Christie's To Auction Bohémienne
April 16, 2004 10:41 AM   Subscribe

The Art Renewal Center is Very Upset. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) has decided to sell a painting by artist William Bouguereau so they can acquire a painting by Albert Joseph Moore. The painting, Bohémienne was originally purchased for $3,500 by the MIA back in the early 1970's for the purpose of reselling it at some future date for a better work of art. Christie's expects it to sell for between $700,000 and $900,000. The sale of this painting has angered some who feel that a museum's role is to protect important artwork not risk losing it to private collection for a questionable gain. Does a museum have an ethical responsibility to prevent art from disappearing from public view?
posted by Tenuki (22 comments total)
Seeing as how the only thing distinguishing a museum from a private collection is whether or not the public can come, I'd say yes.
posted by trondant at 10:47 AM on April 16, 2004

Sherry Ross may know an awful lot about art but as a writer she's just plain awful. ARC should do their visitors a favor and get a writer to do their copy. That open letter was painful to read.

What I don't understand is how MIA was able to buy a 100 year old painting for $3500 thirty years ago and today it's worth twenty times that amount. Wtf?
posted by dobbs at 11:02 AM on April 16, 2004

From the the bio on Bouguereau:

Since 1960, (Bouguereau's) values in the market place have literally exploded, doubling on average every 3.5 years. From works selling for and average $500 to $1500 in 1960, they have accelerated to where in the last three years alone his auction records have been repeatedly broken another 4 times. In 1998 The Heart's Awakening sold for $1,410,000 at Christie’s New York. In 1999 Cupid et Psyche, Enfants sold for $1,760,000 also at Christie’s to be surpassed the very next day at Sotheby’s when Alma Perens owned by Sylvester Stalone sold for ($2,650,000). That record only lasted one year until May of 2000, when Charite sold $3,520,000 back at Christie’s.
posted by Tenuki at 11:14 AM on April 16, 2004

They do, but if they purchased the picture as an investment in the first place I can't fault them. Just about every museum has limited funds but a desire to acquire more art. One way of doing that is by investing in art, something that they'd presumably know about. If this better piece, whatever better means, draws in more visitors and more donations then in the future they'll be able to preserve more art for the public.
posted by substrate at 11:17 AM on April 16, 2004

Bouguereau was once really underrated, being dismissed by the rising Impressionism punks. Now everyone's clamoring for his neo-classicalism. What the hell? I would never pay that much for a Bouguereau... I mean his paintings were great and all but seem to me just paintings. He has great placement and color and setting and gets a good haunting look out of his subjects, but I don't have an 18th century French Tudor estate to put it in. So what I'm saying is, why is it so highly valued? Or do the superrich just buy stuff to be buying it?
posted by geoff. at 11:45 AM on April 16, 2004

This is how public collections work. Period. Works of art are bought for the sole purpose of a later sale quite often. The MIA wants to move it's collection in a particular direction, which for some reason is displeasureable for the ARC. The problem is that many of the ARC's points about the sale are moot.

Out of 2,600 of the most famous artists in all of art history, including all of the great names of the high Renaissance, 17th century Dutch, and all of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and out of 28,000 images, the most viewed and visited of them all, are the paintings of none other than William Bouguereau. More than Rembrandt, Carravaggio, Van Gogh, Renoir, Vermeer, Turner, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, ... more than Dürer, David, Frans Hals, Goya, Velázquez, or Sargent, more of those 5 million plus visitors wish to see the works of William Bouguereau.

This may be true, but you also have to look at who are the ARC's viewers. Comparing the relative "fame" of William Bouguereau to Rembrandt, Carravaggio, Van Gogh, Renoir. et. al. is crazy. When it comes right down to it, Bouguereau is NOT a household name. Thus, that should not be an arguement against its sale.

Perhaps they should take the time to find out that Bohémienne by William Bouguereau is one of the most popular works of art in their entire institution.

I call BS on this statement. If this statement was about Rembrandt's Lucretia , Gerome's The Carpet Merchant, or any number of fine imperssionist works by Monet and his compatriats, I'd agree. As an often visitor of the MIA (at least monthly), I've never made a trip especially to see Bohémienne. I've often went to look at these other masterworks.

The quote about over painting and potential condition problems also gets me. The MIA houses the FINEST conservation association in the US Midwest. The Upper Midwest Conservation Association (UMCA) is actually one of the only conservation societies in the US that works on privately held artworks, which exposes their conservators to many, many more interesting conservation challenges than most other academic institution-based conservators. They have the experience to deal with condition problems. Even bad problems.

As a side note, the last time I visited the UMCA labs, they were working on a 17th century Japanese silk painting, which had arrived in pieces. It is utterly amazing what they had done to reassemble these pieces into a presentable form that still retained the integrity of the "true" object. For a look into a huge restoration project, check out what UMCA did a couple years ago in restoring Castiglione's magnificent Immaculate Conception altarpiece.

