by Frederick C. Ross, MA Columbia University
William Bouguereau is unquestionably one of history's greatest artistic geniuses. After having spent forty years reviewing at considerable depth the art of the past six hundred years, and having consulted art historians, experts, museum officials, curators, and collectors, the overwhelming majority concurs it is not possible to discuss the life's work of Bouguereau and not recognize that it is among history's most original, powerful, and significant fine art. His achievements in drawing and painting the human figure equal any of the great masters who have gone before. Yet in the past century his reputation and unparalleled accomplishments have undergone a libelous, relentless and systematic assault of immense proportions. His name was stricken from most art history texts and when included it was only to degrade and disparage his accomplishments.
Yet it was Bouguereau, working with Rudolph Julian and other 'free thinking' academic masters in 1868, who opened the Academy Julian and ultimately the L'Ecole des Beaux Arts, and Academy Français to women artists for the first time in history. With the many successful artists from the French Academy and the Paris Salons, Julian's quickly became one of the most renowned art schools in the western world.
Bouguereau's reputation grew exponentially from the time he won the Grand Prix de Rome until he was a household name throughout Europe and America. His subjects come to life in an unparalleled manner. More importantly, he captured the tender and subtle nuances of personality and mood. Bouguereau caught the very souls and spirits of his subjects much like Rembrandt. Rembrandt is said to have captured the soul of the aged, while Bouguereau caught the soul of youth.
Considering his consummate level of technical skill and the fact that the great preponderance of his works were life- size and many multi-figured, he has bequeathed one of the most impressive artistic legacies ever produced. Add to that the fact that fully half of these paintings are masterpieces and we have an artist who belongs with Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Caravaggio in the top ranks of only a handful of masters.
There have been such a host of vociferous myths and lies about Bouguereau that it is incumbent on a publication of this magnitude to address and dispel these untruths. It is now time to finally set the record straight so that future historians will have a road map for further exploration. This must be done if the art history of this era is to be set on a proper course. If this were a book on almost any other artist of the period, or even of another academic master of the later nineteenth century, much of what is written herein would be unnecessary or seem inappropriate.
But William Bouguereau holds a singular place in art history. It must be remembered that Bouguereau has for decades been characterized as the arch-villain of the entire Modernist paradigm of art history. According to the Modernist version, the Impressionists were met with inflexible attitudes by the academic masters who they described as obdurate, talentless hacks caring only for perfection of technique and caring nothing for emotional power or poetic energy. For the past ninety years or more it has been commonly taught how Bouguereau threw Matisse out of his atelier for 'not knowing how to hold a pencil,' without documentary evidence that this actually happened.
However, it is true that countless contemporary reports describe his generosity of spirit and honor-bound dedication to his students. Nearly every one of his hundreds of pupils had nothing but unmitigated praise for the value of his teaching and the kindness of his method. A clear picture of who Bouguereau was starts to come into focus when the reader takes into account the responsibilities that mired him in endless administrative details as one major art organization after another voted him to lead them, with mountains of official duties in tow. These duties were always reported to have been dispatched with integrity and a thoroughness that became legendary amongst his peers. He accomplished all this while creating a prodigious output averaging about twenty world-class paintings, numerous oil studies and hundreds of pencil sketches each year.
Continuing to ignore historical evidence, the current entrenched artistic establishment is convinced of the righteousness of their crusade. They say the early Modernists fought for freedom of expression against the horrid wrongheadedness of the powerful members of the French Institute, led by Bouguereau, who oppressed these shining knights of artistic truth and justice.
Bouguereau and the other academicians were trampled into the dust of art history for most of the past century. He continued to be mentioned with ridicule as generation after generation was taught the same sordid fabricated tales of how the Impressionists were subjugated by him and his colleagues.
These lies are patent and they did not happen. When it comes to subjugation, contemporary traditional realists have currently been suppressed mercilessly and more than anything experienced by our Impressionist heroes in their nineteenth century tale of woe. The finest living academically trained traditional realists have never been exhibited prominently in any of the greatest art museums. Yet no year went by when dozens of Impressionist paintings were not exhibited in the Paris Salons from 1870 to the end of the century.
Before that Impressionism, or New Painting as it was called, did not yet exist as an identified style but, as we shall demonstrate, the techniques utilized by the Impressionists were seen in works in the 1840's and '50s. Many of their methods had been used for many generations as the way to make oil studies in the early stages of compositional design as it was taught in all the art schools throughout Europe. Their contributions were the use of the newly introduced coal-tar pigments and the complementary colors of the newly discovered color wheel. While these were logically not used by the older academic artists they were equally accepted and just as readily used by Salon painters of the same generation as the Impressionists.
In Chapter 10 of this book we expose one of the most important of these myths while describing the origins of the 1863 Salon des Refusés, which has been elevated by Modernist texts to have been an event of momentous and legendary importance. Generally it was thought to have been organized by the leaders of Impressionism as a venue thought up and originated by Edouard Manet, who exhibited his Le déjeuner sur l'herbe, James McNeil Whistler with his Girl in White, Cézanne and Pissarro amongst others.
