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: The Evolution of Bouguereau’s Grand Manner


Robert Isaacson



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts' recently acquired Bouguereau, Temptation (figure 1), is dated 1880.1 It is thus a work of the artist's most productive period, for the years after 1870 through the late 1880s saw the completion of most of the pictures that have made the name Bouguereau world-famous.2 He was in many ways the painter par excellence of the rising years of the Third Republic, an age that witnessed the miraculous economic recovery of France, the realization of Baron Haussmann's new plan of Paris, and the inauguration of Gernier's Opéra. To typify an age is not always to be understood by it. Many artists and writers, often those who now seem to us to be most typical of the era, bitterly resented Haussmann's destruction of old Paris, and as for the Opéra, with Carpeaux's incomparable monument to the Dance outside and the splendid decorations by Paul Baudry within, Debussy wrote: "A stranger would take it for a railway station and, once inside, would mistake it for a Turkish bath."3It is ironical that during the Third Republic critics began to refer to Bouguereau as one of the grands peintres of the Second Empire. Had Bouguereau perished in the Siege of Paris in 1870,4 following the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War and the simultaneous collapse of the Second Empire, it is difficult to say whether his fame would have survived. Numerous painters under the Second Empire were similarly honored with prizes and commissions, but are today little more than names in old Salon catalogues, their works having almost totally disappeared. Bouguereau's Nymphs and Satyr, his Virgin of Consolation, one of the most widely reproduced paintings of the late nineteenth century, and The Birth of Venus were all painted after 1870.When Bouguereau began his studies under François-Edouard Picot at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the painting style in vogue and sanctioned by the Ecole was of a very special classicizing sort to which no satisfactory name has ever been given. In architecture, it is called Greek Revival; in painting Ingres' Antiochus and Stratonice of 1840 is exemplary. The earliest surviving composition by Bouguereau is Ulysses Recognized by his Nurse on his Return from Troy (figure 2). The painting was entered in the Prix de Rome competition in 1849,5 when Bouguereau was twenty-four years old. The firmly modeled contours and subtle play of color in Ulysses give more than a hint of Bouguereau's later development. But the flamboyantly "Greek" setting, the hard, linear quality, and the suppression of brushstroke are clearly in line with the principles of this fascinating antique style, which could be translated into cast iron or jewelry with equally brilliant results.Zenobia Rescued by Shepherds on the Banks of the Arazes, which won Bouguereau the Prix de Rome in 1850,6 shows a momentary departure from the Picot school in its exotic forms and softened outlines. This change could well have come about by his studying the work of Théodore Chassériau. There is no direct evidence that Bouguereau was personally acquainted with Chassériau, as was his fellow Picot pupil, Gustave Moreau. But Chassériau's recently painted decorations in the Cour des Comptes of the Palais d'Orsay (1844-1848) were but a five-minute walk from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, so perhaps the similarity in types of physical beauty appearing in the works of the two artists is more than superficial. The type is already present in the head of Penelope in the Ulysses painting. It was an equivocal ideal of beauty, much admired in the famous antique Medusa Rondanini,7 which was widely disseminated in cameos. Princess Belgiojoso had captivated Paris with the deathly Medusa look.8 The great tradédienne Rachel possessed this sublime melancholy, as did the celebrated Roman model Ranna Rissi and the unsmiling Empress Eugénie herself.Two pictures with themes of death brought Bouguereau his earliest fame. The Triumph of the Martyr: The Body of St. Cecilia Borne to the Catacombs was painted in Rome and sent to the Salon of 1854.9 It is a graphic description of the funeral of a beautiful maiden clad in white. Such mournful sights could still be seen at nightfall on the Corso during Bouguereau's student days in Rome.10 The second picture, Le Jour des morts of 1857, is a cemetery scene on All Souls' Day, in which Bouguereau made a classic statement on the romantic externalization of grief. But in principle, he would in later years repudiate the morbid