Sorry for the longwindedness. This is a topic I find fascinating, and strongly believe that public art museum curators should be able to do their job in building a museum's collection with as little political posturing as possible.

posted by ScottUltra at 11:54 AM on April 16, 2004

geoff - the open letter mentions a possible source for the extraordinary value of this painting in particular, in that it can be read as a statement that women have just as much a right to participate in the world of art as men. A brave statement at the time, although since it inspired literary tedium such as Aurora Leigh, I'm not as enthralled by it as I might be. ;)

Other than that, I just go to museums and look at the shinies, I have no interest in following the ups and downs and whozits of the art world.
posted by kavasa at 11:54 AM on April 16, 2004

BTW: Fantastic post, Tenuki. I don't know if I would have heard about this if it wasn't for your efforts here in the good ol' Blue.
posted by ScottUltra at 12:07 PM on April 16, 2004

they may have the impression that b.'s paintings are experiencing a sort of price inflation bubble, and now's the time to unload.

that blurb about b. is a bit silly, as it's written by a fawning biographer. you simply cannot compare b. to rembrandt without expecting a good number of snickers. however, i happen to be a huge fan of b.'s and have been since i was 17, and i remain convinced that just like with tchaikovsky, there is in fact nuance and edge buried in the sentiment and goopy prettiness.

as to the explosive growth in his prices, i think a large part of it is that his paintings won a new lease on life after becoming bestselling poster prints. they are perfect for posters, really, the right size and tasteful and pretty. but for a very long time, he was emblematic of everything wrong with tasteful and pretty painting: not just bland and boring, but often also accused of occupying a sort of last outpost in the hyperbourgois mysogynist male/white gaze... as in, let's make pictures of underage girls with come hither eyes and dress them in gypsy clothes and so on. as i said, i disagree [partially] with this assessment, but there's plenty of truth to it. to proudly display a bouguereau in the 60s would have been the height of gaucherie. remember, there are similar arguments about such painters as rockwell e.g. half-serious comparisons of rockwell with sargent.
posted by mitchel at 12:07 PM on April 16, 2004

Upon further research, kavasa, I found his goals to not be so lofty on the painting. From the Christie's web site:

Bouguereau was one of the foremost advocates of Pompier painting, whose central tenet was that art should celebrate and promote civic messages such as purity of thought and hope. In choosing for his subject a young gypsy girl, pausing from her peregrinations through Paris playing her violin for food or coin, Bouguereau celebrates the virtues of labor and deplores the ignominy of poverty.

I am at work and do not have access to any books that would explain Pompier in further detail. From what I remember Bouguereau was a snob who looked down upon the new Impressionist movements. To me this lack of symboic understanding of the movements hitting the artworld back then would seem to indicate he painted to paint (look how great the peasant is, still managing to play the violin despite her poverty!) instead of at least tackling the frusterated peasant within. At a time of the painting child labor and the poverty of the lower classes was in full swing with reforms and such, yet he appears to be catering to the higher classes who want to see a sweet Little Orphan Annie violin girl.

A slight caveat, I have not had any art history classes that dealt with neo-classical Pompier artists at the time, so what I gleaned were probably sidenotes from pro-Impressionist books.
posted by geoff. at 12:09 PM on April 16, 2004

On post-post: what mitchel said.
posted by geoff. at 12:11 PM on April 16, 2004

The response of the director of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts should be something on the order of: "If the Art Renewal Center would like to ensure that Bohémienne is preserved and exhibited in the way that it thinks proper, it so happens that there is an opportunity coming up for them to acquire it."

Does a museum have an ethical responsibility to prevent art from disappearing from public view?

Only ones that are funded by the public. The MIA appears to be funded primarily by individual and corporate donors, not by the public at large (e.g. via admissions) or by the government. When less than 1% of the population (SWAG) are funding a museum, I don't think you can really make a case for it belonging to everyone. The art belongs to those who contribute money to the museum. They presumably did so with the understanding that the museum is in the business of exhibiting art publicly, but the curators are certainly under no obligation to hold on to any given work indefinitely merely on that basis.

Related question sparked by this topic: anyone know of any mutual funds that invest in art?
posted by kindall at 12:45 PM on April 16, 2004

I think it's a very bad trade, given the choice.

Bohémienne from TigerTail's page of William Adolphe Bouguereau.

as to the explosive growth in his prices, i think a large part of it is that his paintings won a new lease on life after becoming bestselling poster prints. they are perfect for posters, really, the right size and tasteful and pretty.

