For a period extending roughly the beginning of the First World War to the 1980s, the number of people in American and Europe - especially in France - who were ever exposed to the name of William Bouguereau, were rare indeed. Fewer still were those who, driven by curiosity, had the opportunity of seeing a single photograph of his painting, let alone the real thing.
For a period extending roughly the beginning of the First World War to the 1980s, the number of people in American and Europe - especially in France - who were ever exposed to the name of William Bouguereau, were rare indeed. Fewer still were those who, driven by curiosity, had the opportunity of seeing a single photograph of his painting, let alone the real thing. Only tiny black-and-white images offered in old dictionaries or art reference books could be found. And for the scarce paintings in French public collections, not one was exhibited. Rather, they were rolled up or stored without care or maintenance; tossed aside, pell-mell, with other equally despised academic paintings. They moldered eventually in the purgatory of provincial museums only the “authorized” could view them, while uncooperative “officials” would not permit any careful examination.
It is sad to note what little effort has heretofore been made to shed more light on the life and work of Bouguereau. Only the admirable catalogue of the 1984/85 Bouguereau exhibition organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Art, permits a serious approach to the subject, and we owe a debt of gratitude for this to Louise d’Argencourt and the late Mark Steven Walker, and the three Museums involved who made it possible.
And yet, Bouguereau was one of the most admired, listened-to, and envied artists at the end of the nineteenth century; as much by his peers as by the public who flocked each year to the Salon to admire the pictures that somehow “made” the event and which were often reproduced on the front page of magazines. Millions of his reproductions were avidly purchased for the homes of those who couldn’t afford paintings. On the whole, his were the most expensive paintings and his clients were society’s wealthiest - Americans for the most part - who had to wait many months, even years, before they could finally get their hands on a single painting the Master. And that, in spite of his prolific output of more than 800 works.
Outside of a few very rare commissions in his youth, Bouguereau always refused to be dictated to regarding his subject matter and one can truly say that he only painted what pleased him, including the numerous portraits, which represent another interesting aspect of his oeuvre.
Having held the positions as President of numerous boards, societies, and important institutions, he was crowned with countless accolades, honors and decorations. Bouguereau was one of the most recognized personalities of the 19th century. More importantly, they were all highly deserved for he was also, without a doubt, one of the greatest painters of all time. He succeeded thanks to his genius and by dint of his tireless hard work and unequalled technical mastery - this in the very period when the appreciation of drawing and modeling were at their zenith in the visual arts. He worked in the eminent tradition handed down Raphael, Poussin, and Ingres, maintaining and synthesizing their art but using his own pictorial sense and singular dexterity, which make his paintings immediately recognizable. Rising at six o’clock, he would install himself in his studio and stay there without budging until nightfall, appeasing his midday hunger with eggs and his thirst with a glass of water. He received guests, he smoked, he chatted, he joked; but he did not stop - he never stopped. As soon as the light became insufficient for painting, he worked at his voluminous correspondence, then finally; letting his imagination wander, he would search for new subjects, designing new compositions by lamplight, stopping only when weariness got the best of him.
With an imagery at once, extraordinary, fanciful and sublime, he often conjured an ethereal universe of transcendant beauty - an idealic and shimmering realm which ugliness, poverty and pessimism were forever banned. These works he balanced by those reminding the more fortunate in society to care for the young, the poor and the suffering. The unequalled heights of his artistic accomplishments were legendary; yet he was never satisfied with his work. His pursuit of perfection drove him relentlessly, as if posessed, to endlessly correct and perfect his techniques, methods, and visions. No sooner did he arrive at some new heavenly height of poetic and technical mastery, than this 19th century Sisyphus would start anew his ascent, as he forever pressed forward the heavy burden of his artistic ideals.
His choice of subjects and his unique style caught on rapidly and he became the high priest of a following of disciples and imitators - some of whom never had access to his teaching, such as; Zuber-Buhler or Mayer von Bremen. For, aside his creative drive, he had a passion for teaching and was a messiah-like professor without peer. In this field, he did not concern himself with the meager compensation he received as compared to the high prices of his paintings. Throughout his life Bouguereau advocated the example of the Old Masters and perseverance in work, letting his pupils nevertheless express their own individuality freely, much as his master, Picot, had permitted him.