These artists were not organizers, but beneficiaries of officialdom. According to their propaganda they were finally permitted to show their 'advanced' work to the public at the Salon des Refusés after repeatedly having suffered rejection by the official circles and Salon. The source of this legend may have come from the New Painters champion, émile Zola and his fictionalized account of the 1863 exhibition in his 1886 book, The Masterpiece.
Once again history proves stranger than fiction as it was a made-up tale that was to become the accepted story about those artists who were celebrated, among other things, for their destruction of story-telling.
The reality is far less glorious, as numerous accounts verify. It was the new drastically changed rules implemented by French bureaucrats (not artists) which among other things limited to three the number of paintings that any artist could submit to the Committee of Admissions. Many artists in the past would submit seven, twelve or even fifteen canvases increasing their odds of seeing at least one accepted.
They joined forces with the artists who were generally rejected each year and the outcry was finally reviewed by none other than Napoleon III, who, more soft-hearted than his famous forebear, took pity on them and ordered the officials to open up a second space and venue called the Salon des Refusés, paid for and run by the government. More importantly, it was an unmitigated failure. The first year 781 works were exhibited by 366 painters and sixty-four sculptors, but it was such an embarrassment to exhibit there that only 388 works were shown the second year and the experiment was abandoned by 1865 after only two years.
Furthermore, those who showed in the 'Refusés' venue were artists of every sort and type with most of them being academic and traditional and only a tiny minority one might describe as somewhat Impressionist. Then, as this book will explain, a number of years later, in 1874, the exhibition was repeated again, only this time by a group led by one of those 'rigid' Academic artists, Jean E.L. Meissonier, who has never been associated with an 'Impressionist' Salon des Refusés. The events were caused by a rift amongst the Traditional artists.
Decades later the ideologue writers, who were helping successful dealers sell Impressionist and post Impressionist canvases, disinterred this event, reinvented how it happened and just flat out rewrote history, blaming Bouguereau who became their perfect straw-man, but who wasn't even a member of the Institute during the earlier seminal events. So, to make events appear the way they wanted, ignoring the truth, they imbued new meaning to the events of 1863 and 1874, wrapping them in ribbons of legendary importance and mythological storytelling.
Repeatedly we've heard how the young Impressionists originated the concept and organized the idea of a Salon des Refusés to bolster the picture of Modernism having come out of the abuse of these 'heroes' at the hands of the Academic gatekeepers of the official Paris Salon. If we look even more closely at the numbers, we realize that over 2,200 paintings were permitted into the regular Paris Salon of 1863 out of a little more than 5,000 entered; that is over 40%, not narrow at all.
In fact the committee who juried the exhibition permitted more stylistic and technical innovation and diverse original subjects than ever before in history, and they had been doing this since 1849 when most of the Impressionists were still children or not yet born. It was after the revolutions throughout Europe in 1848 when the drive to be more inclusive first took hold and the regular Salon expanded enormously. Never are we told how the main philosophical thrust towards expansive liberalization of subjects and technique occurred over a generation earlier.
The new artistic liberty was undoubtedly influenced by the republican revolutions that broke out in 1848 against the monarchies of the Austrian Empire, France, Germany, Italy, and Sicily—that is, against the ancient régime. Every one of the revolts was repressed, but the liberal spirit that inspired them lived on in art, displaced from its original purpose. (This spirit no doubt was also encouraged by a general atmosphere of social and cultural change, evident in the Industrial Revolution and in the growth of museums and libraries that was correlative with the growth of literacy.)
History books have long included this understanding, but up until recently there was a considerable disconnect between political, societal and cultural history on the one hand and art history on the other. Incorporating these well-known events logically threatened the accepted stories and beliefs of the Modernist paradigm. The changes which emanated from the French and American Revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century, followed by the unsuccessful upheavals in 1848, had a major impact on the fine arts, the nature of which contradicts the stories told as the core legends used to justify the extreme elevation of Impressionism, post- Impressionism and the many Modernist 'isms' that developed out of that mindset. Likewise is lost the rationale for denigrating Bouguereau and the other academics whose paintings of everyday life upon closer analysis also emanated from the same expansive, egalitarian, liberalization process affecting theatre, poetry, writing, music and artistic liberties that were sweeping the western world.
The suppressed truth about this period is that during the nineteenth century there was an explosion of artistic activity unrivaled since the High-Renaissance.
In many ways this was truly a second Renaissance, only this time based more fully on liberty, equality and human rights. In his day Bouguereau with Jean Leon Gérôme, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, and Meissonier, among thousands of other academic artists, were considered to be modern, creative original, cutting edge, pushing-the-envelope Modern artists.
