Nymphs and Satyr, 1873
If there is one artist today that hardly needs an introduction, it would be William-Adolphe Bouguereau, supreme giant of 19th century Academic art. Born on November 30, 1825 in La Rochelle on the southwest of France, his talent would define the era he lived in only to fall into obscurity for decades after his death in 1905 until as recent as the early 1980's, shockingly. Today he has the distinction of being lionized by the Art Renewal Center as one of the greatest artists of all time while at the other end of the spectrum vilified by modernists as artificially perfect and sentimental. In fact it is quite rare to see such polarization over an artist of a calibre like Bouguereau, whose bravura is difficult to equal yet at the same time thematically his work admittedly tends toward women and children, a subject matter that sold well and he had endless patience for. Over the vast array of his oeuvre, some 820 paintings, I have tried to find some of his very best work and to also investigate his methodology, examining his strengths and weaknesses.
A key motif of Bouguereau's work is the idea of the dreamworld made real, that mythology or religion is not merely a idea, or an element of melodrama, but something almost tactile, that can be seen and touched, in a world that is naturalistic. Bouguereau felt that by personifying that dream-like notion or symbol into something Classical and natural, it would breathe a life of its own without the simple harmony of NeoClassicism nor the impassioned exaggeration of Romanticism. Looking at Bouguereau's work we see this repeatedly, the visual and the physical, marrying sculpture and painting somehow into an aesthetic that surpasses mere imitation of the past.
In Nymphs and Satyr observe how the figures are not posed yet graceful, all touching and pulling the satyr, creating a natural body language that is rarely seen in painting. By arranging the figures on the left in an inverted triangle with atmospheric perspective behind the figures, Bouguereau creates an eden-like space that captures our attention. Using light in a kind of subtle chiaroscuro, Bouguereau contrasts skin tones with thin shadows to heighten the sense of paradise. Note the contrast in direction between the top left nymph and the pale nymph pulling the satyr, a clever device that bookends the group. The woman grasping his horns while raising her arm to the other nymphs in the far distance also contrasts arm direction from the satyr himself. These figures are wonderfully painted, and the heavy verdant atmosphere of greenery again contributes to the naturalism. Bouguereau painted the nymphs as playful yet "aggressive", a rather modern notion compared to most mythology where a woman would never dominate or attempt to control a man in any way at all. It is one of my very favourite paintings and one of his best.
Bouguereau painting, ca. 1870
Click here for an article from ARC on Bouguereau's painting methods
Note that Bouguereau painted sitting for his smaller works, and with no sight-size method. Here he is using a small brush and mahl stick. He used lots of brushes when he painted!
Love on the Look Out, 1890
A very life-like interpretation of Cupid as a curly-haired romantic youth. Note how Bouguereau alternates the overlapping of the arms with the legs of this young boy, where he reflects the position of the bow and arrow with the box of arrows resting on the rock. Bouguereau favored a soft light for most of his paintings, and here he showcases his exquisite attention to anatomy and skin tones which made him so famous. Pale skin of this kind is challenging to paint, and Bouguereau's knowledge of greys in shadows with yellows in highlights with warm tones in the shadow edges are the key to this technique. Bouguereau also knew that areas such as toes, knees, fingers, elbows, ears and cheeks all need to be warmed up, with accuracy on placement of highlights. Hands and feet, still considered to this day the most challenging to paint or draw, were something that Bouguereau knew was a weakness in some artists but a strength in others such as Raphael and Da Vinci, who rendered them with the same importance as the face. Genius as they say, is in the details, and here Bouguereau creates a strong sense of presence for a very abstract idea of a winged god of love not as a plump baby but as a shy, lean adolescent, yearning to understand more.
The Three Marys at the Tomb,1800's
A very modern concept, I love this painting. Bouguereau uses a dutch angle (several decades before its invention in cinema) to create a sense of drama and extreme unease. Another triangular composition, this time the faces of all three Mary's point in a straight line to the eerie angel half hidden inside the tomb of Christ. Bouguereau knew that revealing the faces of all three women would be nearly impossible, so instead he heightens the reaction of the first two women while depicting the angel as a fuzzy, indistinct, glowing figure. Compared to every single interpretation of this theme, where the angel is the key element of every religious painting, Bouguereau interprets him literally as a small ghost-figure. Bouguereau uses mystery, not importance, to heighten drama. And it works.
