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) 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 below) 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.
Adolphe-William Bouguereau (1825 – 1905)
“William Bouguereau is unquestionably one of history’s greatest artistic geniuses. In the past century his reputation and accomplishments have undergone a libelous, dishonest, relentless and systematic assault of immense proportions.” (Damien Bartoli)
Naissance de Venus — Similar to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, this Bouguereau shows Venus, the bringer of joy, on a shell in the middle of the ocean surrounded by admirers. Two mermen use conch shells to trumpet her arrival. Twenty-two well worked out figures in a brilliant composition.
Nymphes et Satyr — This one is in the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown Mass, USA. Lenn Lowry, director of the MOMA, when aged 7 was found by his parents staring at the painting. “I remember being completely transfixed by it,” he said.
La Charite — A beautiful woman offering nurturing, sustenance and knowledge to five children. “Charity is a truly exquisite painting using symbolic imagery to portray the true meaning of selflessness.” (Fred Ross) In May of 2000, this painting sold at Christie’s for $3,520,000.
An illustration of the Cezanne painting “Bacchanal” is shown at the end of this clickback.
Not in step
by Jane Champagne, Southampton, Ontario, Canada
I hope that your clickback note, and Joe Blodgett’s remarks on Cezanne as inefficient, slow, amateur and so on are tongue in cheek. However, if you both mean what you say about one of the greatest and most influential artists this sad world has ever known, then you must be the only two painters who believe it. It’s a bit like being the only two soldiers in the army who are in step. Surely you can’t prefer Bouguereau to Cezanne! Bouguereau was an academic painter, a technically superb follower of 19th century schmaltz. Cezanne was an innovator, a rule breaker, without whom the impressionists could never have happened.
(RG note) Thanks, Jane. Your “in step” thinking is the conventional wisdom of 2003. Ideals and values change as you know. Change is one of art’s most endearing qualities. For some inscrutable reason my friend Joe and I like as well to keep in mind what was the conventional wisdom of 1903.
by Mark Lovett, Potomac, MD, USA
It is interesting how the art world changed its opinion on Bouguereau, and rightfully so. I find it encouraging that fine art is beginning to be recognized as such, and the cons perpetuated by the art community are gradually getting exposed. I was one of the fortunate ones who never bought what they were selling.
by Ted Berkeley, Portland, Oregon, USA
I’m so glad you brought Bouguereau to your pages. I’ve admired this painter since my youth, but as you say he was dismissed as bugger all (pun intended) by many. His Nymphs and Satyr reminds me of another exquisite but totally neglected English painter, Richard Dadd, who was confined to the Bethlehem Hospital for the Insane, in south London. He painted pastoral scenes from Shakespeare’s plays and one of my favorites is Come unto these yellow sands from the Tempest. Reproductions don’t do justice to the original, but unfortunately there’s nothing but a catalog from a retrospective in the Royal Academy from the seventies, and apart from the paintings in Bethlehem Hospital all the rest are in private collections.
(RG note) “Alas poor Dadd, his art wasn’t bad, but he went to the nuthouse for killing his dad.” (Anonymous) This is true. All my life I too have been carrying a torch for Richard Dadd, William Bouguereau, Frederick Frieseke, Ernest Normand, Arthur Hacker, William Trubner, Giovanni Segantini, Arthur Wardle, Louise Breslau, Laurence Koe, Maximilian Lenz, Susanne Daynes-Grassot and others. Someday I will write letters that will bring attention to more of these remarkable artists.
Richard Dadd, England (1817 – 1886)
by Ann Rosenberg
I was very disappointed in your statement regarding William Bouguereau’s art that his depiction of men was stereotypical, dark, either Arab or Jewish features, their hairy bestiality suggesting an un-evolved and brutish state. Most of the Mediterranean countries and several ethnic groups produce some dark and hairy men. I also can name any number of Arab and Jewish men that are extremely handsome. Considering all the contribution Jews have made in science, education and the arts (a religion that reveres learning and education) I would hardly put them in an un-evolved and brutish state. I think the description of the men in Bouguereau’s paintings could have easily been described as dark, their hairy bestiality suggesting an un-evolved and brutish state, and that would suffice. I do not understand labeling their features as Arab or Jewish.
