All of us who have learned to become fans of the Impressionists delight in reading about their heroic underdog status in French art; and their slow but persistent rise to acceptance during the late-nineteenth century. We take special pride in their eventual triumph over their enemies in the French Academy des Beaux-arts; and point contemptuously at the neo-classical pot-boilers their work came up against (and usually lost to) at the annual art cattle-calls known as the Salon. However, I think to appreciate Impressionism we have to also come to some appreciation of Academicism too. To simply say it was 180 degrees opposite is to give it very short shrift. It was, of course, much more than this. We're familiar with the big names, Poussin, Ingres, Cabanel, and a couple more, but one artist of their ilk that we know little about is Adolphe-William Bouguereau. This is not surprising. In the work of Poussin, Ingres, even Cabanel, we can find something to admire, maybe even love. Bouguereau and his work so perfectly fits the mould all the Impressionist (and thus their admirers) came to hate that he's been relegated to obscurity as a sort of malicious, artistic retribution for past wrongs.
As I often do, once I "discover" a somewhat obscure artist somewhere, I go to the Web, often only to find, to my dismay, that he or she was even more obscure than I thought. Not so with Bouguereau. I was not prepared for the sheer quantity of his images or the apparent devotion of his webmaster friends. The man painted something on the order of 700 major canvases over the course of his lifetime and it would seem close to half of them are on the Internet...certainly all the important ones. Frankly, I tackled Bouguereau prepared not to like him. And, indeed, there is a lot not to like. He can be sickeningly sweet, sexist, pretentious, sentimental, and slick. His 1865 painting, Charity epitomises the worst of these traits. On the other hand, long after I had basically "absorbed" Bouguereau, I found I could not stop looking at his work. He's amazingly fascinating. The man had a deep respect for the nude figure but seldom succumbed to what we might term "gratuitous" nudity, except perhaps in his cupids which often seemed sprinkled like salt over his canvases. His canvases often display the sort of sanitised eroticism the Academy was famous for, but like the dominant male audience he painted for, I found myself looking at these first. Did I like them all? No, but they led me deeper into his work. And unlike some of his counterparts, the depth was there to plumb.
Bouguereau was born in 1825, spent seven years studying at the Ecole, and graduated winning the Prix de Rome in 1850--three more years studying in Rome. The man knew his stuff. Technically, during the last half of the nineteenth century, he may have been the best of his kind in French art. He was certainly the most popular. His portraits, what few there are, bear the mark of Ingres but given his time and place, that's to be expected. His classical subjects are heavily weighted with female figures but that too is not surprising. Perhaps weakest, are his religious subjects. The best that could be said of them is that they make for a rich repository of Sunday School images. Unlike Cabanel who actively, even belligerently, battled the upstart Impressionists, Bouguereau seems not to have understood them and was more given to ignoring them. But in the end, he could not. With the ascendancy of Impressionism, especially in this century, his work quickly fell out of favour, prices plummeted, and as a result, just about any museum worthy of the name could afford one. They're everywhere, they're everywhere! And now, during the past fifteen years, they are again appreciated by collectors, not as juxtaposed against Impressionism, but as fascinating art reflecting its era--no better, no worse.