William-Adolphe Bouguereau

William BouguereauThe 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.


24 Replies to “William-Adolphe Bouguereau”

  1. You said the phrase that resumes this painter: “an eloquent orator with a wonderful voice, who just has little to say”. I enjoy his work, but I don’t think he’s a master. Even in his century come to me painters like corot, courbet and many others with an academic past but with much more things to say.

  2. The only Bouguereau original I’ve had opportunity to study closely is ‘The Goose Girl’, at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum, on the campus of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. ‘The Goose Girl’ is a large painting, and prominently featured in the museum’s permanent collection- If you’re in the area, it’s well worth a visit.

  3. Yep, Bourguereau is one of the best Victorians in Togas painters there is, along with Larry Alma Tadema.

    A bar, near where I live, has a HUGE reproduction of a Bourguereau nude hanging behind the bar, it must be 5 feet high and 12 feet wide, at least. It’s wonderful. Funny, the brush work is crude, but it is more lively than any actual Bourguereau I’ve seen.


    PS. I own a signed Alma Tadema lithograph – I’m a fan boy, and he’s a much better painter than Mr B., IMHO.

  4. I tire of Bourguereau. He is like an acquaintance who talks too much, whose stories go on forever. A handful of Bourguereaus and I am exhausted; my head hurts. All that technical skill and no sense of mystery conveyed. One cannot trump up a sense of awe with the mere accumulation of details. Never trust an artist with so many vowels in his name!

  5. Bonjour,
    Here in Giverny France, Bouguereau is not our hero.
    Because he refused Claude Monet when he was managing Le Salon, another Salon raised and finally Impressionism appears.
    He is like the last Classic and we love him for that.

  6. Bougereau was an artist like all others who wanted to make money. An art dealer whose name I cannot recall got him on the money trail and Americans loved his academic idealogic subject matter of cute, pretty and lazy, non working people of the Italian stock. Don’t get me wrong…he was technically just as good as other famous 19th century French, Spanish, Italian, English and other artists during that period of the old academic schools. However, he was cold in accepting new genuine ideals in the new art culture. You know the saying it is hard to teach an old dog new tricks. This was not fair to those who were the Impressionists but some of them were his formal students Matisse one of them which Bougereau said to him that he will never learn how to draw. In this world the saying applies…different strokes for different folks. Perhaps Bougereau felt that he was losing status quo when the Impressionist movement formed and exhibited their work! Money and commissions were the brunt of his pocketed assets like others, the sales of his paintings did let him eat better in life. His pictures attest to that, he does not have a flat stomach! I know that he had a hard life in the beginning and he helped others later in life also.

    I own several of his autographed letters and do admire his pictures but he can be a bore at times and some do make him to be a demi- god which is a bit too much. Let us move on in life for no man is greater than another in nothing except Jesus Christ.

    Someone said that we should paint subject of our times and I agree with that whole heartedly! T

  7. to be honest with you, i really love bougereau… i am an art student, an art fanatic completely devoted to the classic tecnique. he was not only the master of the invisible brush tecnique, but he is the living proof that art is a craftmanshift and without that aspect it is not art. I apresciate modern art, specially conceptual, but i believe now a days art has lost it’s human aspect and simplicity… and to me that’s what he represents. I mean it’s not like he didn’t have a soul! you are going to tell me that monet was a better artist than him? i do not agree with that. to be a good modern artist you have to be trained in the classic ways, master the classic and then rebel against it, that’s what modern art is basically all about. Monet did not have that. he will never have that.
    i put Bougereau up with rembrant, raphael and michelangelo. he basically created the basics for one of the best art schools in the world. he might not be Leonardo, but i do believe that his skill was supernatural. i think a lot of modern and new artist should really research him, maybe they can learn that art is not only about throwing some paint into a empty canvas…

  8. lesli,

    Thanks for your comment. I was hoping for some responses with strong opinions.

    I’ll disagree with you about Monet, however. He did receive classical training in the atelier of Charles Gleyre, but chose to move away from that style early on; unlike many postwar and current modernist painters who think that classical training is unecessary in their pursuit of the latest “ism”.

  9. monet had training, but i don’t know if his art was real or just a produc of myopia…
    i’m not discrediting monet at all, i personally enjoy his landscape… i just believe that impressionist were the first step to the death of craftmanshift that occured on the modern era… i find it very sad that with the invention of photography artist completely gave up their craft and handed it over in a silver platter to some guys with a click button, in total “pursue of expression”, and i don’t know if i can respect that as a person even though that as an artist i can apresciate their accomplishment…

  10. Lesli is right. Modernism is the death of art. Paintings of Monet is like a person trying to explain something but cannot find the right words. Bougereau, like Raphael, Michaelangelo, da Vinci, and others that paint like them are the true artist, they paint what they see. Abstract and modernist artists paint poorly because they lack technique and appreciation for beauty or because they can’t express themselves perfectly. Bougereau’s works are closer to perfection because it captures God’s own creation.

  11. Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

    I have to disagree about Monet. He and other Impressionists, like Pissarro, Sisley and Bazille, did not dvelop the “Impressionist style” overnight and, though they were disdainful of the Academy, were not without training and considerable craftsmsnship. Several of them studied with Corot, in fact, and painted very much in that style in the early part of their career. It’s just that popular taste is such that we seldom see those works. (See my post on In The Forest of Fontainebleau.)

    I maintain that the Impressionists were realists, just as much as Gustave Courbet, Claude Lorraine, or Rembrandt for that matter. It was their subject matter that was different. Instead of painting a bridge, haystack or group of trees, they were painting the light from those objects, and the effects of the intervening atmosphere; but they were painting what they saw.