Well, I was about to say the same thing. I think another reason he is popular is because of his subject matter--so many paintings were of classical myths. An ongoing project of mine is finding an online image of his Leda And The Swan.
posted by y2karl at 12:47 PM on April 16, 2004

Not to derail ... but Kindall, have you ever considered skipping the Mutual Fund and buying the art itself, or maybe augmenting a Mutual Fund with some art? The market has been real good the past couple decades, so there's an oportunity to do pretty well if you buy with investment in mind. Plus you get something pretty to look at every day. It's not without its risks, though, but the initial investment doesn't have to be too big -- especially if you just start with a couple works on paper. I've always had good luck by checking local auctions, just be sure to do your homework before bidding.
posted by ScottUltra at 1:09 PM on April 16, 2004

I know a case of a different Bouguereau being "taken private" -- our public library used to own A la Fontaine. A bequest, it hung on the wall for years without comment, then someone discovered what it was worth and the trustees decided that it was "too valuable" to have on the wall of the library.

It is now in private hands and the money is in the endowment -- a not inconsiderable sum ($900,000 less quite a lot of commission and tax). How well the invested money has done since then I don't know.

The sad part was the way people seemed to see it just as money hanging on the wall; the other potential aspects of the decision seemed to be beyond most people's view. The real insult though was that they hung a full sized reproduction in its place and thought that that was good enough for the public, most of whom they thought wouldn't know any better.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 1:12 PM on April 16, 2004

kindall, here ya go
posted by mitchel at 1:16 PM on April 16, 2004

Good post, but I have to shake my head at the notion that a Bouguereau is an "important artwork" (no offense, mitchel—I am a relic of a time when everyone laughed at the pompiers and had no idea people would start taking them seriously one day). I say if the museum can get big bucks for it, take the money and run.
posted by languagehat at 1:23 PM on April 16, 2004

There is also something sentimental about Museum visitors. People like a sense of continuity in public institutions, like Holden Caulfield in Catcher in Rye. I feel for the patrons who are losing a familiar face at the museum.

There seems to be a mad rush to "do something" in museums, to speed things up to the pace of globalization.

In Toronto, two of our major museums (both with small, almost tiny collections) are putting themselves into hock in order to have famous designers renovate perfectly serviceable buildings . I love the architects for these projects, Libeskind and Gehry, but would be more likely to visit a museum that was focused on investing in its collection.

Justifiably, many donors who paid for renovations in the recent past are turning away.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 1:37 PM on April 16, 2004

no offense, mitchel
none taken at all... i guess i should make clear, though, that my appreciation of b.'s work runs rather counter to that of this ludicrously reactionary organization [ARC] inasmuch as what interests me most in his paintings are the dissonances caused by the very obvious technical defects of his art which sour his incredible verisimilitude in portraiture. for example, in the painting at issue here - although it is very far from my favorite - i am immediately struck by this supposed street wanderer's nice clean feet. the shadows also happen to be blended incorrectly for a cloudy day. this - as with nearly all his portraits, though in varying degrees - quickly establishes for me an air of surreality or sub-reality to the scene. i am acutely aware of the girl's essence as a model, as a girl playing dress-up in a studio paid by a bourgeois gentleman.

then my eyes wander, naturally enough, to this symbol in her lap, the x-shaped fiddle with the bow wedged under the fingerboard in dormant attitude. i second-guess myself on the sexual implications of this symbol, but i know this painter, and his girls are often quite overtly sexualized [lying on the ground and smoldering, or regretting allowing their pot to be chipped, etc. etc.] but even if i decide, yes, it's a sexual fiddle, well, what exactly does it mean? can i pin it down? is the bow a phallus? is she content, clutching it there, or waiting for a customer [to request a tune]? i look in her face, try to catch her eye.
posted by mitchel at 2:06 PM on April 16, 2004

But if the museum were to keep a copy of the painting, and some rich guy bought the original, everyone would be happy, right?

Or is it more about who doesn't have it than who does?
posted by aeschenkarnos at 5:15 PM on April 16, 2004

An ongoing project of mine is finding an online image of his Leda And The Swan.

I have a massive print of that painting framed up in the solarium. It's stunning, possibly one of my favorite prints. I also have big prints of some of Moore's I love his work.

I've never seen Bohémienne before...but now that I have, I want a print of it as well. It's beautiful. I really think that once an artist has joined the choir invisible, that art held by museums should be released for print making...that way, anyone who wants to look at the piece regularly has the financial ability to do that, while the originals can still be traded like the commodities they've become.

This is a great post Tenuki, thanks!
posted by dejah420 at 8:44 PM on April 16, 2004

Does anyone have any proof that this painting has been recently on display at the MIA? The angry article at the ARC seems to indicate that it hasn't been.

Admittedly, the last time I was there was ~1993, but I don't remember seeing it during any of my visits during the late 1980s-early 1990s.

It looks to me that this was acquired only as an investment--no more, no less.

Now if the MIA was selling off bits of their Asian art collection, I'd be rather irritated, but that's another story.
posted by Electric Elf at 11:28 PM on April 16, 2004

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