I don’t know who exactly comprises the “art establishment”, but whoever these people are, they wield an obscene amount of power. We’re talking Dick Cheney kind of power. They make or break an artist’s career. They laud or bash an artist’s reputation. Somehow they became ordained, anointed the arbiters of the art world and have the undisputed last word on which artists “matter” and which do not. Which artists are “important” and which are not. Hey, that’s some job! How do I sign up for that?
One of the many things I’ve learned in my experiences as an artist’s model, is that the art community is a very catty scene. Very catty. Like junior high school, “popular girls” clique catty. (Trust me, that’s BAD!) Sure, I understand that trends exist in culture and the arts. Sensibilities change, social attitudes shift, styles go in and out of vogue. Maybe I’m crazy, but I feel that those fickle patterns are better suited for things far more frivolous than fine art, like hairstyles and skirt lengths and coffee flavors (frappuccino anyone?).
The reputation of William-Adolphe Bouguereau has been on both sides of the coin. A 19th century French academic painter, Bouguereau’s work paid homage to classical tradition, boasted great technical ability, and idealized mythological and religious themes. He achieved enormous success in his lifetime, becoming the darling of wealthy art patrons. Bouguereau happily and unapologetically gave them what they wanted. And he made a lot of money in the process.
The art establishment marveled at his paintings. But the “avante-garde” (snobs in their own right) ridiculed him mercilessly. In Bouguereau’s day the avant-garde consisted of the Impressionists – the impudent, rebellious, oh-so-hip Impressionists. Degas and Monet openly mocked Bouguereau (meow!) and predicted that he would eventually fall out of favor, which he did. And the “fall” of Bouguereau was probably rejoiced by many. Jealousy anyone?
After his death, Bouguereau was forgotten, buried so deep in oblivion that his name and work were completely left out of art encyclopedias. He became a boring old relic. An anachronism. Reviled and dismissed. With the 20th century art scene dominated by the monumental figures of Picasso and Matisse, Bouguereau had no place. Then with the advent of the Abstract Expressionism craze and it’s proponents (another group of huge snobs), Bouguereau had zero chance of being remembered. The “art establishment”, brilliant tastemakers that they are, decided (for all the rest of us, apparently) that Bouguereau was shit. Not even worth mentioning. A tad harsh, don’t you think? The guy wasn’t exactly a no-talent hack.
Even though my own personal taste admittedly tilts toward more modern art, I’m by no means a slave to it. Nor do I care what art scholars and art critics have to say with their insufferable analyses and snooty, condescending opinions. Maybe it’s because I look at art through the eyes of an artist’s model that I feel so liberated. My standards are blissfully different from those of the “art establishment”. And thank god for that. I look at figures. I look at models. I look at poses. I look at the human body. And I love nudity. My body is my livelihood, so any artist who glorifies and captures the inherent beauty of the figure is ok in my book
So does this mean that Bouguereau now makes it into my top ten list of favorite artists? Well, no, I wouldn’t go that far. Besides, the list is already filled to capacity. But I can’t bring myself to join the chorus of disdainful Bouguereau haters. Not after looking at some of these paintings. I see nice attention to detail, and beautiful models looking fabulous, confident, and free.
After the Bath, 1875:
Nymphs and Satyr, 1873:
This one is awesome! She’s floating! Love it. And I do that clasped fingers/arm stretch thing a lot, so it’s really cool to see it immortalized here. From 1884, Lost Pleiad:
But don’t feel sorry for poor forgotten Bouguereau. Like the fickle nature of fame, his artistic reputation is back on the upswing. The Art Renewal Center has resurrected the old guy and created a whole new generation of Bouguereau fans. Back on top where he started, he’s come full circle.
It’s worth noting that Bouguereau was not some passive, gutless man who painted traditionally just to please wealthy art buyers and play it conventionally safe. He really believed in what he did and held strong theories on the so-called “groundbreakers” of his day. He accused them of “wanting to succeed too fast” and “inventing new aesthetics” just to achieve that self-serving goal. Bouguereau went on to claim that the rebels were looking “just to make noise”. Hmm. Not sure I agree. Personally, I respect groundbreakers. But still something to think about.
Whatever any of us may think about William-Adolphe Bouguereau, he was a sincere artist and dedicated painter. This quote from him is a lovely testament to his commitment:
“Each day I go to my studio full of joy; in the evening when obliged to stop because of darkness I can scarcely wait for the morning to come… if I cannot give myself to my dear painting I am miserable.”