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Nymphs and Satyr, by William Bouguereau (Detail)
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Bouguereau at Work - by Mark Walker
O FULLY APPRECIATE THE ART OF Bouguereau one must profess a deep respect for the discipline of drawing and the craft of traditional picture-making; one must likewise submit to the mystery of illusion as one of painting's most characteristic and sublime powers. Bouguereau's vast repertory of playful and poetic images cannot help but appeal to those who are fascinated with nature's appearances and with the celebration of human sentiment frankly and unabashedly expressed.

But it remains to understand, given Bouguereau's in many ways unique style, exactly what the artist was trying to represent. Although Bouguereau has been classified by many writers as a Realist painter, because of the apparent photographic nature of his illusions, the painter otherwise has little in common with other artists belonging to the Realist movement. Bouguereau himself regarded his tastes as eclectic, and his work indeed exhibits characteristics peculiar to Neo-Classicism, Romanticism, and Impressionism, as well as to Realism. Within these categories, the painter is perhaps best understood as a Romantic Realist, but one would also be quite justified in this case in devising an entirely new school of painting and labeling him the first, the quintessential Photo-Idealist. The designation is apt in that, although Bouguereau actively collected photographs and tempered his observations of nature with a keen awareness of the qualities of light inherent in the photographic image, he almost never worked from photographs.1 The rare exceptions are a few portraits, usually of posthumous subjects, which are readily identifiable as photographic derivatives as they exhibit an uncharacteristic flatness and pose.

Bouguereau and his fellow academicians practiced a method of painting that had been developed and refined over the centuries in order to bring to vivid life imagined scenes from history, literature, and fantasy. The process of acquisition of the skills necessary to produce a first-rate academic painting was a long and laborious one. Forever distrustful of educational reforms, Bouguereau once wrote:


The singular goal of traditional art instruction was to endow artists with the skills essential for the convincing pictorial actualization of their imagined visions. The croquis, figure drawings, compositional sketches, color studies, and cartoons were all logical steps in a process that at the end magically congealed separately studied details into an impressive, illusionistic, and unified ensemble.

Plein-air studies were also commonly done as part of the training of most academic painters. The Impressionist landscape painters, deeply stirred as they were by the visual world, limited themselves to this genre, and succeeded in refining certain techniques that wonderfully rendered out-of-door effects. These techniques were later adopted, in some measure, by many studio painters as well.3

Although broken color was not an innovation of the Impressionists (Vermeer was well aware of the principle), some of them took the technique to its presumed theoretical limit. But they did so at the expense of form and modeling, which continued to concern academic painters as well as conservative Impressionists such as Degas and Fantin-Latour.

Even the Realist painter Courbet, who professed disdain for the unseen worlds of the academicians, painted imagined scenes which he could not possibly have produced from direct observation; for their realization, he was perforce obliged to draw upon the traditional methods of the Academy.

The idealizations of Bouguereau's imaginary universe, which have delighted some critics, have incurred the wrath of others. Although some of the latter have loudly lamented the over-romanticized image of the French peasant presented by the painter, few of them have bothered to contemplate the heroic attention required to sustain such a vision of perfection in a less than perfect age. Moreover, as Bouguereau's contemporary Emile Bayard observed:


A similar charge often leveled at Bouguereau is that his art bears little or no relationship to the realities of political, industrial, and urban life in nineteenth-century France. But if Bouguereau's art ignores in its content the pressing issues of the day, it may very well be because the artist, though well aware of them, nevertheless prompts us to lift our eyes from the ground and focus upon the lures of distant Arcadia; when misery is afoot, to exalt the more pleasant possibilities of la vie champetre is not artistic falsehood.

If one pronounces Bouguereau to have been out of step with his time, what must one then conclude about the many, many critics and collectors and viewers who supported him and others of a similar artistic persuasion? Could he really have achieved such prominence and financial success by going against the grain of the "realities" of the nineteenth century? Exactly what are those realities and exactly what attitude was a visual artist obligated to take toward them? If the accomplishments of Bouguereau are poorly understood today, that may have something to do with the shifting of aesthetic expectations over time. As for Bouguereau's public, it was a public raised on Raphael, a public that had not yet been conditioned to prefer abstract ideas to the palpable images that give them utterance, a public that insisted upon an obvious narrative content and that saw in Bouguereau someone opposed to the trends it regarded as inimical to art. It may very well be that a determining factor in Bouguereau's success as a painter, apart from his talent, was that he allied himself to that sizeable, conservative, and revisionist element of French Roman Catholicism which, under the aegis of such men as Louis Veuillot, popular theologian and publisher of L'Univers, refused to yield to the attacks on traditional ideals that were current at the time. Be that as it may, other writers have moved beyond a simplistic view of the question and have forcefully argued that Bouguereau properly belongs, for better or worse, in the Nineteenth Century; Linda Nochlin has noted, for example:


The quality of reverie that is present in so many of Bouguereau's works shows clearly to what extent the artist's romantic disposition prevailed in concert with his classical forms. Bouguereau's alchemical transformations, in which objects, costumes, and the like are removed from the realm of the familiar and transplanted in a distant, archetypal and poetic world, continued a practice with a long academic tradition perhaps most famously articulated by Poussin. Robert Isaacson has observed: "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."6

The craft of picture-making as practiced by Bouguereau basically followed the principles of academic theory as codified by the seventeenth-century aesthetician Roger de Piles. The code embodied the fundamental idea whereby a painting could be judged logically and objectively by its conformity to ideals established for its divisible parts, which were determined to be: composition, drawing, color harmony, and expression. The method Bouguereau used to execute his important paintings provided ample opportunity for the study and resolution of problems that might arise in each of these areas.

The separate steps leading to the genesis of a painting were:

Evidently Bouguereau was constantly making croquis or "thumb nail sketches." Often these preliminary studies were done during meetings at the Institut or in the evenings after supper. For the most part they were scribbled from the artist's memory or imagination, others were sketched directly from nature. These drawings, hitherto unknown to the public, constitute a very important element of Bouguereau's work. For one thing, they yield a wealth of information about the artist's method. They also show in many cases how a particular composition evolved. Executed either in pencil or ink, they served as a means of determining the grandes lignes, the important linear flows and arabesques, within the entire composition and within individual figure groups as well. They were often refined by means of successive tracings.


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