themes of his youth, by that time so thoroughly out of fashion.12 Only once, in The Vow of 1867 (figure 3), did he paint another scene somewhat in this genre. It shows a woman who, having abandoned earthly hope, looks to the Madonna as she clasps the feeble hand of a sick child around a candle. His progress from the early work is evident in the monumental composure of the group: his artistry raises the banal to epic and lyric heights.A measure of Bouguereau's early success is the number of commissions he received, both private and public. His one official commission, Napoleon III Visiting the Flood Victims of Tarascon in 1856, was not, however, a success, and Bouguereau realized from an early moment that he was not destined to be a narrative painter.13 It was not in his nature to struggle against his limitations.In 1859, he painted scenes from the life of St. Louis for the newly completed church of Ste. Clothilde. His exhaustive prior study of the work of Giotto, both in Padua and Assisi, makes the St. Louis chapel all the more disappointing. Possibly the ultramontane patrons at Ste. Clothilde demanded the conventional post-Nazarene style he adopted. His next commission, in 1866, was to paint the lives of St. Peter and St. Paul for the not yet finished church of St. Augustin built by Baltard, the architect of les Halles. As before, the enormous murals were executed in his studio. Although more interesting in design than the earlier decorations, they make little effect in the great dark church.14The most successful and enduring part of Bouguereau's early career was that devoted to the decorative cycles he painted for the houses of wealthy clients in Paris and in his native La Rochelle. The subjects chosen—the history of Cupid, the Arts, the Seasons depicted in Arcadia—spilled over into the paintings he sent to the Salons of the 1850s and '60s along with his oft-repeated secular Madonnas. His decorative commissions ceased with the end of the Empire, and most of the rooms they once adorned have been dismantled. In surviving examples from the Hôtel Pereire, with their sinuous design, elegant combinations of gold with the most subtle use of color, and exquisite finish, we distinguish a master in a field which was becoming increasingly mechanical in the hands of mediocre painters.15In the canvases of the 1870s and '80s, Bouguereau's art was in full flower. He exchanged the peculiarities of the "Greek" ideal for a more normal classicism, monumental but human, refined but also earthy, sentimental but timeless in its intentions. He had no reason to change his favorite subject matter: cupids, nymphs and his eternal shepherdesses, all popular since the days of Madame de Pompadour and Marie-Antoinette. He continued to consult the antique and Raphael, but Le Sueur, Girardon, Clodion and Greuze (whose work he copied as a student)16 were equally constant sources. Bouguereau's art thus finds its place in an undying eighteenth-century French tradition.17 It is as if he bypassed the lessons of Picot for those of Picot's master, François-André Vincent, and regained all the full-bodied classicism, unencumbered by archaeological detail, which the transfer of allegiance might imply.For Bouguereau, uniquely, penetration into the eighteenth century meant additionally an unselfconscious re-entry into the grand tradition of European painting. Like an old master, in the same year, 1880, he could produce with apparent agility an heroic altarpiece (his Flagellation in La Rochelle is particularly powerful in color and composition),18 a "rococo" Young Girl Defending Herself against Love (figure 4), or a gentler pastoral scene, the Temptation (figure 1).In its overt appeal to the senses, the Minneapolis painting is, of course, inescapably identifiable with its time, but it is noteworthy that Bouguereau tried in every way to avoid signs of contemporary life, even in his choice of costume (a timeless "peasant" dress), setting the scene in a never-never land of pure beauty. It amounts to an apotheosis of the ordinary.In the painting, a young woman reclines while holding an apple and gazing at a baby girl. Very little "happens" in the usual sense of a subject. The provocative title may refer to nothing more than the woman, perhaps the mother, trying to coax the child to take the painter's desired pose. The child (figure 5) is a fine example of Bouguereau's supremacy in the capturing of tremulous infantile expressions. The models themselves are no longer generic types, as in the early paintings, but paid sitters of healthy complexion who came close to his ideal of perfection. Once he found a model approaching that ideal, Bouguereau