Electric Bouguereau
November 29, 2005 8:45 AM   Subscribe

Bouguereau who? In 1900, his contemporaries Degas and Monet reportedly named him as most likely to be remembered as the greatest 19th century French painter by the year 2000. After about 1920 though, Bouguereau and the academic tradition fell into disrepute. His name was not mentioned in encyclopedias for decades. (You probably haven't heard of him unless you read this here.) Conspiracy? Or systematic suppression by the 20th century art establishment? (warning - some art NSFW - the 'him' and 'his' links)
posted by Smedleyman (26 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

Many people's comments about Bouguereau paintings is how photorealistic they look, which they do in reproductions, prints, and computer images. It is a completly different story when viewing a genuine Bouguereau. My impression was I was not looking at a flat canvas or photograph, but a living, breathing being staring at me right back.

It's how I felt looking at his work at the Art Institute of Chicago. I had never heard of him, but suddenly discovered how much I liked his work - even though I tend to prefer the surrealists - and I wondered why it's not more popular.

Fred Ross asserts that "modernism didn't attack academic art. It attacked art itself."
And apparently some have claimed that "the Old Masters didn't really know how to draw and paint realistic images by direct observation, memory, or imagination."

I'm such an art noob I didn't even know there was an issue.

"I accept and respect all schools of painting which have as their basis the sincere study of nature, the search for the true and the beautiful. As for the mystics, the impressionists, the pointillists, etc., I don't see the way they see. That is my only reason for not liking them."
- Bouguereau

posted by Smedleyman at 8:51 AM on November 29, 2005

Awesome! After reading the first Bouguereau MeFi post I purchased a book of prints and have been silently basking in the glow of un-known greatness since. Beautiful work.
posted by stbalbach at 8:52 AM on November 29, 2005

Gallery guide if you want to see his work in person. The pics on the computer are nifty, but don't do it justice.
posted by Smedleyman at 8:52 AM on November 29, 2005

Hmmm. It's true that the name was unfamiliar to me, but when I started clicking the links, I realized that I recognized quite a few of the paintings, particularly those young shepherdesses. I wonder why the name is so forgettable. His work reminds me of Waterhouse, who was a contemporary of Bouguereau's and who I find very memorable.
posted by Gator at 8:59 AM on November 29, 2005

Thanks for this post. Each link was like a gift.
posted by hal9k at 8:59 AM on November 29, 2005

warning - some art NSFW

This is a shameful statement, and reflects as badly on the current climate in America as any political analysis.

Regardless, this is a top tier post Smed.
posted by Ynoxas at 9:03 AM on November 29, 2005

I've never heard Bouguereau described as particularly obscure or forgotten. His works are widely exhibited and you can find reproductions everywhere. I had his Nymph and Satyrs on my wall in college. My roommate's family didn't quite know what to make of it, but there were plenty of people who recognized the work. His Shepherdesses and allegorical works are also really popular.

Great links and the David Hockney article is a hoot.
posted by annaramma at 9:10 AM on November 29, 2005

I had a postcard of his Leda and the Swan once. That I have yet to find online.
posted by y2karl at 9:16 AM on November 29, 2005

Yeah, his works are everywhere. He's fallen out of favor, but tastes change, and I'm sure he'll experience a resurgance of interest. The upswing in the interest in "great artists" will probably hit him eventually.
posted by goatdog at 9:17 AM on November 29, 2005

The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown MA is celebrating its 50th anniversary and asked visitors to select their favorites. The "50 favorites" are now featured throughout the museum, including Bouguereau's Nymphs and Satyr. It is a huge painting which has hung prominently at the Clark for years -- before that it was behind the bar at a New York City club, if I remember the description correctly.
posted by beagle at 9:41 AM on November 29, 2005

Yawn...it would be nice to see his work enjoyed without the bullshit agenda of people like Artrenewal. They cannot accept that tastes change, and people can like a combination of different art, for different reasons. If something is good, enjoy it. They waste their lives attacking Picasso and David Hockney, it's pathetic.

