impressionist movement had such difficulties at the start.

  8. I have always loved Bouguereau since finding the two that Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, NE has in their collection. I, too, would sit on the bench in front of the one called “Meditation” and marvel at the details and the expression on the young woman’s face. I was so surprised to be told by a curator in the 80’s that Bouguereau was not well thought of in the art world and not in vogue. I was very pleased to read your letter and the information today. Thank you!!

  9. I saw my first one in the Clark Museum in MA just across the border from NY. It is HUGE! It might even have been the one with the Satyrs, or something close. I do not remember the title; it was figures in a landscape. But the painting, the technique, was amazing! It just jumped off the wall and hit me. I did not know he was out of vogue when I saw it. I was in classes trying to learn how to paint the figure. What a lesson! Donna Veeder

  10. Oh my there are some doozies in this post.
    1. Bouguereau is a three syllable name. Not boo-grow. Boo-ger-row.
    2. Your friend Mr. Blodgett doesn’t know a whole lot about art judging by his ignorance regarding Cezanne.
    3. The subject of “Satyr and Nymph”s is not at all the same as Cezanne’s “Bacchanal”. Satyrs cannot swim. He is being led to his death.
    I’m not sure what the point of this post was. Bouguereau certainly underwent some critical reappraisals but his work has always been on display at major museums throughout the twentieth century. As has Messonier, Gerome, and other academic artists of that era, if for no other reason than to provide contrast to emerging modernist trends.
    This post is pretty poorly researched and fails to come to a coherent conclusion.

  11. Gabriella Morrison on

    And Joe Blodgett, is worthy of being quoted exactly why? Could we please see examples of his composition, draftsmanship, paintings and scholarly criticisms? Not all opinions carry equal weight.

  12. The Detroit Institute of Arts has a gorgeous, large painting called “The Nut Gatherers”, depicting two little girls sitting on the ground, simply enjoying each others” company. Although it is an ordinary subject (as opposed to myth or classical), it is beautiful portrayed, down to the brushing of dirt on the girls’ bare feet. It’s been a museum favorite of mine for years. I urge anyone who loves art to visit the DIA; it’s collection is outstanding.

  13. Excuse me? Your comments in the esoterica section are beyond offensive and ignorant. I do not know who expressed these ugly words, but I will say whoever edits these posts should wake up and then clean up this post. Deplorable!

    • Do you think the comment inaccurate?
      The meme of fair skinned maidens and swarthy men goes back to the Renaissance.
      I’m not sure if Levantines (Jews or Arabs) were necessarily models but Mediterranean “types” were very deliberate.

  14. Thanks for this posting – if I had known about his work in the 1970s, I’d love to have had an opportunity to collect one. I never knew much about him and would never have suspected that his works fell from the importance that they deserved.. These works are outstanding.

  15. It’s a delight to bump into curmudgeon Joe Blodgett again. He reminds me to fearlessly think my own thoughts.

  16. Rochette Maryse on

    I am a little old painter in a little village, I am happy to read and exchange with other persons who like painting and painters. I agree with Sylvia Tucker. I love the works of Cézanne and Bouguereau. “Every day, I go to my studio full of joy.” So do I.

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