used her repeatedly.19 The same young woman, possibly Italian, is the model in his Young Girl Defending Herself (figure 4), painted the same year20 He often modeled such outdoor pictures in an open summer studio at La Rochelle,21 and the landscapes were taken from the neighboring countryside.Usually, Bouguereau's sources for idyllic paintings of this sort elude identification, but here there may be a distant reflection of the lovers and the form of landscape used in Titian's Three Ages of Man (figure 6). The resulting composition is in any case a minor Bouguereau masterpiece. The landscape is minutely adjusted to the forms of the solidly painted figures. Their large shapes, framed by the tree massed behind them, fill the left side of the canvas so that the right opens up into the distant landscape. There is no lopsided effect, however, and Bouguereau dares to add a water lily at the lower left edge, in the surest old master display of careful construction.Bouguereau liked to work on certain formal problems over and over again.22 In 1872, he had painted a similar horizontal landscape group during harvest, Pendant le moisson (figure 7), 23 in which a young woman holds out an orange to a reclining baby. But it is a more conventionally Italianate picture of a mother and child, and Temptation is more advanced in compositional stability. In 1883, following Temptation, Bouguereau painted The Nut Gatherers (Les Noisettes, figure 8), an equally successful group, but more suggestive of a contemporary genre scene. It is impossible to say whether there are other related horizontal paintings: their titles in Bouguereau's oeuvre catalogue would not necessarily suggest their compositions. His poetic titles for pictures, which are in essence beyond time and subject, indicate a greater concern for composition than for storytelling. English-speaking owners have not been able to resist the temptation to give the paintings more specific names: thus both Pendant le moisson And Temptation have been known as Mother and Child, in one form or another.Pendant le moisson, Temptation and Les Noisettes, taken together, show the gradual lightening of Bouguereau's palette for reasons of total atmospheric clarity, another sign of eighteenth-century influence.24 He had always excelled as a painter of flesh tints; the lighter atmosphere in the years around 1880 simply allowed his figures to inhabit their surroundings more naturally.Bouguereau devoted more than fifty years in his painting career to perfecting his personal concept of beauty. Serene in his isolation, he was little influenced by others of his period and it cannot be said that he had very much influence on them. His followers and imitators, including his American wife, only succeeded in besmirching his reputation. In spite of adverse critical response,25 contemporary collectors were reassured by his vision. No great American collection was without a Bouguereau, and the discerning especially sought the works of his best period.26Robert Isaacson, collector and writer, owned the Robert Isaacson Gallery in New York, where he exhibited the work of then-neglected nineteenth-century painters such as Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. As acting director of the Vassar College Art Gallery in 1967, he organized an exhibition of the work of Jean-Léon Gérôme. In 1974, Mr. Isaac was guest curator for the Bouguereau exhibition at the New York Cultural Center.Endnotes
  1. William-Adolphe Bouguereau
    French, 1825-1905
    Temptation, 1880
    Oil on canvas
    39 x 52 in.
    Signed lower right: "W-BOVGVEREAV-1880"
    Negative no. 14-271
    The Putnam Dana McMillan and M. Knoedler Funds, 74.74Provenance:. Mrs. Henry E. Huntington; Edward F. Albee; Hirschl and Adler Galleries, Inc.; Walter P. Chrysler, Jr.; Jean Zimmermann; James E. Lepere; Sternberg Galleries; Viviane Woodard Corp.; M. Knoedler and Co., Inc.
    Exhibitions: Connoisseurship at the Turn of the Century, the E. F. Albee Collection, Hirschl and Adler Galleries, Inc., New York, 1959, no. 1; The Controversial Century, Chrysler Art Museum, Provincetown, and the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1962 (illus.); Viviane Woodard Collection, Canton Art Institute, Canton, Ohio, 1972.Reference: L. Baschet, ed., Dictionnaire illustré des Beaux-Arts (Paris, 1885), p. 61 (illus.); Marius Vachon, W. Bouguereau, Paris, 1900. p. 154; Selections from the Collection of Hirschl and Adler Galleries, Inc., New York, January 1960, no. 38, p. 38 (illus.).
  2. It was his practice to work on several pictures at once, so that the date on a Bouguereau represents the year of its completion or first exhibition.
