William Bouguereau: The Last History Painter
William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825−1905) was one of the most successful artists of the nineteenth century, a President of the French Institute and recipient of the nation’s highest honors, including the Legion of Honor. But he came to represent everything the modernists imagined they were fighting against. In recent years, his work has been re-evaluated. The rehabilitation continues with the publication this year of a lavish two-volume, 900-page catalogue raisonné, William Bouguereau: His Life and Works, by Damien Bartoli and Fred Ross, with hundreds of beautiful reproductions. The book offers the most carefully documented account to date of the artist’s career.
Bouguereau is often associated with the genre of history painting, which was ranked by the nineteenth-century academies of Europeas the highest expression of Western art. In 1848, the French Academy established the Grand Prix de Rome, to be awarded only to the most deserving, accomplished artists, to study at the French Academy in Rome. The timing was no coincidence. During the June Revolution of 1848, fought in the streets of Paris and other large cities of France, some 10,000 liberals and socialists were killed, imprisoned or deported by the National Guard. The upper classes were conservative, and the French Academy and the art salons reflected their views. Rome was considered the best educational environment to strengthen the classical tradition. Bouguereau came from a bourgeois conservative Catholic background. His father was a wine merchant, who wanted his son to follow him in the trade, but his mother encouraged his artistic bent. The revolutions, riots and wars that followed over the next twenty years confirmed for many thatFrancewas severely threatened from within. In July of 1848, young William wrote in his journal:
Can nothing restrain the masses? Alas no! Faith does not exist or is rare, and strength is waning …. What can anyone depend on? Oh, how dark is the horizon! Paris, France, can it be that your life is finished? I am fearful. Corruption is widespread. The philosophers and socialists have warped the minds of the masses. Decadence is imminent. Signs like this have always proceeded the fall of empires.1
Like Eugène Delacroix, who had painted the iconic Liberty Leading the People (1830) but by 1848 had lost faith in the wisdom of the “masses,” Bouguereau avoided politics for the rest of his life. Instead, he sought inspiration from the spiritual, harmonic, moral order as the best way to benefit the arts and, consequently, civilization. It would take some time before he developed the skills and iconography to express his philosophy.
No one worked harder or more obsessively at his art. His schedule was to paint from dawn to dusk, six days a week. He was mentally prepared for the grueling Prix de Rome competition, which took several months, consisting of various tests, which included a large finished painting on a historical theme selected by the judges. The first time he applied, Bouguereau submitted The Death of Demosthenes (1848). It placed third. The following year he submitted Saint Peter, after his Delivery from Prison by the Angel (1849). In 1850, he submitted Zenobia Found by the Shepherds of the Arax, for which he was awarded a special “runner-up” Prix de Rome. It was not first prize (that year no one was awarded first prize), but he was soon ensconced with the other students at the majestic Villa Medici in Rome. Fellow students included Alexandre Cabanel, Gustave Boulanger and Alfred de Curzon.
From the journal he maintained most of his life, we learn he read prodigiously: Homer, Aeschylus, Virgil, Sophocles, Seneca, Ovid and many religious works, including Lives of the Saints and The Philosophy of Christianity. He investigated all parts of Rome, the museums, churches and classical ruins and antiquities, studying the works of Raphael, Bernini and Michelangelo. A visit to the Villa Borghese left him “open-mouthed with admiration.”2 The architectural and sculptural splendors of the Eternal City overwhelmed his senses. Bouguereau was so steeped in ancient classical history, architecture and mythology that it never occurred to him that he would become anything but a history painter. His neoclassical paintings Dante and Virgil in Hell (1850) and [Roman] Idyll (1852) were already admired by his peers. Self-Portrait (1853) reveals an elegant young man with piercing intelligent eyes.
With fellow students he traveled throughout Italy, making plein-air landscape studies and architectural sketches. He returned to Paris in 1855 and immediately attracted public attention with a monumental (14 feet-by-12 feet) history painting, The Martyr’s Triumph (1855), bearing the influence of Jacques Louis David’s neoclassical style. The Academy ofArts unanimously praised the work. The French poet and art critic Théophile Gautier predicted a great future for him. That same year, the young man won even greater acclaim at the Universal Exhibition inParis, which was covered by the national press. These exhibitions drew immense crowds, over a million visitors annually. Bouguereau was suddenly famous, and the commissions flooded in.