Young Shepherdess, 1868
Here is a theme that Bouguereau would paint several times throughout his career: the lone, courageous peasant woman. Had he left only a few, the significance would have been greater yet by returning to this theme repeatedly he unwittingly created a stereotypical Bouguereau image. At any rate, this particular work is very Classical and elevates the working class woman to saint-like grace and beauty. This is pure Raphael he is channeling here, and for the working peasant deservedly so...finding Madonna in the common woman, a literal interpretation of divinity as opposed to the common religious overused images of the past. Bouguereau is hypnotic, whatever subject he chooses.
The Invation (Le Guêpier), 1892
In this unusual painting, Bouguereau portrays a woman inundated by a swarm of cupids from a nearby nest. Conceiving and executing a work such as this requires an enormous amount of planning in the way of sketches and color palette choices, such that not having a clear idea from the beginning could lead to disaster. While some artists had disdain for too many figures in a painting, here Bouguereau achieves it with ease. Surrounding her to create a sense of space, Bouguereau arranges the cupids and woman in an inverted triangle, this time contrasting extension with compression in the angels on the far left and right. Yet in the two angels extended he places their heads close together next to the woman, while the angels on the right are further apart. This sense of design and asymmetry, with graceful anatomy and superb skin tones, create a surreal reverie with a feminine sensibility.
Bouguereau's love of children, being a father himself, as intelligent yet innocent young people (and not merely silly brats) is another key element of his work that became its own stereotype over time. The children he painted, most of which were girls, reveal that courageous independent peasant he often depicted in older women. What is striking about this particular painting is the quaint personality of this bright young girl, beautiful and wise, painted with his characteristic skin tones and fuzzy-edged hair. Note how transparent the shadow is on her left cheek and on her right leg. It is an incredible portrait.
The Nymphaeum, 1878
Here Bouguereau paints his second erotic masterpiece, this time a private world completely inhabited by nymphs. This time Bouguereau does away with the greenery and instead uses a warm palette emphasizing the soft skin and sensuous curves of these nymphs in a realm of innocence. Note how Bouguereau's figure arrangement follows a group structure of odd numbers as opposed to even, so that three nymphs placed side-by-side within a curved or horizontal space is more pleasing to the eye. Bouguereau also alternates sitting with standing figures to relieve the eye from monotony. The figures on the left, standing and spaced wider apart, alternate with the figures in the far distance which are grouped tightly together and mostly seated. Bouguereau evokes pure fantasy, and in this case one that most any male would dream of.
The Flagellation of Our Lord Jesus Christ, 1880
One of the few religious subjects Bouguereau painted, he nonetheless creates a stunning depiction of New Testament cruelty with a sense of poetry. The attention to anatomical detail gives a breathtaking veracity to this work. Note also the pale skin of Christ as compared to the two men whipping him. Bouguereau creates a V-shaped composition of these three figures to add interest to Christ whose head is in the very center of this painting. Also note the use of red accents in this painting to keep the eye from wandering too far outside the composition. Look closely and you will see what is most likely a self-portrait of Bouguereau in the center of these figures...
Sur la Greve, 1896
I love this painting. Again, a theme of young girls or daughters was another overused motif in his work but I love this paining for its attention to personality and composition. Bouguereau uses triangles to identify the two sisters and their personalities. The older sister on the right proudly stands with her hand on her hip, creating a triangle while her arm protectively hugs her younger sister, who sits bashfully beside her. By awkwardly bending her leg out, she also creates a triangle although smaller to identify her younger age and shy personality. Bouguereau also has her arms straight out, forming another triangle to emphasize her shyness. Both sisters wear the same outfit to reveal their relation to each other. There is very little over-sentimentality once you really observe his methodology.
A Young Girl Defending Herself Against Eros, 1880
Another variation on the theme of love conquering woman, Bouguereau makes a more intimate statement here with only the two subjects, exquisitely painted amidst a rural setting. Here the young woman is physically pushing Cupid away, but he is equally insistent and his sharp arrow will not escape her reluctance. Again, natural expression and body language. And poetry.
Is Bouguereau one of the greatest painters of all time? In some respects, yes. And I have shown in the few examples here that his art followed an intelligent path, that he wasn't just a gifted anatomical Master. His weakness was in repeating the same themes, for whatever his reasons, financial or otherwise, and it would have been interesting to see what he could have done with different subject matter such as Orientalism, for example, or city life in his day. But I suspect the main source of derision for Bouguereau comes mainly from jealousy, unfortunately. His craft is one that will be studied for a long time to come.