  3. Claude Debussy, Monsieur Croche, the Dilettante Hater, trans. B. N. Langdon Davies, foreword by Lawrence Gilman (New York, 1948), p. 61.
  4. Unlike some of his illustrious colleagues (Gérôme, Carpeaux), he remained in France, enlisting in the National Guard, although exempt from military service because of age (he was forty-five) and as a past recipient of the Prix de Rome.
  5. The composition by the prize-winner, Gustave Boulanger, is illustrated in Gustave Moreau, catalogue of an exhibition at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1974, fig. 2, along with Moreau's sketch for his entry (pl. 3). The Boulanger is more extreme in its embrace of the mannerisms of the new antique style; Moreau's sketch is relatively tame.
  6. In the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris. See William-Adolphe Bouguereau, catalogue of an exhibition at the New York Cultural Center, 1974-1975, no. 1.
  7. The marble relief, formerly in the Palazzo Rondanini in Rome, was bought by Ludwig I of Bavaria and is now in the Glyptothek, Munich. Goethe owned a plaster cast of the Medusa, "a wonderful work, which, expressing the contest between life and death, between pain and rapture, exercises, like some great problem, an unspeakable charm on us" (Goethe's Travels in Italy, trans. Charles Nisbet [London, 1885], April 14, 1788, p. 537).
  8. See Mario Prez, The Romantic Agony (London, 1933), pp. 121-122.
  9. Formerly in the Luxembourg collections, now at Lunéville, Musée Municipal. Illustrated in New York Cultural Center, op. cit., p. 12.
  10. William W. Story, Roba di Roma (London, 1863), vol. 2, pp. 136-137.
  11. In the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Bordeaux; illustrated in New York Cultural Center, op. cit., no. 4. Both the Triumph of the Martyr and the Jour des morts were highly praised by Théophile Gaiter. See Ludovic Baschet, ed., Catalogue illustré des oeuvres de W. Bouguereau, introd. by Charles Vendryes, in the series Artistes modernes (Paris, 1885), pp. 7, 16-17.
  12. Marius Vachon, W. Bouguereau (Paris, 1900), pp. 95-96.
  13. Ibid., pp. 85-86. Vachon's way of putting this (p. 141) is "Le fait ne l'intéresse pas, parce qu'il n'est qu'un accident de la vie sociale. Il peindra volontiers la 'Guerre,' mais non une 'guerre.'" Whereabouts of the Napoleon III painting unknown; Vachon (p. 85) illustrated a hyper-realist drawing for one of the single figures.
  14. Bouguereau's last public commission was a prestigious one for the Lady Chapel in St. Vincent de Paul, Paris (1884-88). The church already had paintings by Hippolyte Flandrin and Picot and sculptures by Rude and Carrier-Belleuse. If the giant paintings were ever cleaned and restored, they would be seen to be unusually powerful examples of post-Lourdian French Catholic art.
  15. A splendid oval from the Hôtel Pereke is in the collection of Lincoln Kitstein, New York. Three large panels, L'Amour, L'Amitié and La Fortune, for the Hôtel Bartholony are now in the American embassy in Paris, a gift of Mrs. Chester Dale. He used an encaustic technique for the gracefully intertwined couples on black backgrounds, making a clear reference to Pompeian frescoes. When the panels were shown in the Salon of 1857, Théophile Gautier stressed in an ecstatic review that they were not slavish imitations: "Le dessin des têtes, des torses et des extrémités rappelle sans servilité le gout de la décoration antique. Il est simple, élégant, dégagé de détails inutiles; car il ne faut pas faire voltiger les réalités du daguerréotype sur les fonds rioirs de Pompéi. C'est ce que M. Bougereau a trés bien compris" (Baschet, op. cit., p. 10).
  16. He exhibited enamels after Le Brun and Greuze in the Salon of 1850-51 (Baschet, op. cit., p. 6).
  17. For the constant popularity of rococo themes in nineteenth-century French art, see Carol Duncan, The Pursuit of Pleasure: The Rococo Revival in French Romantic Art (New York, 1976, published Columbia University Ph.D. dissertation). The furnishings and decorative styles of the eighteenth century also lasted in an unbroken tradition. At home in the rue Notre Dame des Champs, Bouguereau surrounded himself with eighteenth-century furniture. Note the Louis XVI chair in The Vow (figure 3).