This definition changed at about the time of Bouguereau's death in 1905 and with his ex-student Henri Matisse's oil Lady with a Hat and the Fauve Movement of the same year. The words of a Bouguereau student, John Hafen, seem to resonate this idea of the academic artists being called Modernist:
I find the paintings executed the most natural are the most meritorious and consequently receives the honors. Just as I always thought, I like the paintings of the Modern artists much better than ancient [old masters] or the early half of the present century. Today they drive more for truth... I like art of today the best; it has nature and truth for its guiding star.
Thousands of properly trained artists developed a myriad of new techniques and explored countless new subjects and perspectives that had never been dealt with before, including French New Painting (Impressionism). They covered nearly every aspect of human activity and experience. Expansive instead of narrow; original and creative instead of just copying prior periods (as has been claimed); inclusive instead of exclusive; Impressionists were welcomed, not shunned or forbidden access. This is the opposite of what has been heretofore taught and written as part of the 'authorized model' in most contemporary art history courses and texts. Most of the new freedoms of thought that led to all of these new subjects and techniques were being discussed, analyzed and critiqued decades before Impressionism as a concept was identified or known.
Before 1848, sketches could be submitted to the Salon jury, but only the finished work could be exhibited; afterward, paintings were exhibited that seemed closer to sketches than finished pictures.... Similarly, subjects from everyday life, composed and painted in a less-finished manner, were allowed in what had hitherto been the academically rigid category of 'genre.' Change was clearly in the air (1849) and with it liberalization—a new democratization of art, with a new abundance and diversity that had to be sorted out. Criticism began as a journalistic effort to do so, with reviews (often by literati) appearing in such belles lettres magazines as the Examiner, Athenaeum, Art Journal, Revue des deux mondes, L'Artiste, Gazette des beaux-arts, Grenzboten, Das Deutsche Kunstblatt, Die Dioskuren, and Zeitschrift für bildende Kunst. These magazines were consulted by both the bourgeois buying public and the art cognoscenti.
The EnlightenmentSome time now must be taken to demonstrate many of the core beliefs and philosophical breakthroughs of the Enlightenment. These ideas and concepts are crucial to understanding the context in which William Bouguereau and his colleagues and students lived and worked. They encompassed a set of ideas that led directly to some of the most momentous events in all of human history. It was a time of major cultural shifts when the old world was competing with the evolving elements of the world yet to come.
While we can look back perched on an outcropping of safety and view these historical shifts with relative clarity and understanding, at the time it was not at all clear where the gathering dusts of history would settle: justice, equality under the law, elections by popular vote; protection of human rights; protection of minorities from a tyranny of the majority; protection of both from a powerful elite; the obligation of government and society to identify, organize, and protect those rights; freedom of association and assembly; assurance of property rights; freedom of the press permitting and insuring popular disclosure, debate and resolution of countless injustices from or embedded in remaining and recalcitrant institutions which were still riddled with the followers of former rulers unwilling to relinquish any vestiges of power.
The society of the modern world, which I have sought to delineate, and which I seek to judge, has but just come into existence. Time has not yet shaped it into perfect form: the great revolution by which it has been created is not yet over; and amid the occurrences of our time, it is almost impossible to discern what will pass away with the revolution itself, and what will survive its close. The world which is rising into existence is still half encumbered by the remains of the world which is waning into decay; and amid the vast perplexity of human affairs, none can say how much of ancient institutions and former manners will remain, or how much will completely disappear.
It was not at all clear how things would evolve, but it was clarity that was needed if people were to organize their lives securely,and it was clarity that was essential, for only a free and secure people can build a civilization fit for culture and the arts. So it was that the writers and artists of the 'first' century of liberty and freedom – the nineteenth century – were given the duty and responsibility to organize, codify, popularize and protect the systems, laws, and democratized institutions of society which would insure the perpetuation of liberty – a way of life so recently established in human affairs. How they were to discharge these duties would surely impact and affect future generations, perhaps for centuries to come.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau cried out at the beginning of his landmark work, The Social Contract: 'Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains...' Unlike Karl Marx, Rousseau's work focused on one of the most essential concepts that sired the western world from 'medievalism,' and protected people from being vulnerable to the whims of a despot, or philosopher king alike, either of whom were really only responsible to their own sensibilities which were validated and legitimized by 'divine right.'The western world moved from a world filled with edicts of the 'sovereign' to a world ruled by 'sovereign states.'Terms like the'general will','social contract' and 'government, of, by and for the people' were disseminated everywhere throughout the newly 'free' world. Rousseau ended this great historical essay speaking about current day injustices in France,'since it is plainly contrary to the laws of nature...that the privileged few should gorge themselves with superfluities; while the starving multitude are in want of the bare necessities of life.' He lashed out at an indifferent society and observed '... how poverty could deprave and degrade men and women who were originally good'.
These revolutionary ideas became concepts whose meanings and understanding became increasingly embedded in the educated and wealthy classes, 'trickling down' all the way to workers in the fields, laborers in factories and shipyards, all of whom were to participate in the benefits of newly free and democratic societies as the eighteenth century origins led to nineteenth century codification and twentieth century implementation. It started first narrowly, as with only landowners voting in the original US Constitution, and then ever more broadly until the twentieth century had finished dealing with two world wars, the great Depression and countless other horrors.
