Saturday, November 30, 2013

Birthday Boy: The Pre-Impressionist

Male Nude, 1850
William-Adolphe Bouguereau, a sprightly 188 today, was the toast of Paris at the height of his career, but his brand of meticulous technique and strict adherence to the conventions of that dread monolith, The Academy, guaranteed his place as a principal villain of each successive aesthetic revolution that changed the world's perception of painting from the rise of Manet until just the past couple of decades.

Of late, however, there has been a wholesale re-evaluation, sharply upward both critically and in the marketplace, of Bouguereau and his contemporaries, and about time, too.  The lavish detail and sensuously rich surfaces can mask the extraordinary rigor and sharp eye that mark the best of  these works, and those of Bouguereau have to rank near the top.  Whatever else you may say of salon painting, there is not even the faintest chance that your six-year-old might have done it, but there is much, much more to many of these paintings than simply the replication of the play of light on velvet, glass, and flesh.

As a baby art historian in the earliest '80s, I found that admitting to liking Gérôme, or Bouguereau, or Alma-Tadema, or any of their ilk, was akin to treason, beyond even the aura of camp that might redeem Sargent's bravura society portraits or the whiff of transgression that allowed one to admire Klimt.  What did I care?  I was most interested in Winterhalter, and even I admit that next to Bouguereau, he's a limited painter.  It's rather nice knowing that, at least for the moment, I'm not alone, nor that some of the great gods of my student era - one thinks of Kenny Scharf or Jonathan Borofsky - while still plugging away, are now admired in a rather more measured fashion than was the case back then.

As for M. Bouguereau himself, he seems to have been a rather pleasant sort of person altogether.  Of his work, he said, "Each day I go to my studio full of joy; in the evening when obliged to stop because of darkness I can scarcely wait for the next morning to come ... if I cannot give myself to my dear painting I am miserable," which sounds about as sensible an approach to work as I can think of.  He was also, by the lights of his era, something of a feminist, doing much to support the works of women students and especially that of American painter Elizabeth Jane Gardner, who was not coincidentally also the second Mme. Bouguereau and a fascinating person in her own right.

So here's to Bouguereau, the patron saint of the once-unfashionable. The vast and complicated history paintings, or those drawn from obscure myths and fables, might still be a tad much for some, but here, in isolated figures like this fetching gentleman, we can admire the the extraordinary work that went into creating Bouguereau's eye-nourishing effects.  To paraphrase Miss Lorelei Lee, I wouldn't love a painting just because it shows a handsome man more or less starkers, but my goodness, doesn't it help?


  1. With critics, a capricious lot, I follow Edward G. Robinson's advice. A great art lover and collector as well as being a great actor he said, go by what the painting say to YOU not what critics say or it's value to others. As you said painters and styles go in and out of fashion but your enjoyment them of usually stays consistent.

  2. Oops that would be your enjoyment of them usually stays consistent, not them of. Damn keyboard.

  3. I was going to say "Bouguereau by name, Bouguereau by nature", but perhaps that's just my fantasy. Jx