In my last post, I wrote about Gustave Caillebotte and his support for and practice of the “New Art,” Impressionism. Unpopular in the 19th Century, only visionary art collectors would touch the Impressionists. Academic style painting, which strove for photographic realism and smooth finishes yet featured idealized scenes, characters and compositions, was still in vogue. Only in the early twentieth century did the public and art critics accept the Impressionists/Post-Impressionists and other related movements as serious and worthy. Once they did, however, they expunged their collections of all the late Academic painters. Being the last of the great Academic painters, Adolph William Bouguereau’s work was banished and forgotten very soon after his death in 1905. Now his paintings are becoming very valuable as critics reconsider some of the late 19th century artists whose work was passed aside for too long in favor of the Impressionists. There was more going on artistically in France in the late 19th century than just Impressionism, and some of what has been overshadowed by that movement is worthy of another look.
Somewhat more appreciated by today’s art enthusiasts, Bouguereau was accomplished and successful his day. He was Grand Officer of the Legion d'Honneur, President of the Societe des Artistes Francais, member of the Academie des Beaux-Arts and winner of the Prix de Rome. Unfortunately for his reputation and value to art history, he happened into the world at the same time as Degas, Monet, Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gaugin, Van Gogh, Whistler and Sargent. The Impressionists largely respected him as a painter but derided him as an old fuddy duddy. Once their work became popular, he was completely forgotten.
Early twentieth century dealers needed art which was produced quickly in order to keep up with the demand of the new upper classes created by the Industrial Revolution. They suppressed the time consuming, old style Academic painting in favor of new, quickly produced, less “finished” works. Being the epitome of “finished,” Bouguereaus were relegated to attics, closets, and storerooms. Bouguereau was a prolific painter who produced an impressive oeuvre of almost about 800 paintings. Matisse, a generation later, was able to produce thousands because of his faster technique and less precise rendering. Matisse was once Bouguereau’s student. Bouguereau famously told Matisse to learn to draw perspective, and that he would never amount to anything as an artist. If the standards to which Bouguereau held himself had still been valid, Matisse would never have been successful or important. But Matisse was of the generation which changed the standards, and that’s what made him important. In the long run, he won.
Bouguereau is where the old Art broke with the New. He was the last of the great French Academic Painters in the line of Chardin, Poussin, Fragonard, David, and Ingres. He lived in the society which produced Impressionism and Art Nouveau, but by the time the latter came around, he was an old man, saddened by the loss of his family, and unable and unwilling to adapt to the New Art. He was a trained academic painter, that’s who he was and that’s what he did.
Known now mostly for his skillfully executed but sort of sickening, saccharine-sweet innocent country girls, often with oversized, pleading eyes and the innocence lost symbol of a broken vase or eggshell somewhere in the composition, Bouguereau is one of my personal favorites not because of these idealized gamines, but because of his mythological scenes, floating women and angels. It’s always fun to spot a Bouguereau in a gallery. It’s either one of those “lost innocence” things that will make you roll your eyes, but appreciate how well the skin, fabrics and background elements are rendered, or one of the large mythological canvases or floating women which simply take your breath away.
Early in his career, he did the mythological scenes to get notice and commissions at the annual Salon held by the French Academy, the official channel for art in France at the time. But the time for mythological scenes was gone. His “Nymphs with Satyr” at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute (which hung for many years over a bar!), and “Orestes Pursued by the Furies” in The Chrysler Museum at Norfolk, VA are both huge canvases and prime examples of these early efforts at large scale mythological scenes.
“Nymphs with Satyr” shows several nymphs nude, as nymphs would be, teasing an old satyr who looks exactly as you imagine a satyr to look. Bouguereau has resolved all the design issues which made previous attempts to render satyrs seem awkward by comparison. The tender, white skin of the nymphs, the hard leather of the old satyr’s ear, the trees, the rocks, the crowd of baccantes in the background are all perfectly rendered, but prettier than in real life.
