Friday, October 12, 2012

William-Adolphe Bouguereau: the Most Hated Painter

When the artists of the modern movement said that they wanted to do something new and different, what they most wanted to be different from was William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905). When they dismissed nineteenth-century academic art as "sentimental", pointless, divorced from reality, mindlessly traditional, and so on, what they had in mind was Bouguereau. To the modernists, as the Getty's curator of painting recently said, Bouguereau was "the most abhorrent artist who ever lived."

I think a painting like this one, Nymphs and Satyr (1873), sums up what they hated. The subject had remained pretty much unchanged for 2500 years, over the course of which it had evolved from a myth that felt real and vital to a sterile academic exercise. It retained interest only as a vaguely highbrow excuse for soft core pornography. Bouguereau's undeniable skill has been deployed to add a bit of sex to the home of some wealthy banker, acceptable because the subject is so resolutely traditional.

Bouguereau had a very limited range, pretty much limited to cute girls and mythological eroticism. Paging through dozens of these, you start to wonder about a man who spent so much time painting adorable young females. And yet paintings like Young Beggars (above, 1880) and A Pleasant Burden (top of the post, 1895) are really quite charming, or at least I find them so.

I also enjoy Bouguereau's nudes. There are many, but I will only reproduce one so as not to acquire a reputation for lechery.This is Twilight (1882).

Another adorable girl: Soup (1865).

The Shepherdess (1889).

And this long tour of lovely women and sentimental girls brings me back to one of my favorite subjects: what is art, anyway, and what is it supposed to do that Bouguereau did not? Even as I enjoy these paintings and admire Bouguereau's skill, I realize that there is something lacking here. This is not the sort of art that stretches our minds, challenges our assumptions, or evokes any emotions beyond those inspired by photographs of cute kittens. It does not even make me wonder what these people were like, as any really fine portrait does. It does not contain striking images that linger long in our minds. It's nice, even lovely, but that's about it. And yet I would take these paintings over most of the social commentaries, radical experiments, facings down of the abyss, existential soul wrestling, bold statements of the human condition in the machine age, and so on that the modern age has thrown up.

I guess I'm just like that.

 Head of a Young Girl, 1898.

The Difficult Lesson, 1884.

The Wave (1895). Ok, so I lied about only posting one. Sue me.


Michael Pockley said...

What most modernists hated about Bouguereau was that few of them could paint like him. Monet could -most of the rest (like me!) had to paint in an Impressionist / post-impressionist style because they lacked his skill.

dvsjr said...

Thats an interesting perspective. I remember in Art school being most impressed with the various modem movements in art once I discovered that the artists could indeed paint and draw. Picasso could reproduce in detail the human form and what he saw, but used art to push concepts and ideas of the world around him instead. To me they are both valid, both beautiful. I often thought don't give Bouguereau a hard time because his paintings had a narrow subject line and you rail against the perceived "establishment" neither dismiss the avant grade the modern art of cubism etc simply because you think it done by those lacking talent. Its quite the opposite.

o passageiro said...