What’ s up with Bouguereau?


For a long time – since the rise of the Impressionists, in fact – the conventional view of the 19th century French painter and Academicien extraordinaire William-Adolphe Bouguereau is that his work, for all its technical brillance, was turgid, sentimental, and cloying.

It wasn’t always that way. In his own time many saw him as the best painter ever, and even now he has supporters. In recent years, Bouguereau has been championed rather vociferously at the Art Renewal Center, who see the eclipse of his reputation in the years following the 19th century as the result of a rather widespread conspiracy of an “enormous network of powerful and influential art dealers.” To which I’d probably reply something along the lines of “never attribute to conspiracy what can be attributed to fashion”, but whatever. My purpose here isn’t to go head to head with the still smallish minority who actually like Bouguereau. I actually think it’s OK that not everybody shares my taste in everything. (In case you’re wondering, I side with the “turgid and cloying” faction).

Instead I’d like to question why exactly Bouguereau (and to a lesser extent his other Academic contemporaries) elicit such a strongly negative reaction, from myself and others. The standard art-school approved explanation goes something like this diatribe from Mark Vallen (although I’m not picking on him particularly; it’s just that he does a nice job of summarizing the argument):

“… Bouguereau lived during a period of earthshaking change, witnessing the rise of industrialism and the working class, women demanding the vote and inclusion into positions of power, the Franco-Prussian War, the Paris Commune of 1871 and the wave of reprisal killings that took the lives of tens of thousands of Parisian Communards. Yet, in Bouguereau’s paintings there is not the slightest inkling of any of this … It’s as if his meticulously painted Satyrs, winged celestial angels and plump innocent cherubs were intentionally meant to conceal the grinding poverty and growing class conflict of his day – and indeed, that’s exactly the role his escapist canvases filled.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t really find this all that convincing. If a painting happens not to be about a thing, is that really the same thing as concealing it? But more than that, while the argument is fine when you apply it to Bouguereau, (I think because it provides a superficially convincing justification for a judgement we’ve already made), if you apply it rigorously, you’ll quickly find that there aren’t too many paintings you can actually like. Corot’s charming Italian landscapes don’t really tell you much about the lives of the people who must have inhabited them; Monet was only an eye (but what an eye), Cézanne seemed pretty much unconcerned with the social inequities of his day; and you can pretty much write off all the classical painters from Titian through Poussin, who were far more concerned with depicting an idealized realm of history and myth than they were with accurately depicting the grinding misery that must have constituted daily life for the vast majority of their contemporaries.

So what happens of course, is that the folks who do make the political argument tend to make exceptions for the painters I’ve just mentioned, because a theory of painting that doesn’t let Titian and Cézanne into the club is maybe a little too exclusionary, even for them. So the real oldies are exempt because they existed before the whole equality and social justice thing really got off the ground, and Corot and Cézanne get a pass because their styles paved the way for contemporary approaches more grounded in the depiction of the real. But to me that sounds like a post-facto rationalization. I mean, if holding the mirror to reality wasn’t important for Titian because that wasn’t the expectation back then, then it shouldn’t be important for our evaluation of Bouguereau because his contemporaries didn’t demand it either.

So what’s wrong with Bouguereau? Did he just get caught in the crossfire when the Moderns declared war on the 19th century, as the Art Renewal Center would have it?

There’s probably some truth to that. But I still think there’s something irredeemably tacky about his work. The problem is not that he idealizes his subjects, but that the way he does it is just so corny and over the top. His technical perfection actually works against him here, creating a version of reality so flawless that ultimately it fails to convince. Kind of like those old Hollywood movies where the hero emerges from the raging river impeccably coiffed: while it may have been the convention at the time, the effect now is more comical than noble.

So neither the conspiracy argument on the one hand, or the political argument on the other really carry the day for me. Tastes changed I think is all. Of course, that still leaves the question why some few works last beyond their time while most others fade into obscurity when their historical moment has passed, but I’ll leave that one for the philosophers.

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