There is no conspiracy, the front page of Metafilter could be filled twice over with stunning art that has fallen out of favour. Only the great innovators are remembered.

Good post though, more people should know about him. The lighting in his crucifixion piece is incredible, but on the whole there is little in his work (other than his skill) to lift it above the other nice pictures of children or religious allegories of the time.

FWIW, one of his paintings was sold yesterday, estimated at only 10-15,000 Euros. Artrenewal people go crazy over his unfinished works because it helps them to learn how he painted. I can imagine it sold for a far greater sum.
posted by fire&wings at 10:13 AM on November 29, 2005

I saw a Bouguereau exhibit decades ago -- amazing work, but at the time it was considered emblematic of everything that the impressionists were against -- more a curiosity than anything else. The impressionists won the toss, and Bouguereau's work was relegated to the shelf where we put amazing technicians who don't make the grade for one reason or another. Somewhere up there he's sipping good coffee with Max Reger.
posted by QuietDesperation at 10:39 AM on November 29, 2005

He's certainly well-known on Worth1000.com!
posted by srt19170 at 11:29 AM on November 29, 2005

And what's more, rock and roll isn't music! It lacks the clarity of voice of Perry Como and the suave assurance of Mel Torme! It's just noise!

And why has the conspiracy of art dealers so slighted Thomas Kincaid, painter of light! Doth not his gentle views of pastoral landscape sooth as well as they reveal?

I kid a little, but frankly, while I enjoy many of his paintings, the difference between someone who masters the technique of art and someone who challenges while creating is enough that he's just not all that damned interesting. I can appreciate that Kenny G is a very accomplished saxophone player, or that Zamfir is truly the master of the pan flute, but they lack the depth to draw me back and they lack the central spark that compels. Same with Bouguereau. Great art for dorm rooms. Not so great for that much more.
posted by klangklangston at 11:39 AM on November 29, 2005

I remember seeing a Bouguereau exhibition 20 years ago, and my opinion hasn't changed since. These academic painters were well-trained virtuosos, but their art was already dead. Go to Orsay and see these gigantic academic paintings : nudity without a hint of eroticism, religious Passion without passion, "heroic" postures that make people laugh etc. In France, these painters were known as the Pompiers (firemen) because many of their characters wore shiny helmets - the metallic reflections made the painter's mastery more evident (to his credit, Bouguereau didn't use that much, he was more a "skin" painter and certainly knew a couple of things about subsurface scattering). Since then, l'Art pompier is used to describe this sort of soulless crap, from 19th century French academic painting to the Saddam-brings-happiness-to-the-Iraqi-people masterpieces.
Orsay is a good place to see these works, because they're shown next to the Impressionists and the side by side comparison doesn't favour the Pompiers.
posted by elgilito at 12:21 PM on November 29, 2005

What fire&wings said. Though I have a deep respect for his skill, I have to say, to me he's kind of the Margaret Keane of French academic painting.

My pick for favorite lost movement of the late 19th century is the Salon de Rose+Croix. Like the preraphaelites (and like Bougareau) they eschewed both abstraction and populism. But where Bougareau's pictures dripped health and sweetness, the Rose+Croix stuff is dead creepy. This is the best free, online text that I could find about them in English. The best English print resource is probably this book, though it's a Ph.D thesis from 1976 and I can say categorically that it is not worth $827.00. The best obtainable, affordable print resource is probably Symbolism by Robert Goldwater.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 12:33 PM on November 29, 2005

The feet on his child subjects look weird. Too big. That's about all that interests me about him, and it's only enough for a pause of about 20 seconds in the art gallery.
posted by goatdog at 12:37 PM on November 29, 2005

If you like Bouguereau (about whom I'm ambivalent; klangklangston sums it up nicely) you might also like Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema or the grandaddy of al the French academics: Jean-Leon Gerome, who pretty much ran the show at the Salons.
posted by mygothlaundry at 12:55 PM on November 29, 2005

Not one comment on the thread title? Shameful, people. That's comedy gold!

