William Bouguereau :::: GENIUS RECLAIMED

by Fred Ross

William Bouguereau is unquestionably one of history’s greatest artistic geniuses. Yet in this century, he has undergone one of the most pervasive and systematic attempts at character assassination and artistic libel that has ever been perpetrated. He was painted as the arch-villain by modernist ideologues for nearly a century, who accused him of not recognizing the Impressionists. His work was successfully suppressed and his name almost completely banished from the art history texts. Yet in his career he was the President of the French Academy, Head of the Institute, President of the Legion of Honor, winner of nearly countless awards and accolades, and the most famous living French artist from 1860 to 1900. He was a household name much the same as is Picasso today. He and the other top names of the French Academy were ignored as if they had never existed.

The dereliction of scholarly integrity and the betrayal of historical and educational duty by the art historians of this century is nearly unprecedented. It was possible for this writer to actually have received a Master’s degree in Art education from Columbia University in 1974, and never once to have heard his name mentioned or have seen a single one of his works. Yet in fact, he was so prolific during his 80 years life, that there are over 822 known finished paintings of his that were executed, although the whereabouts of many is still unknown.


Pieta, 1876
Dallas Museum of Fine Arts

Considering the consummate level of skill and craft exhibited, and the fact that the great preponderance of them are life-size, it is one of the largest bodies of work ever produced by any artist. Now add to that the fact that fully half of those are great masterpieces, and we have the picture of an artist who belongs like Michelangelo and Caravaggio, in the ranks of only a handful in the entire history of western art. Bouguereau captured the very souls and spirits of his subjects much like Rembrandt. Often I’ve heard said that Rembrandt captured the soul of age, while Bouguereau captured the soul of youth. His figures come to life like no previous artist has ever before or ever since achieved. He didn’t just paint their flesh better, but he captured the subtlest tender nuances of personality and mood. He took no short cuts. Every composition is incredibly original with perspectives and foreshortening and interweaving of figures more complex and successful than was any other artist of his time. His paintings never feel busy. There are never unnecessary elements strewn around.


Nymphes et Satyre, 1873
Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute

The landscaping is rendered just enough to focus you in on the figures. He masterfully brought together the elements of exquisite drawing, incredible coloration and perspective, and brilliant modeling and compositions. All parameters worked in harmony to reinforce the emotional thrust of each work. To achieve this he developed his own idiosyncratic techniques often creating new methods on the spot to solve an immediate problem. There have been extensive analytic treatises written by a number of recent scholars trying to technically dissect how Bouguereau managed his totally unique magic.

Bouguereau often used gypsies and peasants in his works. He purposely chose societies lowest, to elevate all humanity to the heavens. Living on the heals of the American and French Revolutions, his works were a testament to the rights of man and the value of all human life. He also celebrated humanity’s culture and literature in his paintings as seen in his mythological scenes of nymphs, cupids, satyrs and his images from the Bible. These wholly original compositions are handled with an emotional force second to none. The Flagellation, Pieta and Nymphs and Satyr are all consummate masterpieces of this type, with figures painted so lifelike that you feel you’re looking through a window at an event frozen in time. One can sense the blood rush in their veins and the life in their eyes, accomplishments for which no words can do justice.


Flagellation de Notre Seigneur Jesus Christ, 1880
Cathedral of La Rochelle (La Rochelle, France)

Thirty years ago there was barely more than two or three museums in the world who had not relegated his work to store rooms and attics, a fate ironically suffered by Rembrandt too for the first hundred and twenty years after his death. Today, over one hundred museums have Bouguereau’s works on permanent display, with many more including them in traveling exhibitions. The Newington Cropsey Museum deserves a great deal of credit for helping to bring this great master back to public awareness.

[Originally published on Art Renewal Center – Copyright]

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