The western world saw an evolution from an agricultural to an industrialized economy, the abolition of monarchy, women voting, slavery abolished, child labor banned, labor movements established, the securing of 'due process', to confront your accusers, cross examine witnesses, and countless new institutions with a common and written law which protected and defended every inch of these new found human rights while spreading them into virtually every nook and cranny of Western civilization.
While it would be possible to write a dozen books and fifty essays on this one topic, the seminal Enlightenment works by Locke, Hobbes, Mill and De Tocqueville make the mindset and cultural atmosphere clear, setting the stage for the way in which we feel free to live, work and think today.
The Connection Between the Writers and Painters of the EnlightenmentThe artists and writers of the nineteenth century wrote about, popularized and perpetuated the great humanist values and momentous Age-of-Reason discoveries and beliefs of the day. During the twentieth century, those writers of the previous century were praised and celebrated to the heavens, while the top academic artists like Bouguereau were ridiculed and slandered. People felt ashamed to admit they liked his work. Yet, at the time, those celebrated poets and novelists all loved the works of their brothers with a brush and saw them as their own visual philosophical equivalents. It is clear that they shared their fame and reputations in the eyes of the press and the people of their world.
As you will see, Bouguereau's reputation was so lofty that every important art organization in France wanted him as its member and then as its president. The reader can only wonder how a man could be so maligned who never shirked a single important request, task or responsibility, whose life was a tribute to hard work, with a long record of charitable giving, never missing an occasion to help poor artists, his friends, extended family, and a multitude of worthwhile associations.
Until very recently his distinguished record was ignored and the clear evidence of his accomplishments libelously discredited and then entombed by the envy and jealousy of the beneficiaries of the 'new art' whose deceit and arrogance was to nearly destroy a thousand years of accumulated knowledge, for whom Bouguereau was the most esteemed, accomplished, and popular living representative. He was accused of painting for the bourgeoisie for financial gain – a man who endured so much personal tragedy that no amount of monetary gain could ever offset even one of the deaths of four of his five children, who passed on long before him.
Victor Hugo during his life gained the reputation of being the greatest writer in France. He attained the unparalleled position as Poet of the Nation. He wrote about humanity and all of the heartaches and joys that accompany life. He and other prominent writers like Charles Dickens, Henry James and the Brontös in Great Britain; Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson in America; Dostoevsky,Tolstoy and Chekhov in Russia; Balzac and Stendhal in France, captured the soul of an era.
A period that had undergone the most devastating of upheavals which came out of the Industrial Revolution, and the major political and philosophical deluges which were ushered in by and with the ascendancy of the ideals of the Enlightenment and their conflicts with the old order. The common man now came first, and the odyssey of what it meant to live through all the stages of life as a human being.
This was all central to works like Les Miserables, Laughing Man and countless essays, speeches and poetry, while simultaneously being timeless and universal as their characters' accounts of their hopes, dreams, fears, and passions could be happening to any people at any time.
Such words equally describe the engaging power of the paintings of William Bouguereau. As friends and colleagues, these men knew each other and, Bouguereau, like Hugo, helped to lead the artists and writers of the day in codifying the new found respect for humanity, individual dignity and valuing all mankind, with a profound drive to preserve, protect and insure the permanence of the French slogan 'Liberty, Egalité, Fraternité'.
When Victor Hugo passed on, his family and the officials of the government called upon Bouguereau to deliver the eulogy and preside over his friend and colleague's funeral. Of the great and important honors that Bouguereau accumulated, there was none equal to this, for most of the nation loved, revered and cherished his visual masterpieces as much they did Hugo's literary genius. They were of equal stature when it came to their importance and influence on society and culture. When we scrutinize the life's work of both these great men, it is impossible to say which was the more prolific or the more successful and profound.
As the pictures above demonstrate, Bouguereau and Hugo even looked more and more alike as they aged. They were lions of their time. What research is proving unequivocally is that the great writers of the mid- to late nineteenth century, having been honored and praised in their day, have for more than a century since continued seamlessly to be appreciated. They were honored for their accomplishments and for their roles of teaching their generation and all those since the values and ideals of liberty and equality. On the other hand, the great artists of the same era, whose work and subjects represented the same beliefs and ideals, a fact fully recognized and understood by their brother artists of the pen as well as by the educated and commoners alike, have during the ensuing decades been savaged by attacks on their character and denigration of their works. This was perpetuated by a mercenary class of art world 'professionals' whose power and material wealth were dependent on the continuation of a series of outrageous distortions and outright lies in order to elevate and maintain an art market where products made in hours and in some cases minutes could be hyped and sold for huge sums of money as great works of art. Once the anti-Bouguereau forces toppled the temples of art, a pall of hegemony fell over the art establishment of university art departments, journalistic art criticism, art historians and museum curators.