I too enjoy Bouguereau. Very dorm print-y, but still- why is being a technical master such a bad thing? Not every piece is a winner, and some are almost... silly... in their theme and execution, but that's true of most every artist beyond a very very few select masters. Sometimes the sheer fun of a more-than-photorealistic painting, the way the thick oil paint takes on a vibrancy and depth that real life lacks... what's so bad about that?
posted by hincandenza at 12:55 PM on November 29, 2005

the difference between someone who masters the technique of art and someone who challenges while creating is enough that he's just not all that damned interesting

I have to agree with this (though I think the comparison to Kenny G is a tad harsh). He may deserve reevaluation, and I'll certainly take a closer look next time I'm in the room with a canvas, but I don't see how he can be considered a great artist.
posted by languagehat at 1:05 PM on November 29, 2005

hincandenza:what's so bad about that?
One historical "bad thing" was that this sort of painting was, for most of the 19th century, the only recognised, acclaimed and accepted type of art (at least in France). A lot of the backlash comes from there.

For a more modern perspective, there's nothing wrong in photorealism per se. It's just that in the case of the Pompier artists, this was extremely shallow. They knew how to paint exquisitely perfect skins and fabrics but the characters in their paintings are no more lively and realist than the bulk of what we see in computer graphics today. It's as if they skipped the lessons from Botticelli, Rembrandt, Vermeer and the other guys from the past.
posted by elgilito at 1:49 PM on November 29, 2005

Hincandenza-- A couple of points about technical merit and photorealism:

First, Bouguereau's contemporaries had reason to be suspicious of photorealism. The invention and popularization of the camera meant that in order for painting to survive, artists had to move beyond naturalistic rendering and find new ways to exploit the expressive potential of paint. So while people like Cezanne were rethinking perspective, and the Nabis were exploring color and flatness, Bouguereau and the Academy continued to push polish and sentimentality. Artists from Whisler to Gauguin found this infuriating.

Second, it's been noted that precise and luminous brushwork may do its subject a disservice. There's something innately sensual about that kind of rendering. Sometimes, when making art about things like war, political repression, etc., that kind of lushness could seriously undercut what the artist is trying to do.

As far as I (a twenty-first century person far removed from most of this) am concerned, there's nothing inherently wrong with technical excellence, and there's a heck of a lot that's right with it. Now it's just a question of what sort of project the technical mastery is serving. Sometimes, as in the case of Odd Nerdrum orTom Knechtel, it's used for something quite interesting. Other times, eh. (Links possibly NSFW)

On preview: What elgilito said. This blurb about the Salon des Refuses offers some useful context.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 3:00 PM on November 29, 2005

If you want gorgeous photorealism that means something, look to Gerhardt Richter. That man's a motherfucker. If I could paint, that's who I'd want to paint like (and he can produce compelling abstracts as well as incisive photorealism and brilliant linkages between art history and social movements. He is the tits.)
posted by klangklangston at 6:31 PM on November 29, 2005

This is a fabulous post. Thank you.
posted by painquale at 6:59 PM on November 29, 2005

Nice gallery at Wikimedia Commons, with some larger images (e.g. Nymphs and Satyr, 352 KB jpg).
posted by gubo at 8:41 PM on November 29, 2005

If you get the chance, visit the Joslin Art Museum in Omaha to see their Bouguereau: The Return of Spring. More than life-size glowing fleshy-pink nubile young women pretending to be covering her 'parts', it's awe-inspiring. (Quite frankly, dick-inspiring too.)

The painting might not be on public exhibit, it has been physically attacked twice.
posted by tgyg at 9:45 PM on November 29, 2005

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