Some of Bouguereau’s early portraits and history paintings lack a quality of perfection he would achieve later, when he became more passionately engaged in the subject he was depicting. However, he continued to be enormously successful during the next decade. Then came the momentous year of 1863, when everything changed. Napoleon III granted a state-funded Salon des Refusés for the 2,800 artists rejected by the official Salon of 1863, many of them Impressionists. Bouguereau experienced some sort of an epiphany. He had submitted a very handsome Sainte Famille [Holy Family] to the official Salon, but decided thereafter not to concentrate on history themes anymore, no matter how much they pleased the government or the Academy judges. Works by Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonnier (1815–91) and Cabanel’s The Birth of Venus (1863) garnered the highest honors. In 1863, too, were created the two works most credited with launching the modernist era. The first and most revolutionary was Edouard Manet’s le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. It caused a scandal, with a nude woman reclining on the grass in the center of a group of fully dressed young male students. The painting, based loosely on Giorgione’s The Pastoral Concert (1509), refused entry to the official salon, was exhibited the same year at the Salon de Refusés.3 The painting shocked not only because it seemed to mock a classical theme, but also because the paint had been applied with phlegmatic brushstrokes and the skewed spatial and aerial perspective eliminated distance, so that the composition appeared “flat.” The other painting, less well known, was The Bellelli Family, by the semi-recluse Edgar Degas. Both artists had been inspired by seventeenth-century paintings by Velázquez during a trip to Seville, Spain. While sharing many of Manet’s stylistic objectives, including brushwork and flatness, Degas’s group portrait introduced the theme of modern alienation and existentialism. In 1863, Napoleon III purchased Cabanel’s The Birth of Venus, which he declared the “greatest painting” of the age. Bouguereau’s Sainte Famille [Holy Family] was purchased by the Emperor’s wife.
“History” was increasingly perceived as a fabrication of the rich and powerful by a radical intellectual elite. Napoleon III—elected president—had quickly grabbed power and appointed himself emperor, like his famous uncle. Degas’s The Bellelli Family had a profound effect on other artists with its sense of brooding alienation. Manet’s painting shocked the bourgeoisie with its open attack on propriety, thereby setting an avant-garde standard for the next hundred years. But the modernists were on to something. France was experiencing one crisis after another, laying bare the nation’s growing internal weakness. Napoleon III attempted to strengthen the empire through conquest and increased industrial production. Both efforts failed to keep up with Prussia’s rapid industrialization. In an attempt to acquire Mexico while the United States was distracted with its Civil War, Napoleon III installed a Hapsburg on the Mexican throne. Before the Americans could invoke the Monroe Doctrine, the French army was booted out of Mexico by an army of peasants, led by the messianic Benito Juarez. SensingFrance’s growing weakness, Prussia successfully invaded in 1870 and occupied Paris. At the same time, Prussian Chancellor Bismark announced the unification of the loose confederation of 1,100 German states and duchies into one powerful nation. Under the terms of surrender, the territory of Alsace-Lorraine was ceded to the new Germany. Napoleon III abdicated, and his demoralized successors formed a Third Republic. The collapse of the French government resurrected Bouguereau’s worst fears.
The new French government pressured the Ministry of Culture to organize a Grand Triennale of history painting, to raise the morale of the French people and the arts community, who were incorporating themes of decline and decadence. The Ministry selected Meissonnier to organize the exhibition. Many artists saw through the charade. Among those who refused an invitation to exhibit was Bouguereau. The Ministry simply “borrowed” some of his works. The exhibition was a grand failure. Increasingly, the public turned to the works of the Impressionists, with their theme of “art for art’s sake.” The art world, like French politics, was splitting into two camps. Almost alone, Bouguereau continued to focus on spiritual and religious subjects. Not even the notorious Dreyfus Affair provoked a single notation in his voluminous journals. It is those passionate masterpieces, beautifully reproduced in Ross’s book, that attracted a large cult following during his lifetime, inFrance and America. Germany itself was experiencing a spiritual renaissance in the works of the Nazarene artists, who had established a religious school of art in a large medieval monastery just outside Rome. There were religious stirrings among the Pre-Raphaelite artists in England, inspired by the writings and messianic lectures of Ruskin. (Ruskin also had a profound influence on the artists of the American Hudson River School.) Bouguereau had the advantage of the best secular anatomical education in the nude figure, which was then provided by theFrenchAcademy. Few artists of any nation could match the perfection and grace of Bouguereau’s figure paintings and drawings.