Bouguereau's Relevance Through Descriptions of His Work
Modernist theorists repeatedly call Bouguereau and his contemporaries irrelevant to art history for in their minds any art that did not lead the way to abstract expressionism or any of the other 'isms' in the twentieth century was not relevant. The techniques which developed out of a belief in the early Modernist 'discovery' that the canvas is really flat, and that the 'originality' of breaking formerly important rules and precepts of art came to be celebrated as an end in itself. Works which reflected these precepts came to be considered the only valuable art forms.
Relevance clearly needs to be decided on much broader grounds than this. So, let's see how relevant the paintings of William Bouguereau were and, by extension, academic art in general. First we should note that ninety-nine percent of all paintings being done between 1850 and 1900 were traditional realist art, paintings that use traditional techniques which were taught at all the art academies at that time.
Bouguereau, in depicting ideals of the Enlightenment, could not have been more relevant to his time. One of the messages of many of his works was that equality and dignity are noble attributes. Bouguereau painted young peasant girls with a solemn nobility, and a hushed and reverential beauty; whether shy and meek, sad and hopeless, resigned and fearful, or in this example a confident shepherdess holding her staff and standing her ground. Jeune bergère debout was painted in 1887. This bold and steadfast peasant casually leans on her staff which signifies strength. It has been speculated that the French word 'debout' is a play on words with another French word 'début' which signifies a first public introduction of a young woman to society.
Our artist seems here to say that this young peasant girl is as good and worthwhile as any from the privileged class. Fearlessly her eyes engage the viewer and she comes to life as life-size she is placed in the extreme foreground and seems ready to step out of the picture.
Notice the two gypsy girls in Bouguereau's 1879 work called simply Jeunes Bohémiennes. The placement of the low horizon line silhouettes these two young girls by the heavens. Their kind and welcoming expressions imply their acceptance of the viewers which must thereby be properly echoed by our acceptance of them, regardless of the lowly status of their birth. The reality of their birth, once a negative, is now of no consequence. Their elevation places them in a heavenly realm, a status wherein all of humanity resides. How assuredly Bouguereau shows the values and beliefs newly elevated in his day, that the peasant class was just as noble and worthy of respect as the nobility whose rule by 'divine right' had been eclipsed by the rule of human rights. And, if all people are equal, then all must rule together, hence 'Democracy.' This was a completely revolutionary way in which to depict gypsies or the peasant class or to conceive of human beings.
Bouguereau went beyond other artists and sought the inner soul of his subject. Each of his figures is an individual, extraordinarily real and ideal at the same time. His paintings show a clear focus on the individual and the various moods and moments in life. Bouguereau prided himself on never having to take commissions. His work was in such high demand that the subject of every canvas was his personal choice. And what he loved to paint were peasant girls who were traveling through the odyssey of life. He loved as much to paint his own mythological fantasy world of his own making, which he called his 'fancies', filled with beautiful nymphs, playful cupids and an occasional satyr. The freedom to paint such things might have been viewed as lunacy or heresy a few short decades before.
Artists such as Jean François Millet (1814-1875), Jules Breton (1827-1906), Leon L'hermitte (1844-1925), Julien Dupré (1851-1910) and George Laugée (1853-c.1928) painted the peasant class at work or at rest. They were communicating values and beliefs on how to live and what constituted proper modes of conduct. Bouguereau's focus was often on valuing the individual and the soul searching needed as one's identity takes shape and form.
If no one questions the relevance of writers to tackle these subjects, how can they then be 'irrelevant' for painters? And, like the writers of the day, artists painted people at work, family life, caring for children, the value of romantic love as well as familial duty, honor and taking responsibility for oneself and one's life. This supplied endless profound subjects, compositions and themes. Bouguereau didn't tackle them all, but many others did, creating a century rich in artistic diversity and insight.
Other artists and writers tackled the cultural evils and social ills and countless injustices left behind by the old order that receded every year further back into memory, as new societal institutions and structures came forth to teach higher values, expose social ills, solve society's problems, promote hard work, just laws and a thorough education; they were protecting these achievements for future generations.
Was such work relevant for writers but inane banality for painters?
Bouguereau and Jules Lefebvre (1836-1911) painted the poor and homeless, but not as often as other artists who made dark subject matter their main focus. Honoré Daumier (1808-1879), Frank Holl (1845-1888) and Hubert von Herkomer (1849-1914) painted scenes of unsafe working conditions or children toiling until late at night after sixteen hour days; Augustus E. Mulready (1844-1904) and J.G. Brown (fl.1880-1885) painted children homeless or stealing bread, sweeping streets or gambling with cards in the city.
This new found interest in the everyday life of people from all walks of life abounded in every direction including scenes of unhappy marriage, of schools and courts and hospitals and industry, parks, police and soldiers.