    The Impressioninsts were not called “painters of light” because their paintings were bright (many of them are quite dark in tone is you look at them with an open eye); they were called painters of light because that was their subject matter.

    It was the so-called post-Impressionists, most notably Cezanne, that started us down the road to Modernism and the de-construction of the traditions of Western art. Impressionism is a branch of realism.

    In fact, I would suggest that Monet was more of a “realist” than Bougereau, in that Bougereau’s works were more idealized and Monet’s more directly from nature.

  12. William Bouguereau, to me, is someone who was technically masterful. He has accute craftsmanship and seamless blending.

    That being said, I feel that there isn’t emotional depth to his work. It feels stoic; as personal as something in a glass storefront.

  13. I bought a framed picture(lithogragh?) of Nymphs and Satyr at a Sacramento gun show. I never saw it before and only found out later it was from a huge painting. This one I have is about 21″ by 15″ in an old frame. I don’t know if this is a rare lithograph or a modern poster or whatever. Did Bouguereau make smaller lithograph of this work and if so what are thier value? Any help is much appreciated. Matt Aquino 916-339-1013

  14. Bouguereau to me is a God. He goes where no other artist take before, Pure Beauty, softness and gratitude. Is his glory ! life
    represented as positiv way, good taste and
    the respect by the Golden Rules of the Drawing and Painting.

  15. He is technically one of the best artists in his ability to reproduce what he sees (with his usual idealization, of course –there is nothing real about his peasants, they are too obviously models) but he has almost none of the imagination of a Rembrandt, for example. He is a man to whom God gave one of the finest talents and yet denied him any real art. He (again I have to stress that I would give anything to paint 1/10 as well as he)is proof that all the ability in the world will not make a true artist unless the “spark” is present. Van Gogh had none of his talent and yet was a thousand times more of an artist. An artist paints with his soul, not with paint (I am paraphrasing Chardin here).

  16. As with many other painters before 1900`s try to judge Bouguereau for his technical abilities rather than the theme of the painting.

    He was a really great painter, everyone here would love to paint as good as him but not everyone (like myself) would like to adhere to his subjects, of course that was his low point & everyone with a brain can see that.

    Right now, no one in this planet can paint half good as he did so he must`ve done something right!

  17. I have mixed feelings about Bouguereau. I can see that he was a painter with great skill but I have to agree with the comment that he had little to say. Far too many times now I’ve come away from seeing an image of a painting I had not seen before saying to myself “Yeah, but I’ve seen that story before – ‘A pretty girl in need of help or attention.'” My personal opinion of his body of work is that he made the transition from being a storyteller to being a pin-up artist.

    I can cite only four of his paintings that I really enjoy seeing. Homer and His Guide, Return From the Harvest, Rest, and Meditation. That last is on the list mostly because a poster sized print of it was my first notice of his work.

    I also have to disagree with the suggestion that Impressionism was the beginning of the end of Representational art. Just look at the works of the California Impressionists and the Soviet/Russian Impressionists. Their work seems very representational to me and the Soviet/Russian Impressionists carried on the Representational tradition throughout the 20th Century. I could say more but it would end up being a rant so I’d better stop here.

    Thanks for another good posting.

  18. I first heard of/encountered Bouguereau at my home gallery, the Mememorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester in Upstate NY. I was doing an essay for art history and was absently meandering in search of a peice to compare to a Wendle Castle clock in the downstairs gallery- formalism or lack of it one of my requirents. Anyway, I turned a corner and suddenly had my mental (proverbial)rug ripped from under me. I had this notion that paintings that wee suposedly realistic would seem cold and lifeless, and that as much as I did not like abstract, they at least were bold with color sometimes, and you could not have it both ways. Here was “young priestess”- color so real she seemed narnian- more real than real- formal greek subject, realistic drawing, i almost expected her to say something or walk off the canvas or at least breathe. I was blown away, by this artist id never heard of with a weird name.
    Scince then I have also been to the Chrysler in Norfolk,their ouguereau is not bad,but mine is better. And I think of her as mine, and I think of her as a person-not so much a thing of paint on canvas. Weird eh?

  19. Painting is not literature. It is not supposed to have any thing to say. Painting is not supposed to be narrative, or decorative, or political. Painting is supposed to target the eyes of the observer first, the rest is just a side effect.

  20. Art by artists like Waterhouse and Bouguereau grabbed my attention first and foremost and I study and stare at the work, the style, the sheer sensualness, the depth, the tranquility, then I try to imagine what the artist was attempting to say without really saying anything.
    I love the almost photographic quality of Bouguereau’s work and the fact that the reality of the subjects could almost walk off the paintings.
    Bouguereau cold? Funny, I’ve always thought of his work as warm.
    There is another artist, much less known, whose work I admire.
    Different artists, different works … and I admire them all.
    Although, I’m not a fan of the Impressionalists.

  21. I would just like to see his criticasters paint a painting like Bouguereau. They can’t. Because they’re not good enough. There are very very few that can paint like he did. So really, what are the criticasters nagging about? About them being jealous and about them envying Bouguereau. That’s all there is to it. Jealousy & envy.

  22. Unlike many other artists before 1900 Bouguereau `Come to judge his technical ability, rather than the theme of painting.

    He is a truly great artist, everyone here would like to paint as good as him, but not everyone (like me) want to stick his subjects, of course, this is his lowest point with each person’s brain can be seen.

    Now, no one on this planet can draw half as good as he did so, he must ‘has done the right thing!

Comments are closed.