(RG note) Unfortunately racial stereotyping has been with us through Shakespeare, Dickens and many others. Bram Dijkstra, in his excellent book, Idols of Perversity, dedicates a chapter to the subject as it applies to 19th century painting. Notable artists guilty of this cliché were Gerhardt Henning, Lovis Corinth, Arnold Bocklin, Franz von Stuck, Cesare Lombroso, and others. “Whether the painters called them bacchantes, satyrs, centaurs, or fauns, they were always careful to show their links to the animals. Satyrs, especially, were given the ‘scientific’ physiognomy of what was then considered the ‘degenerate’ races.” (Bram Dijkstra) How much damage this sort of stereotyping continues to do in the present century can only be surmised.
by Lori S. Lukasewich
You have chosen to write the last two letters about two of my all time favorite artists. I have a huge print of Bouguereau’s Nymphs and Satyr above my bed. It is endlessly satisfying to gaze at. For many years I thought of my enjoyment of his work as a guilty pleasure. And Schiele was a genius, absolutely honest and fearless for his time. He was an intense young man working with what was clearly of the deepest importance to him. He seems to me to be passion and angst personified. An appropriate expression of the time and place he lived in.
I had to laugh at your friend’s comments about Cezanne’s Bachannal. It is seeing the contrast between a work such as that and the work of someone like Bougereau that confuses and intimidates art beginners. One of my favorite things, as a teacher, is to help open the magic door to people so they can have the tools and information they need to be able to make informed judgments for themselves.
Technical skill not important
by Mark Laver
Regarding Cezanne vs Bouguereau: first of all, technical skill is not the prime virtue of art. (If anything it’s a prerequisite.) “Quality” in art should not be judged primarily by one’s knowledge and execution of the classic principles of design, composition and anatomy. Art is not primarily about the perfection of the end result, measured against already known and established standards (of any kind). A far more important factor in art is the willingness to take risks, risks no one else has yet taken, or even thought of taking. Hence Cezanne’s greatness. Let us also remember Giotto. As one of the first painters to attempt perspective in painting — to take the risk of attempting something which was not even named yet — he ended up with paintings that, to us, look utterly clumsy in their depiction of spatial relationships. But great art asks new questions, or re-asks important questions in a new way, and doesn’t necessarily answer them. Bouguereau’s paintings are like perfect answers to boring old questions that have already been answered. Reminds me of one of my favorite art quotes… “Easy to like — easy to forget.” Cezanne’s paintings on the other hand, ask great questions, including unanswered questions that continue to fascinate us, questions about the ultimate nature of reality, and about the relationship of the observer and the observed, about our experience of spatial depth, and about the mystery of vision itself. I’ll take a clumsily asked brilliant new question over a perfect answer to an already answered question any day.
by Larry Moore, Winter Park, FL, USA
I first saw Bouguereau’s work at the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota when I was in college in 1980s. I immediately fell in love with his work, the flawlessness and near photographic quality of his technique. Later on closer inspection I noticed the pencil outlines under the thin paint here and there and was looking at the line quality and I started to wonder if he wasn’t using a projector. Not that that takes away from the beauty of his finished work, but I can’t think of any others of his time that have that photo-real quality.
To make a noise
by Victor Wren
I have been a fan of Bouguereau for more than twenty years. It has been hard to find his work until recently. A couple of interesting things about Bouguereau: Though he might have spent weeks or months preparing for a painting with sketches and oil studies, the actual execution of a painting went very quickly, taking at most a few days. In his lifetime, he produced over seven hundred paintings. In a way, perhaps it was merciful that he died when he did. I can only imagine the heartbreak for those who loved the representational, the human and elegantly polished in artwork, only to see it denigrated and supplanted by harshness, crudity, and abstraction at the turn of the last century.
While I acknowledge the merits of some of those artistic movements, I believe that any work that needs several paragraphs to explain what it is that the artist is attempting to convey has failed in the very first function of art, which is communication. I tend to think of the Bauhaus as being the final exterminator of art in everyday life, and “form follows function,” the mantra of the executioners. I’m pleased nigh unto giddy to see shoots of elegance sprouting from the ashes of modernity. I can go into almost any store, today, and buy Tiffany reproductions. Art Nouveau is no longer automatically derided as a decadent indulgence. A freeway interchange being built near here is decorated with bas-relief cranes, leaves and flowers, which would have been unthinkable when I was growing up. For all the trouble the world faces today, artistically, life is looking good.