“Orestes” is one of my favorite paintings, because it is the first painting I fell in love with as a child studying Greek Mythology, and because I still find it superbly painted and striking in every way. It is at once violent and resolved, chaotic and restrained - poetic even. The Furies are chasing Orestes, holding the body of his mother, Clytemnestra whom he has just murdered. Wait: it gets better. He killed his Mother in retalliation for killing her husband, Orestes’s father, Agamemnon. Soon, Athena - Goddess of Wisdom and War - will appear and tell the Furies to back off, that Orestes’s crime of Matricide was in retribution for her prior crime of Regicide (not to mention Spouse-icide, if there's such a word, and if not why not??) in the killing of Agamemnon, but Bouguereau has chosen the moment of most terror, wrapping the horrible instant in a heart shaped composition, balanced on Orestes’s feet and before a vague, dark background, with the Furies and Clytemnestra floating in air.
The passage where all the hands are pointing at Orestes, Clytemnestra’s dead hands falling from the knife still in her breast, and his blocking his ears in terror from their horrible and incessant screeching, is magnificent! Bouguereau was a master at rendering skin and the tones of the characters in this scene are both varied and real. Orestes is bronze from the sun while the Furies, in varying sickly shades of mauve point to the freshly dead Clytemnestra, herself of a realistic pallor. The whole, nearly monochromatic composition is enlivened by the deep red drape of Clytemnestra’s robe and the blue swirl of fabric over the Fury’s leg in the foreground.
Tending to the melodramatic, Bouguereau’s mythological scenes were considered too graphic, sexual and violent in their time, so he opted for gentler scenes of the country girls, but when he suffered the personal tragedy of the loss of his wife and children, he began to paint scenes of angels in addition to the gamines and nudes. For the most part, he painted what he wanted and patrons waited long periods to receive the paintings they purchased.
Worth notice are the angel paintings. One is The Virgin with Angels at the Museum at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park in Glendale, CA. Angels have long befuddled artists, as it is difficult to paint with confidence what you have never seen. Even the great Titian’s and Rubens’s angels seem a little awkward, like humans with wings glued on. Bouguereau’s on the other hand are actual angels, ivory white, perfect, ethereal, poised, powerful, loving and actually able to fly.
Bouguereau was often accused of being a letch and preferring to paint naked women. In fact, he painted what he liked and what sold. He liked nudes and they were popular. He has the reputation as being the first artist to paint female nudes not as heroic or mythological, as Caillebotte was the first to paint non-heroic nude men, but I don’t know about that. He seems to be the first who really enjoyed it and did it a lot, I’ll give you that.
Later in his career, he painted a series of ethereal women floating in windswept landscapes. One such is "Evening," which Marjorie Merriweather Post acquired to display in the men's toilet in her home, now Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens in Washington, DC! These were painted at the same time that Art Nouveau was gaining popularity throughout Europe. Dreamy depictions of women were all the rage. Twining trees and tendrils, idealized women’s faces and gossamer garments were in fashion and Bouguereau created images both in keeping with his time, and yet still connected to the academic, nearly photographic style of painting required by the French Academy. His depictions of dreamlike ladies were nearly pornographic to some contemporary viewers and, though one can see a similarity with Art Nouveau in the subject and idea, his treatment is thoroughly academic. The women are not stylized, in fact they are idealized. They are not masks or imitations of women like so many of the images in Art Nouveau, but fantasy women in fantasy poses: floating, dreamlike and big as life.
William Adolph Bouguereau’s paintings are the epitome of what the French Academy stood for: idealized, grand images of mythological or religious stories or simple genre scenes rendered with subtle brushwork, a smooth finish and elegant compositions. After his work earned him a high degree of acclaim and fortune, Bouguereau enjoyed the luxury of being able to paint what he wanted. Some of his works are among the best yet least well known of the 19th century: his brilliance an apt period at the end of the metaphorical sentence which began with the Renaissance and ended with Impressionism.