From the age of sixty and over the next twenty years, Bouguereau produced a series of masterpieces that set him apart both from the modernists and from those who continued to exploit the feeble tradition of history painting. Bouguereau’s Birth of Venus (1879) is a welcome antidote to the coy semi-pornography of Cabanel’s 1863 version. A few years earlier, a saddened Bouguereau had painted a powerful Pietà (1876), eulogizing the death of his son. The crucified Christ is cradled in the lap of a grieving Mary, surrounded by angels. The Madonna’s black robe silhouettes the limp body, creating a beautifully intricate balance of dark and light, leading the viewer’s eyes from the center of the composition, full circle clockwise, along an intricate visual path from angel to angel to the grieving angel on the far right of the canvas, whose hand is gently touching the limp arm of Christ. The visual aesthetics of the composition are completely synchronized with the subject. This perfect balance between narrative and “abstraction” is achieved when Bouguereau is deeply inspired, as in such masterpieces such as the Virgin of the Angels (1881) and The Virgin, the Child Jesus, and St. John the Baptist (1881). Bouguereau created a series of angelic young women, surrounded by putti and hovering cupids, named after the seasons. An outstanding masterpiece is Alma Parens (1883), conceived as a metaphor forFrance, stoically nurturing her children. Each masterpiece has its central focus in the classical perfection of an ethereal Madonna-like goddess, drawing the other figures in the painting to her for comfort and succor. While the aesthetics of the composition, the anatomical perfection, the harmony and grace are idealized, the details are drawn from the real world by observation and study. Several chapters in Ross’s book are devoted to the painter’s craft: drawing, palette and pigments, preparation of the canvas, preparatory sketches and thumbnails, his work schedule and numerous observations of the master at work made by pupils and frequent visitors to his atelier at the famous Academy Julian. The book is an invaluable guide for the serious classical artist.
Miraculously, by the end of his career, as he approached 80, he had produced a series of Madonna and Child paintings that are among his best work. The Virgin of the Lillies (1899), which is part of the Newington-Cropsey Collection, evokes the flat, rich decorative motifs and patterns one observes in early Renaissance religious paintings. Crippled by age and illness, he continued to paint and attend to his teaching. In the last year, he managed to produce a dozen paintings. Despite a declared national period of mourning, within a few years after his death, the backlash had begun. Within a few more years, his name and work had been largely expunged from public memory. Textbooks were rewritten to eliminate Bouguereau’s contributions to the history of art. Now, after almost a century of rejection, his paintings are once again drawing attention and admiration. Today, in America, Bouguereau is a respected figure for hundreds of students working in small, independent ateliers, like those ofJacob Collins and Stephen Gjertson. When I was a young art student, teachers would literally twist the Conté stick out of your hand if they observed you trying to create a classical approach to the figure. For much of the last half of the twentieth century, classicism and realism were out of favor. Finished, formal works were anathema.
Ironically, Bouguereau embraced the same aesthetic qualities all great artists—traditional or avant-garde—admire. In his journal he wrote:
One is born an artist. The artist is a man with a special nature, possessing a peculiar sense; that of seeing form and color spontaneously, as an ensemble in perfect harmony. If one lacks this sense, one is not an artist, and one can never become an artist, one will lose one’s time in hoping. The craft may be learned by study, by observation, by practice; it may be perfected by incessant labor. But the artistic instinct is inborn.4
Bouguereau died in 1905 at the age of eighty, having created over 700 paintings, some as large as murals, and several thousand drawings. His sales in America outnumbered his sales in France. He never wavered in his conviction that he was fighting a spiritual war with modernity. But he was also fighting a war against the breakdown of educational rigor. There is a general tendency to group all of his paintings together. Actually, there was a great break in the quality and thematic direction of his work. This shift in direction needs to be considered to evaluate this great artist’s lifetime achievement.