  18. Formerly in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, La Rochelle, now in the Cathedral.
  19. For Bouguereau and his models, see Jacques Lethéve, Daily Life of French Artists in the Nineteenth Century (New York, 1972), p. 77.
  20. The Getty painting is the autograph reduction, painted the same year as the large picture (83 in. x 59 in., present whereabouts unknown) shown in the Salon.
  21. Vachon, op. cit., pp. 98-99.
  22. This explains his unwillingness in later years to take on commissions with dictated subject matter. In a letter of December 2, 1889, to Charles W. Cram, a dealer, he wrote: "Monsieur, Je regrette de ne povoir vous atre agraable en acceptant la commande que vous étes autorisé à me faire, mais ainsi que je vous l'avais dit, c'est dehors de mes habitudes, et ce serait m'astreindre à une obligation qui pourrait me géner dans mes désirs de faire tel autre sujet." Letter in the possession of the Library of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
  23. Like Temptation, this picture was reproduced in a line drawing in Baseher (op. cit., unpaginated plates) and also engraved by Goupil. Pendant le moisson, or a copy of it, was sold at Kende Galleries, New York, January 7, 1943, as Mother's Treasure. The catalogue (no. 56) stated it was "painted in Fontainebleau, 1879" and "from the Samuel Beach Collection, acquired directly from the artist in Paris." Judging by the photograph and dimensions, the same picture, now signed and dated 1872, was sold at Parke-Bernet, New York, June 4, 1975, no. 189, as Maternal Joy. The paintings was in very poor condition at the sale, as it presumably was in 1943 when it brought the unrealistically low price of five hundred dollars.
  24. We have been told ad nauseam that the lighter palette adopted by the non-Impressionist painters was a response to the growing acceptance of Impressionism. It should be apparent to the most casual museum visitor that neither lightness of color nor the use of visible brushstrokes was an Impressionist invention. For that matter, Bouguereau made no significant contribution to the scientific study of light, the great Impressionist achievement.
  25. For a detailed account of Bouguereau's fortuna critica, see my introduction to the New York Cultural Center catalogue, William-Adolphe Bouguereau (New York, 1974), pp. 13-19.
  26. His Young Girl Defending Herself against Love and Temptation belonged to two keen collectors of eighteenth-century French art, the former to Mrs. Henry Walters and the latter to Mrs. Henry Huntington. Temptation was sold in 1926 with the other contents of Mrs. Huntington's New York mansion (Sale of properties "removed from 2 East 57th Street, New York City," Anderson Galleries, April 15, 1926, no. 48) and bought by E. F. Albee, the movie theatre magnate, who gave shelter to so many once prized masterpieces of the last century.
Referenced Works of Art
  1. William-Adolphe Bouguereau
    French (1825-1905)
    Temptation, 1880
    Oil on canvas, 39 x 52 in.
    Putnam Dana McMillan and M. Knoedler Funds, 74.74
  2. William-Adolphe Bouguereau
    Ulysses Recognized by his Nurse on his Return from Troy, 1849
    Musée des Beaux-Arts, La Rochelle
  3. William-Adolphe Bouguereau
    The Vow, 1867
    Philadelphia Museum of Art
  4. William-Adolphe Bouguereau
    Young Girl Defending Herself against Love, 1880
    J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu
  5. Detail of the child in Temptation
  6. Titian
    Three Ages of Man
    Duke of Sutherland Collection, on loan to The National Gallery of Scotland
  7. William-Adolphe Bouguereau
    Pendant le moisson, 1872
    Detroit Institute of Arts
  8. William-Adolphe Bouguereau
    The Nutgatherers, 1882
    Detroit Institute of Arts
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Source: Robert Isaacson, "The Evolution of Bouguereau's Grand Manner," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 62 (1975): 74-83.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009