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Bouguereau: Pro and Con

You may not know about Fred Ross, but he is chairman of the Art Renewal Center, a leading online museum that stores high quality paintings. It is a treasure trove for people looking for public domain paintings.

Here’s his take on Bouguereau:

In October 1977, I walked into the Clark Museum, Williamstown, Mass. to see their thirty Renoirs, and after leaving the Renoir galleries walked out into a major hall, at the end of which was a painting that grabbed me body and soul. It was a life-size painting of four water nymphs playfully dragging a mythological satyr into a lake against his will. Frozen in place, gawking with my mouth agape, cold chills careening up and down my spine; I was virtually gripped as if by a spell that had been cast. It was so alive, so beautiful and so compelling. Finally, after about fifteen or twenty minutes of soaking up wave after wave of artistic and spiritual ecstasy, I started to take back control of my consciousness…..my mind started racing with unanswered questions. My first thought was “I haven’t felt this way about a work of art since I stood before Michelangelo’s David. Then I thought, “This must be one of the greatest old master paintings every produced. But no name or country or time would come to mind. Italian High Renaissance, 17th Century Dutch, Carravaggio, Fragonard, Ingres, Prud’hon … back further perhaps … Raphael, Botticelli, Leonardo, no! No! NO! Not one of those names or times felt anything like what I was looking at.

Then I approached the painting more closely, and saw the name mispronouncing it as Bouguereau at the bottom, and the date 1873 — 1873?

How was that possible? I’d learned that the greatest artists at that time were, Manet, Corot, Courbet, and Renoir … that the techniques and greatness of the Old Masters had died out, and that nobody knew how to do anything remotely this great by the 1870’s.

Years of undergraduate courses and another sixty credits post graduate in art, attaining my master’s degree from Columbia University, and I had never heard that name. Who was he? Was he important? How could he not be important? Anyone who could have done this must surely be deserving of the highest accolades in the art world.

Before I saw Bouguereau’s Nymphs and Satyr, I thought that the methods and techniques of the great Old Masters had somehow been lost over time accidentally. It never had occurred to me for two seconds, that people would actually have deliberately destroyed all of the institutions and methods by which the knowledge could be gained of how to create great works of art. This is one of mankind’s greatest achievements … one of the defining characteristics of advanced civilization … a skill that makes us so unique, so sophisticated and so special. We are talking about the great arts of drawing, painting and sculpture, through which it’s possible to express our shared humanity, including all of the universal, profound, complex and subtle emotions of what that means: our hopes and dreams, our fears and fantasies, our jealousy, and joys, our grief, loneliness, expectation, insecurity, intrigue, and compassion,

This is what art is really for; whether in theatre, in music, in literature, in sculpture, or in painting. Not the modernist cry of, “art for art’s sake,” or the modernist’s belief that it is the duty of the artist to be honest and “prove that the canvas is flat”. Any three-year-old knows that the canvas is flat! It is making the canvas come to life with reality and meaning that is the accomplishment. And these skills and humanistic values became precisely what the theories of modernism decided to attack and label as uncreative, confining and sentimental. They called great skill obsession with technique and worthless. They called story telling and the use of universal symbols as boring and repetitive. Realizing this we see that modernism didn’t attack academic art. It attacked art itself. All art was without value, because the essence of what art is, the communication of our common humanity, was banished. And all this destruction was supported by journalistic art criticism, which was also held hostage by the same insanity. No longer was art allowed to use any of the parameters by which we can seek universal concepts and communicate with each other. Art was to only be about art and to be continuously novel for the sake of novelty. Not only did this create “empty art” it created quick and easily available products for sale at high prices. Now there is a huge establishment invested both philosophically and financially in this dead-end art…in such “work” as canvases using excrement and empty rooms with the light blinking on and off. In case any of you think I’m making that up, just such a room was the winner of the most prestigious award given out each year in Great Britain, the Turner Prize.

Let’s go back now to look at what a collector looks for before making an acquisition. The answer is that every collector is different and has different motivation from every other collector. For me, I look for works that deal with some of the most compelling moments during life, and then harmonize this theme with superlative technique making the canvas come to life. Normally the best way to do this is with illustration or storytelling of some degree.

(Ross later reports that Degas and Monet, when asked to give their opinion about which artist would be considered the greatest French  artist of the 19th century, said Bouguereau. (This reminds me of Marilyn Von Savant’s guess in a column that a century from now Norman Rockwell would be considered the greatest American artist–a daring prediction indeed).  Another fan is Mardescortesbaja who tries to explain the appeal of the aesthetic:

And so one has the utter strangeness of Bouguereau — decidedly corporeal figures hovering above the ground, mythological figures with the sex appeal of naughty photographic postcards, because they seem to represent actual naked men and women with unimpeachable authority.  Some people find Bouguereau’s nudes pornographic, and on one level they are.  Bouguereau has used his virtuosic technique to portray these naked men and women as though they were real people recorded by a camera, not visions transmitted through an artistic sensibility.  They have that hint of indecency, of violation, that always attaches in some measure to photographs of naked people.

