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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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)