Now we turn to the world of painting with one of the last great classical artists.
Catholic Credentials: Life-long devout Catholic; frequently painted religious themes; viewed his art as a form of worship.
Nerd Credentials: A history and mythology buff; a staunch traditionalist in an age of increasing modernism (okay, that’s stretching ‘nerd’ credentials to the breaking point, but I think it’s notable).
He was one of the most famous and respected artists of his time, but he was forgotten and ridiculed almost immediately after his death. From being hailed as the greatest living artist, he was dismissed as a prosaic dinosaur, bound to the past and with nothing whatsoever to say to the modern world. The rise and fall of William-Adolphe Bouguereau could almost be used as a parable for modernity, in which the timeless and beautiful is cast aside in favor of being considered 'up-to-date.'
The son of wine and olive oil merchants, Bouguereau was born in La Rochelle, France on November 30th, 1825. As was fairly common in the region, he the product of an inter-religious marriage: his father was Catholic, his mother a Calvinist, and as was the custom, he was raised in his father’s religion.
Theodore Bouguereau, William’s father, was never a successful man. His business problems (and, no doubt, the religious differences) put a terrible strain upon his marriage. Both to ease the family’s financial burden and to spare them the sight of their parents’ violent arguments, the children (William and his sister, Hanna) were sent to live with relatives.
William, for his part, stayed with his uncle, Father Eugene Bouguereau, in the small parish of Mortagne sur Gironde. It turned out to have been the best possible thing for the young artist and one of the happiest times of his life. His uncle became a father and mentor to him, giving him the love and affection that had been so sorely missing from his unhappy parents. The priest instructed his nephew in Latin, religion, literature, and classical culture, as well as being an enthusiastic supporter of the drawings that the boy had already been working on. In addition to his instruction, Fr. Bouguereau was a true friend and companion to his nephew, taking him on long horse-back rides throughout the beautiful Saintonge region where they nourished their shared love of nature and history.
|Fr. Eugene Bouguereau, as painted by his nephew|
When Bouguereau was fourteen years old, his uncle sent him to a boarding school run by a friend of his. Contrary to so many other tales of boarding school horror, young William adjusted well to the new environment and eagerly gobbled up his classes in theology, classics, literature, and his first ever drawing lessons.
It was during the latter that his instructor, a young classicist named Louis Sage, drilled into his head the fact that the art world was not the romantic, bohemian life that some claimed, but was in fact nothing but endless competition and struggle. Bouguereau took this lesson to heart and determined that constant hard work would be the only way one could survive as an artist.
After only two happy years at the college, Bouguereau was summoned home. Not his happy home in Mortagne, but his father’s home in Bordeaux. Theodore had by this time abandoned the wine trade and opened up a olive oil business and he wanted his son to come and help with the bookkeeping.
As you can imagine, this was not at all pleasing to the teenaged artist. The only silver lining was that there was an art school in Bordeaux. After much patient pleading, he finally obtained his father’s permission to enroll there, on two conditions: one, that it would not interrupt his professional duties, and two, that it would not lead him into a career as an artist. Needless to say, neither condition lasted long.
Bouguereau excelled at the school. Despite only being a part time student, he soon surpassed his older, full-time contemporaries. His success was such that, before long, he was entertaining dreams of going to Paris to enter the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts. His father, apparently realizing that the damage was done, reluctantly gave him permission to leave home, and with the help of his uncle Bouguereau soon earned enough money painting commissioned portraits to fund his trip to Paris.