This not something to object to — it’s what makes Bouguereau cool, exciting, new, radical.  It’s why his paintings are still alive for people today, objects that rivet the attention, whatever judgment the mind may be passing on them as works of art.  How much more complicated, courageous, inventive, witty was Bouguereau’s response to the photograph than that of the modernist rebels who simply walked away from it, turned to abstraction in defiance of the photograph’s power.

That power has not diminished over time — indeed much of our conception of the world we live in today is determined, overdetermined, by the photograph.  Which is why on some level Bouguereau speaks to us more deeply than the abstractionists do.  Bouguereau draws us into that same dialogue with the photograph that he himself conducted, and in transcending its power — by seeming to carry it farther than it can ever actually go, even in the age of Photoshop — he places it in a truer perspective than the modernists could ever have conceived.

A distinguished museum director has observed how difficult it is to hang Bouguereau in a modern museum — discerning a disconnect not only between Bouguereau and 20th-Century modernism but also between Bouguereau and the great high-art tradition his work seems to inhabit.  That is precisely because Bouguereau’s work strove for a transcendent synthesis of painting and photography — something no art before him could have done and no institutionally-sanctioned art after him has chosen to do.  His work is thus profoundly modern, more genuinely modern in some ways than the work of the 20th-Century abstractionists.  It may be, in fact, that Bouguereau is so modern, so radical, that for some time to come he will need a room all to himself.

The Nymphs and Satyr painting is something we talked about in high school art history class as “bad art”, so clearly Fred Ross is onto something. A painting is a spectacle. I recalled that last year when I walked into an amazing display of John Singer-Sargent murals at the Boston museum.  I was particularly struck by the provocative sensuality of Atlas and the Hesperides (which is probably NSFW though it’s in public view in Boston). Sargent is a first rate artist of great subtlety (see this painting if you don’t believe me), but he knew how to grab attention in a public place. Maybe visual displays of mythological poses imbue us not only with a sense of Platonic beauty but also how individuals from history can be conjured up by  skilled hands. Today, unfortunately, eye-catching things seem to be commonplace, mainly the result of Internet sharing and thousands (if not millions) of amateur photographers capturing beautiful moments from life. Prior to photography, painting instructed as well as beautified.

I collect public domain paintings for my ebook projects. (see my tips on how to find public domain paintings–). I look for thematically interesting paintings, and although I’ve wanted to include a  Bouguereau, many of his paintings are either too lavish, too famous or not appropriate as an illustration to a story. Here are some places I go to browse for interesting paintings:

 

  • Mardescortesbaja has some good finds from 19th and 20th century art, as well as lots of intelligent analysis about 20th century mediums like comics and film. A feast for the eyes!
  • Good Art, an inactive blog by Brian Yoder.
  • Olechko, a blog dedicated to artwork and photos of a Ukrainian friend, Ohla Pryymak. She also hangs out with a lot of Ukrainian artists and takes photos of artwork by artists she enjoys(I’m sure there are several thousand other art blogs out there. Take your pick). Ironically although I knew Ohla fairly well while teaching in Ukraine, I never for a moment suspected she was an artist. (Here’s a photo of her and me at her family’s dacha–how can you not be a painter when you live in surroundings like that?!) She likes taking photos of everyday life in Ukraine: the streets, the people, the objects.
  • some art lovers chat about what is the greatest painting of all time 
  • All Art has a good small gallery.

Gosh, I have made a post about paintings without giving any kind of illustration. Alas. Here are some paintings  by Ohla. Because I’m too lazy to reduce image size, I’m only including one painting above the fold. Press Read the Rest of this Entry under the pomegranate to see the other drawings  (including one of Lviv, the most beautiful city in the world)

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{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Sarah Elkins 4/27/2008, 1:52 pm

    I like these under-recognized paintings/artists; thanks for pointing them out! I think I’d seen a very small image of Nymphs & Satyr before, and hadn’t realized the lush detail.

  • Olha 4/27/2008, 6:24 pm

    hi, Robert, thanks for stopping by my website and referencing my art here. I am just in DC for a short stay. Plan to put out here soon some drawings of the city – never got a chance to draw any of it while working here for 4 years, sigh. Hope all is well by you, cheers,

  • Lloydville 5/8/2008, 2:01 pm

    Always good to see some new discussion of Bouguereau, whom it’s still hard to love without intellectual embarrassment (in some circles)!

  • Kelsey 11/16/2010, 1:35 am

    I’ve studied art for years in school and my free time and been to a number of museums and galleries. I’m glad to hear your analysis on art and that not everyone has been brainwashed to listen to the blubbery of many so-called “experts”. People who are incapable of the technical mastery of Bouguereau and others find it easy to criticize which sounds a bit like jealousy. Anyone can splatter paint like Pollock or piss on a canvas and call it art. How many of these self-righteous anti-pre-modernist artists could call themselves a better painter than Sargent? The nerve of people with lack therof ability to try and knock down those more talented than them. And then the same people put Andy Warhol on a pedestal. Fools!

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