Another favorite subject was depicting the hypocrisy of clerics. Artists such as Vibert, Brunery, Milton, Landini, and Crogaert satirized the clergy, and painted cardinals in sumptuous surroundings playing cards with pretty young socialites, or hiring the services of a fortune-teller, while other clergy were shown preaching to give up worldly possessions from their opulent apartments filled with art, jewels, antiques and servants.
These artists were saying that the clergy were just human and vulnerable to the same weaknesses and frailty of character as anyone else. But beyond that, to spoof the clergy was exercising our new found freedom of speech. A Modernist professor once said to me 'how inane and silly to show Cardinals in silly poses like that.' His prejudice blinded him from seeing what these artists had done, what rules of conduct had been broken from the prior conventions of society.
We have been taught to elevate artists for breaking rules and conventions of drawing and perspective and daring not to follow the precepts of prior centuries. But history neglected to teach that the academic artists were Modernists in their own right, on the front lines with the writers, breaking the rules of despots helping all of us to win our freedoms and rights, and creating a climate where it was even possible to consider breaking the rules of art. Apparently these 'academics' were more 'relevant' than previously taught. In previous centuries, an artist would have risked life and limb for spoofing clerics in this way.
If Charles Dickens was brilliant when he wrote about poor people, why was William Bouguereau wrong and hackneyed to paint his 'Indigent Family and Little Beggar Girl'? If Emily Brontë in Wuthering Heights wrote about Cathy marrying money and not her true love, Heathcliff, why couldn't our artist paint 'Between Love and riches' without being ridiculed? If Thackeray could be praised for having written about a sassy young woman being traumatized into learning how to 'be a lady' at a finishing school, describing all the coming of age and identity- forming problems undergone during one's formative years, how could it be inane and maudlin when Bouguereau painted dozens of similar subjects with a brilliant subtlety and skill comparable to the greatest writers of the century.
From exposing societal ills and portraying the value and equality of all people, it was but a half step away to explore the personal inner life of individuals and to value and elevate mankind's hopes, fantasies, and dreams as we find in Bouguereau's work. Consider the joie de vie movement, nature and the human form, as well as the celebration of beauty, play, working together, and friendship all communicated instantaneously in 'Nymphs and Satyr', 1873. Consider his exploration of the inner psyche, a prime example being the young woman who furtively glances off to the side, pausing while doing her chores in Dévideuse 1877.
In La Bourrique, 1884 two friends are playing pony back as we suspect they have done many times, only now the girl on top's gaze and expression suggests an inability to enjoy the fun as in times before; her thoughts are somewhere else. A seven year old child's eyes drift aside in La Prière, 1865, her folded hands revealing the boredom and sadness she feels while perhaps being forced to pray in church. A gypsy girl, head tilted with a poignant expression, leans on her tambourine in Bohémienne au tambour du Basque 1867; she poses again as the tragic Mignon painted in 1869. As Mignon she is seated before some rocky mountainous outcroppings as she tensely holds her hands beside her face. The bare rocks perhaps suggest the arduous climbs yet to come in her destiny.
Again in 1869, three young women with Brittany head dress dominate the composition in Jeunes filles de Fouesnant. The two girls with baskets seem to be together. A young beauty in front with a basket of three earthen pots seems to lead while her taller friend, self-assured, follows close behind with a basket balanced on her head, seeming rather like a protector. The third girl, perhaps an outsider, is seated as they pass, her hands lightly folded as she looks on with adulation and perhaps some envy, though to us she is every bit as beautiful. The three pots, all intact, perhaps connote the unspoiled virginity of the girls. There is an enigmatic quality to their expressions and how they seem to be relating to each other.
These same storytelling topics in paintings are found also in literature and poetry. Consider what would happen to literature if storytelling were to be banned? Well that's what happened to fine art where storytelling for all intents and purposes was banned for most of the past century.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth century, Charles Lebrun's hierarchy of subjects graded the loftiness of the themes artists chose in this order: religion, history, nobility, domestic genre, portraits, animals, landscapes and still life paintings. These were supplanted in the nineteenth century by scenes of upper, middle and peasant class people working, playing, living and praying, fighting soldiers and dancing girls, perhaps with toys or ponies, or dogs and cats. Churches and castles gave way to farmhouses, shops and playgrounds.
Humanity was what counted, and everything that makes us human – how we see ourselves and how we see the world. Humanity was glorified and people of every type and shape, every nationality and color, every occupation and avocation; we were what counted, we were what was important and we were the greatest of all subjects for the creative bounty of the top artistic minds on earth.
Everything about humanity became the new fodder for the new forms of communication produced by the writer's prose, the poet's pentameter, and the painter's pigments. And mankind was glorified as thousands of well-trained, experienced artists produced millions of original oils, watercolors and pastels. Among the best of these were masterpieces by William Bouguereau.
The visual fine arts rank amongst mankind's greatest achievements, one of the defining characteristics of advanced civilization that makes us unique, sophisticated and extraordinary. Fine art is a discipline through which it is possible to express our shared humanity, including all of our universal, distinctive, complex and subtle emotions. This became the new purpose and goal of the artist. Whereas in earlier times art glorifiedreligion,themilitary,andthearistocracy,nowmankind itself became the most important subject.