In Paris Bouguereau became the student of Francois Picot, a prominent academic artist of the time. Bouguereau threw himself into his work, taking very little time to eat or sleep while Picot drilled him incessantly in the art of painting (rumors that he had the young man wax his carriage repeatedly to develop his brush stroke remain unconfirmed). While he worked, Bouguereau enrolled in the Ecole, where he again excelled, finally taking home the coveted “Grand Prix de Rome” for his painting Zenobia found by Shepherds on the Banks of the Araxe in his fourth year. The reward was an all-expenses paid year of work and study in Rome, where he poured over the great Italian masters: Leonardo, Michelangelo, and especially Raphael, who quickly became one of his favorites (no word on his opinion of Donatello).
|Dante and Virgil In Hell: an early work.|
Upon his return from Rome, Bouguereau threw himself into his career with every ounce of dedication he possessed (which was quite a lot). The result was a meteoric rise in fame and prestige, so much so that in 1857, a mere six years after returning from Rome, he received a commission from Emperor Napoleon III himself to paint his portrait and that of the Empress. Napoleon was so pleased with the results that he commissioned another painting before the year was out, this one commemorating his visit to the flood victims of Tarascon (note that the Emperor wasn’t so much concerned with commemorating the victims themselves as his visit to them. Some things never change).
With his income rising steadily, Bouguereau married Marie-Nelly Monchablon in 1856 and soon after purchased a large house and studio in Monparnasse. Then, from 1862-63, Bouguereau suddenly reigned in his prodigious output, producing a mere two painting in ’62 (one of which, Holy Family was purchased by the Emperor as a gift for his wife; he really was a big fan). The reason was twofold: first, Bouguereau had decided to do a complete overhaul of his painting technique in an attempt to find new and better ways to produce the beauty he sought. The other was that he had somewhat reluctantly decided to apply for membership in the Academie and needed to cultivate his social connections. It was his second such attempt, but the effort paid off; he was accepted. In years to come, he would be elected president of the Academie.
|The Departure of Tobias|
Meanwhile, after that brief period of dryness, Bourguereau continued to produce paintings an almost insane rate. Almost every morning he was rush to his studio, eager to begin, and every night, when he couldn’t continue, he was excited at the prospect of starting again the next day. Any day he couldn’t get any painting in, he was miserable for the loss. Over his lifetime he produced a staggering 826 paintings. His favorite subjects included classical mythology (especially the story of Eros and Psyche), religious themes, and children, especially peasant children. He loved to exult the poor, and he had a special gift for retaining the likeness of his sitter while beautifying her at the same time.
|Italian Girl Drawing Water|
|The Edge of the Brook|
In addition to his painting, Bouguereau also worked hard as a teacher, striving to preserve the art of classical painting in a world that was increasingly turning to more modern schools. He emphasized hard-work and discipline, but also encouraged his students to explore and express their own loves and imagination in their art. To Bouguereau, technical perfection was what set the imagination free: once an artist had developed the skill born of hours upon hours of effort, he could paint anything he desired. Over the years he taught hundreds, if not thousands of young artists. When he wasn’t painting or teaching, Bouguereau gave much of his time (at least one day a week was his rule) to charity work, raising money for the poor and struggling artists. He also became famous for his almost militant drive to open up the great art schools to women. It was largely due to his influence and unfailing efforts in this direction that this was indeed accomplished in his life time.
His personal life, alas, was not as happy as his professional life. Though he and his wife, Marie, loved each other dearly, they had to suffer the loss of four of their five children. In 1877, Marie herself died shortly after giving birth to his fifth child, a son who died only a few months later. These constant tragedies devastated the aging artist, and he took solace, as usual, in his paintings, which reflected his grief.
|The First Mourning|
Following the death of his wife, Bouguereau began to entertain ideas of marrying again. Specifically, he had fallen in love with one of his brightest pupils, an American named Elizabeth Jane Gardner, who was 12 years his junior. His mother and daughter adamantly protested the match, so Bouguereau obediently refrained from saying anything more about it for the remainder of his mother’s life, though he and Elizabeth were secretly engaged in 1879.
|Miss Elizabeth Gardiner, painted in 1879|
Professionally, he remained at the top of his field. When Victor-Hugo died in 1885, he was selected by the French Institute to represent the art of painting at the master’s funeral. His art continued to be popular, especially among wealthy Americans, who considered him one of the greatest painters of the age.