Some students, however, caused problems. The most famous of these was Matisse, who quickly ped out of Bouguereau’s studio. the start, the benevolent master tried to encourage Matisse, but soon threw up his hands in exasperation, noting the young man’s weaknesses, “You badly need to learn perspective,” he said to him, “But first, you need to know how to hold a pencil. You will never know how to draw.”
On the subject of teaching, we should add that, thanks to his innovative ideas and, no doubt, because of his love for the American painter, Elizabeth Gardner, he was one of the champions of the integration of women, not only in the ateliers but also into the official art courses. It is in large part due to his militant conviction that we owe the opening up to women, first in his own atelier, and later in the celebrated Julian Academy, and finally, in the École des Beaux-Arts.
At the same time that he was admired and envied he was also much impugned by a growing clique of painters and writers of the new generation who considered themselves “progressive” and who believed that rebellion against traditional values in painting as defended by the Académie, was their whole “raison d’etre.” The easier paths of painting for which they searched would be their ticket to fame and fortune. Exploiting “Newness,” as an end in itself, they passed themselves off as champions of progress who emerged seemingly every in the agitated and unstable Europe at the dawn of the 20th century.
Bouguereau and his colleagues of the Salon and the Institute of France were rapidly labeled as reactionaries in the face of this growing cult of the new, found first in Impressionism and Post Impressionism, but soon to take a far darker and destructive turn. And so it was that, little by little, despite their popularity with the public, the most celebrated painters of the Academy - Bouguereau, Gérôme, Cabanel, Meissonier, Bonnat, Lefèbvre - found themselves blacklisted by a group of youthful artists supported by a cooperative press and the fabulous inherited wealth of a few “high priest” patrons of this “avante garde,” who were on the brink of monopolizing in their turn the official posts-in the Beaux-Arts, in the teaching profession, and in curatorial positions of the major museums.
With this unrelenting storm of criticism, Bouguereau remained unperturbed, serenely pursuing his search for absolute beauty. Creator of a dazzling world of dreams and fantasy, he continued to live surrounded by virgins, lovers, idealized archetypes, subjects of a sun-drenched mythology who were his life long passion and companions. He infused them with life with a vivid palette and dressed them in a symphony of delicate colors and harmonious tones and light. He was pursuing his work with the fervor of one driven, obstinately faithful to his aesthetic as well as to his inspiration, and never concerned himself with scoffers or detractors. He never felt the need to defend that which self evidently needed no defense. It has been left to others, 6 generations later, to uncover, analyze and expose the lies, distortions and fallacies that were used to bring him and his brethren down.
Many of these detractors went so far as to slander Bouguereau. They spread the lowest and most defamatory rumors. Despite a mountain of anecdotal evidence to the contrary, he was accused of stinginess: “Each time I have to piss,” they claimed he had said, “It costs me ten francs.” The fact is, throughout his life, Bouguereau spent considerable time organizing charity sales to benefit his needy colleagues. In addition, he would generously devote one day a week as an administrative volunteer of the Baron Taylor charitable foundation before he became its president. Because he ignored criticism, and because he never bragged, allegations could take root without denial. Thus, his altruism was unknown to most people.
It was also said of him that he was a lecher and was only happy painting female nudes. Certainly, Bouguereau truly loved women, but then again, that calumny doesn’t stand up to examination and the nude represents less than 10% of his oeuvre. It’s particularly hypocritical to hear this kind of talk perpetuated in a day and age when one is likely to see considerably worse on prime time television and spoken by the same people who would extol the virtues of explicit sexuality in the works by Mapplethorpe or Francis Bacon.
All the great artists of the Académie, as they became the archetype of what not to do, ped out of sight. This phenomenon was further aggravated after the First World War when the members of the Institute de France were denigrated by association as perpetuators of the “old establishment” - scapegoats, associated with the dreadful conflict that had decimated the European population.
Today, after eight decades of fruitless struggle, this duality would appear to have passed and we are finally able to view anew the charms and universal power in the best of academic painting. And, at the same time, we can appreciate earlier works of art, born of diverse philosophies and conflicting conceptual approaches, without having to wrestle with adversarial factions. Indeed, for a long time now in the realm of music, most amateurs and professionals alike, could appreciate with equal pleasure the compositions of Saint-Saëns and Rachmaninov, or of Stravinsky and Berg, performed in the same concert.