Academic skills and humanistic values which were so relevant in Bouguereau's time were targeted for attack by the theories of Modernism which labeled them uncreative, confining and sentimental. These theories called great skill a banal obsession and worthless and called narrative painting and the use of universal symbols passé and repetitive. Realizing this we see that Modernism didn't attack just academic art; it attacked art itself. In a sense, all art was without value, because the essence of what art is, the communication of our common or personal humanity, was banished.
What would have happened to the great writing arts, literature and poetry, if the same set of standards that decimated the visual fine arts had ensnared those disciplines?
What if a writer in 1880 decided that there was no need for punctuation and the critics celebrated him as a great innovator of a new avant-garde?
What if another declared the end of grammar and was instantly proclaimed brilliant by the cognoscenti and heralded an artistic force to be reckoned with? (Some writing already exists without punctuation and grammar, and in the right hands it can be successful, just as Impressionism in the right hands can be very powerful.)
What if, in our story, another wrote with words from all different languages? Yet another mixed all different fonts in the same document and then dIfferent FoNTs in the same words and was praised as having 'pushed the envelope' even further? Capitals were mixed indiscriminately with the lower case, Cyrillic, Greek,Arabic, Hebrew, Chinese,Ancient Sumerian and hieroglyphics woven together on the same page, in the same sentences and in the same words?
Critics heralded the end to literature. Others sniffed that everything was literature. With derision, normal books were mocked as 'old hat,' and unoriginal. Books by Virginia Woolf, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner and others were ridiculed as mundane, inane, and insipid. Their work was dropped from libraries and book stores as more and more 'books' incorporated the new Modernist writing paradigm.
Soon writers stopped being rigidly tied to a line of words on a page or one color for letters. Soon all logic and common sense disappeared, storytelling dropped, philosophy, poetry, and everything that made writing intelligible and worthwhile faded away, including recognizable letters. Writing as we know it vanished in this imaginary sequence. This was celebrated as the great march of progress in the writing arts.
All literary communication stopped; what remained were meaningless squiggles of all sizes and shapes (paintings by Juan Miró or Jackson Pollock come to mind). A page was as likely to be cellophane as it was to be paper or pressed banana peels.
Then a newer post-Modernist style developed, leaving blank pages, torn pages, and no pages at all. An empty binding won the Turner prize in London. How far would such a development go? How long before people became outraged? How long before a child in the crowd emerged to declare that the emperor had no clothes? How many books of this sort could be written and sold?
Now contemplate this having happened at the dawn of the twentieth century. Professors in all university and college English departments derisively called all the writing syrupy, maudlin and over sentimentalized, and tarred with the same brush Balzac, Hugo,Tolstoy, Dickens, Mark Twain, Poe, Henry James, Melville and all the other writers from the same time as William Bouguereau? Would those writers deserve ridicule for not having seen the path writing was about to take? Should their work be insulted, degraded and shunned? Would they now deserve to be resurrected, reviewed and revalued?
Thankfully, this never happened. Surely people would have quickly seen how meaningless those 'brilliant' breakthroughs were. Nobody would be fooled.
Could such 'new writing' express our shared humanity? Could it record events, describe thoughts and feelings, and become worthwhile skills to teach successive generations? How could anything be communicated with these new 'advances' in the writing arts? This insanity would have had a quick and unceremonious demise had the written arts been subjected to such an assault. Somehow the fine arts succumbed to this lunacy, for this is exactly what happened to painting and sculpture. Why and how did it happen?
For openers, it is a lot easier to sell an objet d'art that people can glance at, make believe they like, and place in a corner of their living room if they think it will make them a lot of money, than it is to convince people to sit down regularly and try to read the kind of books described above. A book is reproduced in the thousands. It can't be sold the way a painting is sold. Anyone can purchase a book or borrow it from their local library. Few can own an original work of art.
In painting or sculpture there were fortunes made that were unavailable to the written arts; fine art objects can be collected which society imbues with great monetary value. But first such objects must be shown to have great historical, philosophical and cultural value and profit-thirsty dealers needed to convince collectors of their 'investment value'. So they hired 'experts' to develop complex elitist apologia with essays and texts filled with convoluted obscure, even fabricated terms and esoteric concepts in which the genius of this new 'advanced' art was elevated, mythologized and ennobled. Descriptions were designed to be confusing, exclusive, and beyond the 'intellect' of most people. Concepts embedded with obscure references were self-conscious, self-important, self-referential.
A term exists in art to describe language designed to intimidate people into feeling inadequate due to their inability to understand what is being said. It's called 'art speak'. A major study begs to be done which analyzes and unravels the most prominent art speak found in Modernist essays, books and articles. An analogy can be made to the citizens in The Emperor's New Clothes who did not wish to be executed for being stupid, impious and shallow when they did not see the majestic new suit of their monarch. Today the members of the art world, not wanting a quick demise to their careers, are ready to sing praises to and bow down to the fashion makers of the time. They start to convince themselves of what is not there.
