OR OVER TWENTY YEARS, I have found myself championing a number of nineteenth-century academic painters whose works are anathema to any faithful follower of modernism. One of the main reasons I find their canvases so appealing is that they tend to be large scale and figurative, by which I simply mean that the human figure is the primary, or dominant, focus of the composition. The human figure holds an irresistible attraction for most people. It has been the subject of the most powerful and memorable works of art - from the Venus de Milo to the Michelangelo's Pietá, to Bouguereau's. Yet the taste for figurative art has gone in and out of fashion from classical times to the present, and today most museum visitors and collectors Impressionist landscapes, Dutch still lifes, American genre paintings, and contemporary abstract works more appealing than serious figurative art.|
My first encounter with Bouguereau was in a 1968 exhibition in Minneapolis called The Past Rediscovered; French Painting 1800-1900, in which major French Impressionist paintings were combined with important works by academic artists. Although at the time I had an undergraduate degree in art history and was familiar with the Impressionists in the exhibition, I had never before encountered works by Bouguereau, Couture, Puvis de Chavannes, Ribot, and a host of other figurative artists in the show. A few years later as a Fellow at The Frick Collection New York, I prepared a public lecture series on academic painting in France that was inspired by The Past Rediscovered. The series began with David and ended with Bouguereau. As it turned out, it was the first public lecture on Bouguereau in decades. This was 1971, and I recall not being able to find more than three slides of works by Bouguereau in all of New York - a sure sign of artistic oblivion.
By the time the series got to Bouguereau, something quite unexpected occurred. Word about the lecture had spread downtown, and when I looked out from the podium, the audience was dotted with young artistic types - blue jeans and all - right there in the Frick! As it turned out, they were young figurative painters, some of them photo realists, eager for information about a long-lost predecessor.
A few years later, as the Curator of Paintings at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, I found myself again championing Bouguereau. Before heading west, I was told to scout the New York art market for a modest painting to recommend for purchase. While a nice Luca Giordano could be had for $100,000 and a great Picasso for $1,000,000, there was little to recommend in a more modest price range until John Richardson, then at Knoedler's, showed me a great Bouguereau for only $18,000. When I asked what was wrong with the painting, why so inexpensive, I was assured that the art market reflects established taste and that Bouguereau definitely was no establishment. The trustees in Minneapolis politely approved the purchase on the grounds that it filled a gap in the collection. (In the 1950s, the Museum had sold the only Bouguereau it owned. It was about this time that I learned that Andy Warhol and Stuart Pivar in New York had just bought Bouguereaus and the Robert Isaacson was organizing an important Bouguereau exhibition.) Encouraged, I continued my campaign to revive nineteenth-century academic art by joining with Allen Staley to launch Victorian High Renaissance, and exhibition devoted to the revival of figurative art in England about 1860.
Back east, as Chief Curator of the Wadsworth Atheneum, the ante was raised considerable, and I suddenly found myself defending a huge Bouguereau exhibition. Having completed an extraordinary exhibition on Puvis de Chavannes, Louis d'Argencourt organized a major Bouguereau retrospective scheduled to be shown in Paris, Montreal, and the Brooklyn Museum. At the last minute, Brooklyn could not take the exhibition, and I arranged for it to come to Hartford. While some local sophisticates were amused, and, predictably, the general public loved the show, devout modernists reacted as if I had placed nude pagan statues all over St. Peter's.
My years in Minneapolis and Hartford led to the discovery that the widespread romantic myth that avant-garde art is unappreciated by the bourgeoisie is wrong. Ironically, the avant-garde is the preferred art of the establishment. Works by Sol Lewitt or Agnes Martin or Jonathan Borofsky were easy to sell to trustees, docents, local newspaper critics, and collectors, while traditional figurative paintings by Lord Leighton, Tissot, Leutze, and other English, French, and American academics were far more difficult.
For many "educated" people, accepting these academic artists means rejecting a concept central to their hard-won knowledge of art history. Most people have been taught the history of art as if it were the history of science - as series of breakthroughs to the truth. The very idea of reviving nineteenth-century academic artists who did not pave the way toward the leading movement of the next century seems not merely frivolous, but sacrilegious to the modernist's faith in the future.
In the history of art, an artist's fall from grace and subsequent revival is not uncommon. El Greco was famous while alive, went out of fashion with the baroque, and was rediscovered about 1900. Similarly, Velasquez went out of fashion with the rococo but was resurrected about 1860 by Manet and others. In the late eighteenth century, Fragonard fell out of favor, seeming hopelessly decadent to the neoclassicists, and was then revived a hundred years later. Perhaps the closest parallel to Bouguereau is the American landscape artist Frederick Church, whose birth and death dates are the same as Bouguereau's. During his lifetime, Church became extremely rich and famous, but was rejected in this century as being too sentimental and photographic. Indeed, at the same time Minneapolis sold its Bouguereau, it deacessioned (one could say purged) a huge Frederick Church from its collection.
Bouguereau's great multifigured historical and religious works are now rather widely accepted as being significant art historically. His more modest depictions of peasant figures, on the other hand, are often less appreciated by art historians. The standard litany is that Bouguereau painted a lot of peasants simply to make money by pandering to American tastes. There is little evidence, however, that American collectors asked particularly for paintings of peasants. They liked and admired Bouguereau, but he seems to have picked his own subject matter. Like Balthus's paintings of adolescents, Bouguereau's paintings of young peasant girls appear to reflect his own interests rather than that of his clients.
Bouguereau's works after 1890 are more difficult to champion, since they lack the rigor of many of his earlier paintings. Like Renoir's later works, they have a strong nineteenth-century sentimentality about them that offends our more cynical twentieth century eyes.
Even an ardent Bouguereau foe must acknowledge the tremendous tour de force of execution, composition, and scientific observation that went into his works. While most of us have been carefully taught to appreciate technical skills when it comes to the symphony, the ballet, and the opera, our minds have been closed to the appreciation of skillful execution in the visual arts, for that is not what the avant-garde is all about. For the moment, virtually our entire art education system downgrades traditional technical skills in painting and drawing. Julian Schnabel and finger painting are valued, Bouguereau and traditional drawing are not. Fortunately, there is one exception. Sparked by the Bouguereau show to more about contemporary art education, I discovered an exciting new development supported by Andy Warhol, Stuart Pivar, and others, namely the New York Academy of Art, a graduate school for figurative art founded in 1982 to revitalize art education by reintroducing classical training in anatomy, drawing, and traditional painting techniques.
The first tow decades of this century saw the rise of tow extraordinarily powerful and idealistic movements - communism and modernism. Both held a deep faith in the future and called for clean break with the past. Both proposed ideal structures - one for the economy, the other for art - that could be applied internationally with little need for local variations. Both started as movements for the people but by mid century, had become elitist and intellectually but not emotionally satisfying. Both systems also spawned true believers who self-righteously condemned other systems and purged dissenters. As the century draws to a close, both systems are rapidly crumbling. Nationalism is on the rise, and local traditions are again being fostered giving one hope that in the twenty-first century modern art from Boise to Brazil will not all look alike. The history of art is being rewritten, and museums are expanding their collections so that in place of one narrow path leading to the truth, we can now learn about and see many varied traditions, not the least of which includes the academic figurative tradition of which Bouguereau is an important part.