A small group of dedicated curators, collectors and artists have steadfastly advanced this cause during the last thirty years. Outstanding are the contributions of Gregory Hedberg, director of European Art at the Hirschl & Adler Galleries, and Fred Ross, president of the Art Renewal Center (ARC), along with artists Jacob Collins, Graydon Parrish and Stephen Gjertson. In 1985, Hedberg curated a major retrospective of Bouguereau at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. A few years earlier, Fred Ross enlisted Mark StephenWalker and Damien Bartoli to collaborate with him on William Bouguereau: His Life and Works. The release of the book was celebrated this spring with an exhibition of Bouguereau’s work, curated by Hedberg, at the handsome new Hirschl & Adler Galleries in New York. Almost all of the works in the exhibition, dated after 1880, are portraits of young women. They are very professional and handsomely painted, perhaps a little too sentimental, guaranteed to annoy the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists of his time, and certainly to provoke the venom of those who continue to dismiss traditional art. One work at the Hirschl & Adler bears special mention, Cupid Flying over Water (1900). The young winged god is shown hovering above a misty pond, his exquisitely modeled toes barely touching the water, his hands entangled in the leafy branches above his head as he gazes down at his reflection in the pond, lost in a reverie. The lush vegetation of the scene is as delicately brushed in as an Impressionist water scene, perhaps by Monet. There is no evidence of the “licked-surface” rendering of the juste milieu Academy painters. Nor is it an incredibly detailed rendering in the style of Meissonnier.
For much of the twentieth century, Bouguereau masterpieces languished in the storage vaults of the major museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art. To the enlightened eye, they are as much about “art for art’s sake” and aesthetic beauty as the works of the early modernists. History painters were less influenced by aesthetics. Meissonnier was so obsessed with details and minutiae, that he would travel to distant battlefields to study the landscapes of Napoleon’s battles, to make studies of the grass, trees and rocks at different times of the day.
In 1863, Bouguereau noted in his journal that he was finished with history painting. Instead, he turned to spiritual and religious themes. Remarkably, he had divined the same national problem as the modernists, but he had an entirely different solution. It was during this phase of his career, pursuing a vision that few of his contemporaries—classical traditionalists or avant-garde modernists—shared, he experienced his greatest success, financially and artistically. He painted ten to twelve hours a day, six days a week, driven by the hope that his message could save French civilization, which he (and many others) perceived was on the brink of an abyss of self-destruction and moral degradation. His conservative Catholic education and strong moral upbringing inflamed his imagination. Art and religion were inseparable. It cannot be denied that during this period the artist painted a great many over-sentimentalized portraits of young mothers, girls and babies, evoking van Gogh’s contemptuous observation: “if we painted like Bouguereau we’d all become rich.” Excluding that genre, we are still confronted with a powerful, passionate, beautiful body of work. His draftsmanship and his ability to paint flesh realistically evoke comparison with the Renaissance masters. He adored the works of Raphael. At the same time, his mastery of composition, form, chiaroscuro, line, tone and color evidence the same aesthetic sensitivity as the best of the modernists and the classicists. However, if there is a fault, it is in the overly polished brushwork, which is noticeable in his coy subjects.
The reputation of the Academy was in eclipse by the time of World War I. The names and accomplishments of the history painters were expunged from most art history textbooks, except to revile them as reactionaries who opposed the admission of the early modernists to the Salon. The rapid elimination of the academic standards of excellence from the curriculum would have serious consequences. Today, Bouguereau’s reputation is benefitting from critical re-evaluation. At the same time, he has become an inspiring figure in the cultural revolution among young painters and patrons of the arts.
1. Damien Bartoli and Frederick Ross, William Bouguereau: His Life and Works (Port Reading, New Jersey: Art Renewal Center, 2010), p. 74.
2. Ibid., p. 85.
3. Recently, the painting has been attributed to Titian.
4. Stephen Gjertson, “The Neccessity of Excellence,” Kirk Richards and Stephen Gjertson, For Glory and For Beauty (Hastings-on-Hudson,N.Y.: The Newington-Cropsey Foundation, 2002), p. 108.