The thing about opinions, as the saying goes, is that everyone has one. When it comes to William-Adolphe Bouguereau (sometimes called Adolphe-William Bouguereau), those who are have an opinion usually have a strong one.
Depending on who you ask, Bouguereau was either a purveyor of sentimental treacle, suitable only for reproductions on calendars, or one of the greatest geniuses in the history of Western art.
Fred Ross, founder of the Art Renewal Center, the impressive online museum of representational art that was the subject of my very first post on lines and colors, seems intent on elevating him to the status of a demi-god.
To say I come down somewhere in the middle of a range like that is pointless, of course; but I can narrow it to somewhere on the side of “superb painter”, with reservations on the rest of it, and a surprising lack of emphasis. Perhaps it is because I haven’t had Fred Ross’s experience, apparently life-changing, of standing in front of Bouguereau’s 1873 work Nymphs et Satyre (Nymphs and Satyr) at the Clark Art Institute (whose curators apparently come down on the other side of the fence, and denigrate a piece in their own collection by stating that it “exhibits the hackneyed mythological subject matter and glossy realistic style typical of French academic painting”).
Bouguereau was one of the most popular artists of the 19th Century, certainly the most popular French artist of his time. His popularity was with his patrons, who purchased his elaborate paintings glorifying nymphs and satyrs, and his simple but elegantly painted images of peasant girls, for huge sums, and with the general populace of art lovers who, though they couldn’t afford to buy his work, would line up to see it at the Salon. Critics, on the other hand, even in his day, disparaged him as slick and facile, pandering and irredeemably shallow.
The reaction of critics in his own day was nothing in comparison to the way he was essentially exorcised from existence by the 20th Century modernists, who reviled figurative art in general and Bouguereau in particular. The post-war modernist critics, in particular, waged a concerted campaign to denigrate representational art and elevate modernism as the pinnacle of artistic achievement to which the previous 2000 years of artistic achievement were a mere prelude. (This is where you picture me rolling my eyes and moving my hand back and forth in a rude gesture.)
Bouguereau was all but forgotten until a revival of interest in 19th Century academic art over the last 20 years or so brought him into renewed light and favor. You will find many books on 19th Century art in which the most popular painter of the time is reduced to a mere footnote, if mentioned at all. Fortunately, there are a few monographs available today, including the inexpensive and quite nice Bouguereau by Fronia E. Wissman,
It’s hard to isolate Bouguereau from the barrage of opinions for and against. On one hand, he used his influential position with the Academé des Beaux-Arts to champion the cause of allowing women to train as artists, and counted among his students Cecillia Beaux and Elizabeth Jane Gardner (who he later married). On the other hand he used that same position to help exclude the Impressionist painters, who he despised, from exhibiting at the Salon. (You can take the art out of politics, but you can’t take the politics out of art.)
If you find that you like Bouguereau, the Art Renewal Center is the place to go, it’s essentially Bouguereau Central on the web in addition to its other goals of reviving interest in 19th Century academic art in particular and representational art in general. Though I’m a strong proponent of the last two, and a definite fan of 19th Century academic art, as you may know if you’ve been reading lines and colors for any length of time, I still have trouble getting enthused, one way or the other, about Bouguereau.
I do like Bouguereau, and I will say that I think he was a superb painter with a masterful technique. I definitely admire him for that, but I’m not quite ready to park him in the Pantheon of artistic gods next to Rembrandt, Vermeer and Velazquez just yet. (This is where you picture me coughing into my hand and smirking.)
For all of Bouguereau’s dazzling technique, his subjects leave me unaffected. It’s not that they’re sentimental, it’s that there’s not enough sentiment. Even his supposedly sympathetic portrayals of peasant girls, which I prefer to his more elaborate mythological works, seem lacking in emotion or drama.
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, another 19th Century academic against whom the charge of proficiency without substance is often leveled, is more to my liking. His work conveys at the very least an invitation to step into another world of visual wonders, while Bouguereau’s work feels more like a finely crafted artifact displayed in a vacuum-sealed display case, beautiful to look at, but difficult, for me at least, to enter.
It may be because the originals I have seen of his are definitely not among his most renowned works that I have not had my “life-changing experience” with Bougereau. (You may have noticed, though, that even though I profess no strong opinion about Bouguereau, I’ve wound up with a rather lengthy post on him.)
I remain distinctly impressed with his extraordinary facility as a painter, but Bougereau feels to me like an eloquent orator with a wonderful voice, who just has little to say, and no strong opinions. He is certainly worth checking out, though, even if only to see if he elicits a strong opinion from you.