“One shouldn’t believe in all those so-called innovations. There is only one nature and only one way to see it. Nowadays, they want to succeed too fast, this is how they go about inventing new aesthetics, pointillism, pipisme! All this is just to make noise.” (Adolfe-William Bouguereau)
Permanence of Impressionism
by oliver, TX, USA
I find it interesting that Bouguereau, as influential as he was in his own time and a major supporter of the Salon, may have done more for the progress, richness and diversity of art, by rejecting Impressionism, than he ever did with his own art as a competent master mining and subtly reworking the well worn but timeless Renaissance. Who knows Impressionism may yet wind up on the scrap heap of artistic failures, but I doubt it, there is a mastery in making a good Impressionistic painting.
by SuSann Decker
Online there is the most extensive location for the realist artist. It is the Art Renewal Center. You will find more information than you can digest on William Bouguereau. I did a painting for myself after falling in love with his work.
(RG note) The Renewal Center is the source of much of our material and the high quality images that we were able to bring to you. The resource for Bouguereau is at https://www.artrenewal.org/Artist/Index/7
More info needed
by Darlene McBride, Havana, FL, USA
As a professional portrait artist and art teacher, I have been in great awe of the superb quality of the paintings by Bouguereau for many years. I have especially admired and studied his flesh tones, and had the great pleasure of viewing some of his works in person, both at the Cummer Museum in Jacksonville, FL and approximately two years ago at a special showing of works from the Ringling and Appleton Museums at Florida State University. I have been able to glean only brief comments on his life, usually on the back of calendars, and would be most interested in any more extensive literature on his life, and/or his painting techniques, etc.
(RG note) The site mentioned above is a good place to start. Damien Bartoli, as mentioned at this site, has written a soon to be published Biography of William Bouguereau. Another publication is Bouguereau by Fronia E Wissman, which has some valuable information. Insight into Bouguereau’s technique and methodology is scanty.
by Linda Blondheim
I often wonder why modernist or contemporary work cannot co-exist with realism? I constantly hear artists and collectors in both camps undermining the other. There seems to be little tolerance on either side. I enjoy all kinds of art and I believe most people do.
(RG note) The art market, like the stock market, exists because of a difference of opinion.
Popularization of masterpieces
by Yaroslaw Rozputnyak, Moscow, Russia
Your artists masterpieces published in the clickbacks are worthy to be copied for the popularization of those artists. I want to ask what are the copyright limitations for ancient artists, for example for copying of Giaconda of Leonardo da Vinci?
(RG note) Many dead artists works have fallen into the public domain because their families and other heirs have not felt it worthwhile or valuable to pursue economically. This permits print and poster-makers to publish and sell found images, and in the case of Bouguereau, they are. This goes for Leonardo’s stuff as well. Maintaining a copyright requires a defender.
by Dave Edwards, Blyth, Northumberland, England
Faith Puleston needlessly criticizes Jurate Macnoriute’s grasp of the English language. We are discussing art and all of us express ourselves as well as we are able to. Many are actually writing in a language that is not their native tongue and are to be commended for their efforts. I seriously doubt that Faith could transpose her thoughts into Jurate’s mother tongue (Lithuanian). She also suggests that he is jealous and spiteful towards the art of Caroline Putnam. I can understand that Faith feels full of righteous indignation on behalf of a fellow artist who she believes is being unfairly criticized, but I have had another read of Jurate’s letter and don’t sense any spite or jealousy. He actually seems to be commenting that many artists are economically forced into pandering to the tastes of buyers who are not as cultured as they are. He goes on to observe that Caroline Putnam is indeed a very industrious and technical artist who reaches fine effect with her work. He concludes by saying that she raises optimism and aspirations and is loved because of it. I feel his criticism is leveled more at the buyers than at Caroline, whom he clearly believes to be capable of art even greater than that which she is forced to paint. Many artists like Caroline, I am sure, would love to be able to paint what they truly feel, but know that it would not sell as the average buyer isn’t an artist and therefore wouldn’t understand.
Paul Cezanne (1839-1906)
painting by Yordan Angelov, Bourgas, Bulgaria
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2003.
That includes Marlene Frechette who wrote, “I only wish that I had been interested in collecting art when an original Bouguereau was to be had for under $1000.”
And also Susan Holland, who wrote, “While Bouguereau says very solidly and unambiguously what his work is about, Schiele purposely obscures meaning which involves the viewer in some work. I stay in front of a Schiele much longer, and remember the “buzz” it gives forever. Not a downer kind of “buzz” but a sense of emotional and artistic resonance, since I participated in so much looking.”