Due to 'Prestige suggestion', they automatically assume that a work must be great if made by any big name of Modernism. Quickly they seek and find reasons for greatness. Any failing to find greatness is not considered a failing in the art but in the intelligence and sensibilities of the viewer. Students operating under that kind of intimidating pressure, you can be sure, will find greatness, no matter what they are shown.
The reverse of this occurs when they view academic paintings.Trained that realism is bad art, any good that is seen must not be from self-evident qualities inherent in high artistic accomplishments, but due to a lack of intelligence and taste in the viewer. The same intimidating pressure works in reverse to ensure that a work by Bouguereau, Lord Leighton, Alma-Tadema or Vibert will not be seen as anything other than bad by definition.
At the end of this road, we arrive at the same conclusion. Such 'advanced' art forms have advanced so far when pushing that envelope that they have fallen off the page wherein lies the definition of art. They have frustrated art from its main objective: expressing, analyzing, interpreting and documenting ideas, values, beliefs and all of the accompanying emotions that make up our shared humanity.
The practitioners of art speak helped dealers to sell billions of dollars' worth of this new art. These purveyors needed the additional power of having museum directors and curators support and help to verify the value of these objects to their clients. Wealthy dealers and collectors regularly made large donations to museums anxious to please their benefactors by organizing exhibitions, books and catalogs filled with laudatory descriptions of the Modernist works which were described by perpetuating and expanding the myths about the oppression of Impressionists at the hands of the academics, and works of their heroes of these tales were described by increasingly sophisticated forms of art speak.
This destruction of art was supported by this elitist art criticism, which held the public hostage by the same insanity. No longer was art allowed to use any of the parameters by which we can seek universal concepts and communicate with each other. Art was to be only about art and to be continuously novel for the sake of newness. Not only did this create 'empty art', it created quick and easily available products imbued with value by 'experts' for sale at high prices. The tenets of Modernist philosophy are foisted as absolutes by most university art departments, journalistic art criticism and museum curatorial staffs. To question its validity was taboo and opened a would-be transgressor to ridicule and suppression.
Most of the Modernist art establishment is completely closed to considering the evidence which is so clear and logical, even common sensical in the way it leads to our conclusions. Nearly everyone in the art world, you'll be told, believes in the value of Modernism and the brilliance of the early Moderns and the lack of value of the academics. Perhaps at this point everyone believes in Modern art because everyone believes in Modern art. John Stuart Mill's remarks on this very issue are as alive and pertinent today as they were two hundred years ago:
Where there is a tacit convention that principles are not to be disputed; where the discussion of the greatest questions which can occupy humanity is considered to be closed, we cannot hope to find that generally high scale of mental activity which has made some periods of history so remarkable.
However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.
Lev (Leon) Tolstoy, mentioned above as one of the great Russian writers, has always received high praise, unlike the visual fine artists. His work has never experienced a period of severe degradation like Bouguereau's reputation suffered. His words are much to the point when trying to redirect and re-educate the current system of falsehoods and mis- representations that fill art history books of today.
I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives.
Without a dynamic living coterie of contemporary experts teaching sophisticated traditional techniques in drawing and painting, it will never be possible for college art departments to have students who are able to enrich the debate and the academic environment for all students by producing works of art that are capable of expressing complex and subtle ideas. To forbid these skills to be taught on campus in any real depth is as ridiculous as having a music department that refuses to teach the circle of fifths or only teaches every other note from which they insist all music must be composed.
If there was nothing to be ashamed of in Modernism's philosophical teaching methods and in their results, they would welcome the chance to confront the ideas that they should be well equipped to refute. Official art establishments have a solemn duty to maintain the integrity of thought made possible by what has been handed down to them by those artists, writers and thinkers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who established a system where freedom of thought would prevail. And where is it more important to vouchsafe these principles than at our nation's colleges and universities who are training the next generations of leaders? Bouguereau and his generation knew what it meant to live under tyranny and to them the sweet fragrance of freedom was more important than insuring the ascendancy even of the academic tradition.
While most of this book focuses on the details of Bouguereau's life, there are many places where analysis of events is explored when needed. And we have endeavored to analyze as many paintings as time and space have permitted.
We expect this work to be received with a great deal of controversy, a reflection of the reception Bouguereau's work has received since late in his career and thereafter. And while there were those who advised us to try to conform our summation to current fashion, we chose instead to let our conclusions follow the clear direction of our research. Let the chips fall where they may as anything less would be dishonest and unworthy of the uncompromising quality of the art and artist which is the subject of all our toils for more than thirty years since this project's inception. Bouguereau's art is perennial and touches a universal chord which is compelling to most people. His work can no longer be suppressed regardless of those who continue to conspire against this honest and sincere artist.