Despite his popularity, the shadows of things to come were visible on the horizon. Already Bouguereau had to endure the slander and contempt of the avant-garde. They called him stingy and miserly (when, as noted, he gave much of his free time to charity work). They accused him of being lecherous for his many nude paintings. Setting aside the fact that Bouguereau only painted nudes comparatively rarely (they amounted to about 10% of his works), that’s a rather ironic accusation for the avant-garde to be making, considering how famously bohemian many of their lifestyles were/are. Degas in particular loved to mock and dismiss Bouguereau’s work as being ‘lifeless’ and ‘plastic.’ And more and more these new artists were coming to dominate the French art world, where they would eventually use their monopoly on schools and museums to black-list the Academics.
Bouguereau, for his part, didn’t give much thought to these young artists. He presumably didn’t care for what he saw as their undisciplined style, but he remained largely undisturbed by their slanders. His focus was the pursuit of beauty in his painting, and as long as he could do that, he was happy. He offered no defense of his paintings, because they quite clearly needed no defense. They were beautiful, and that’s all there was to it. A painting, he knew, is like a joke: no explaination should be required.
In 1896, Bouguereau’s mother died at the age of 92, bringing the now-71-year-old artist’s seventeen-year engagement to an end. He and Elizabeth were finally married in his home parish in La Rochelle. His joy was tempered by several professional blows, including an angry public response to his participation in the Berlin Exposition in 1891 (Franco-Prussian relations were still bitter following the devastating war between the two nations in the 1870s), and the tragic death of his adult son, Paul, in 1899. Following this final, terrible loss, Bouguereau began to retire from public life. He performed his remaining duties for the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris (where his paintings were exhibited to great acclaim), but he began to turn down the invitations and accolades he continued to receive. In 1905 his delicate health was given another jarring blow when someone attempted to burgle his home. Sensing his end was near, he returned home to La Rochelle, where he died peacefully on August 19th, 1905.
Bouguereau hadn’t been dead long before his reputation was in tatters. New schools of art: impressionists and cubists, the self-styled ‘avant-garde’ of the art world, were gaining in popularity. The academic style was ridiculed as being too rigid and ‘obvious,’ while the new styles were bold, innovative, and freeing. Bouguereau, as the greatest and most prominent of the old school, received the brunt of the new artists’ mockery. For decades his work was left in private collections, or abandoned to rot in museum store-rooms, unseen by all but a few. His name wasn’t even included in art encyclopedias, unless it was to deride him as one of the justly-supplanted Academics. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that his work was exhibited again and began to be appreciated once more.
|The Broken Pitcher|
We won’t argue with the quality of impressionist art: as with all styles, some of it is good, some of it is bad, some of it is ugly (*coughpicassocough*). However, it is undeniably very much of its own time: an impressionist or cubist or post-impressionist painting screams “Hey, I was made in the 19th or 20th century!” Whether they will remain popular in the future is anyone’s guess. The trouble with the avant-garde is that, once it ceases to be avant-garde it frequently loses its appeal. When the excitement of the new and innovative is passed, what we are left with is nothing but the sheer reality of beauty and ugliness.
I am no art critic, and I can’t predict whether the impressionists and neo-impressionists, and all the rest will enjoy a long popularity (I am, however, pretty certain that most of the junk that occupies modern art museums won’t). But one thing I can say for sure is that, if a day ever comes when Degas or Monet or Picasso are relegated to the obscure corners of art classes, to be studied only by a select few, the paintings of William-Adolphe Bouguereau will still be viewed, admired, and beloved by millions.
“One has to seek Beauty and Truth,” Bouguereau declared, and his whole career was built around this search. His work, unlike the work of so many of his contemporaries is timeless, as is Raphael’s, Michelangelo’s, and the work of any other great artist for that simple fact: because it is beautiful.
|The Abduction of Psyche|
|The Nut Gatherers, my personal favorite painting|
Vive Christus Rex!