Trappings of Tradition – The Rap on Bouguereau

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:

Dawn, 1881:

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.”

18 thoughts on “Trappings of Tradition – The Rap on Bouguereau

  1. 100swallows says:

    Muse: This is a nice post. As you saw, I had just gone to look at Bouguereau because of a comment by Ken about my post on Degas’ nudes.

    I agree with you that Bouguereau’s nudes are very pretty. But they are lacking in some other dimension that art has always tried for. They lean more towards decoration than towards art. The models, for all their beauty and perfection, look only like models and seem always to stand in the artist’s studio, in studio poses, in spite of the added classical rigamarole or quiet pastoral backdrops. (That first nude you show, for instance. What is she doing actually? The gesture is false. And B. forgot to idealize her face, which is the raw face of the model he worked from.) There is no wit, or any distance from the work. What?–Is Bouguereau short on imagination, on character?
    Aren’t they like spectacular calendar girls? Each time you look you marvel (or tingle)—and yet who remembers last year’s or even last month’s? And what mind are they meant to please? I need more soul-food than he offers. I get a little bored.

    But he is full of really excellent things. I saw one painting about Christ getting flogged and I thought those action figures were among the best I had ever seen. Also a fine portrait of a poor girl with the Seine and the Cathedral of Notre Dame behind her.
    Thanks for your comment over at The Best Artists.

  2. ColdSilverMoon says:

    Great, great post Claudia! One of the reasons I started art modeling was the inspiration I received from Bouguereau paintings. His figures are better than anyone. Ever. He is often criticized as “sweet and sentimental,” but I love his work regardless. He primarily worked with female nudes, but as a male model I still love the way he depicts the human body, both with dynamic and static poses. In fact, I have imitated, to a certain degree, the poses in his paintings while modeling.

    The “Nymph and Satyr” is one of my favorite paintings of all time. Fun, whimsical, beautiful colors, beautiful figures, perfectly crafted. That painting is one of the reasons I enjoy posing with other models – the physical interaction and multiple figure dynamic is intriguing. Notice particularly the female in the front right and the one in the back with her hand raised – truly masterful figurative work!

    I agree that the “art elite” have long buried Bouguereau, but I’m glad people at the ARC and others have resurrected his image to a certain degree. He is my favorite artist of all time and an inspiration to artists, lay persons, and yes, art models everywhere….

  3. exbrun2 says:

    Ahhh… opinion! The opiate of the self-important! “Listen to me- I know what I’m talking about!”

    I, the uninitiated, present my humble opinion based on the few paintings Museworthy has presented here and express in all sincerity that I am unfamiliar with Bouguereau. I therefore present my opinion on a very limited scope of knowledge. Probably a dangerous proposition, but here I go:

    Bouguereau clearly has copious amounts of technical skill. As representational art his works are truly excellent examples. Form, proportions, value- all are presented with extreme polish. I would be pleased and proud to have such skill as Bouguereau clearly displays.

    The poses are somewhat whimsical but I find nothing false in them. Strike a pose- it becomes part of the universe. I’m not even certain what comprises a “true” pose. As an art model, it could be said that I spend all day taking “false poses.” I’ve done some pretty weird contortions that would be unnatural in the normal course of our hunter-gather lifestyles but I did them to expose structure; to showcase muscle, sinew, bone, and flesh. Bouguereau’s models don’t seem to be overly outlandish in their posing to me. Except that floating pose. I wish I could hold that one for 30 minutes….

    So if there’s a special formula for distinguishing between meritorious representational art and art that is only worthy of being buried by the preeminent critics of our time, I don’t know what it is.

    I like Bouguereau. His models are pretty.

  4. artmodel says:


    The women in Bouguereau’s work are somehow inadequate or inauthentic because they look “only like models”??? ONLY like models??? Ouch! Double ouch! Triple ouch! Damn, that hurts 😥 Please, if you can, explain that comment to me, as it reads like a knife in my heart, and an assault on the profession to which I give my whole heart and soul.

    Female subjects in art seem to never be taken seriously unless they fall into one of the typical three depictions: whores, housemaids, or aristocrats. They are either overweight, unattractive, wives of rich, prestigious men, cleaning house, or on the verge of being raped. We’ve gotten to the point where a fit, beautiful, joyous and energetic woman can’t possibly be a “real” subject for a painting. And that is very sad. It’s a crippling limitation on how we view art. It’s become a curse for a model to simply LOOK GOOD. Some “real women” actually do look good!

    I read your blog, Swallows, and I enjoy it immensely. I also know very well that you are not a sexist. However, your dismissal of the Bouguereau women as mere “calendar girls” is a somewhat sexist statement. I don’t think you would have used that phrase if the models were unattractive, or flabby, or looking miserable. Rather, they project beauty and vitality, and possess gorgeous figures. And for those reasons, they are rejected as cheesecake? I applaud Bouguereau for portraying those women nude and beautiful. They even look happy! What a concept. Someone will have to explain to me why art must have this undercurrent of gloominess, misery and melancholy to be considered “serious” rather than “decorative”. Like wheat pickers breaking their backs in the fields, a sickly-looking woman ironing a shirt, or a tired prostitute washing her feet in a basin. Although I like those works too, it’s hard to deny that they are images of women – and how they should be – sprung from the minds of male artists.

    As for all this action and gesture business, I think there is a profound lack of understanding among many artists as to what those things really mean. You mentioned the “false” gesture in the first painting? In my experience it is always artists who impose the falsification. Good models do it right, until we are interfered with. Here’s an example. I was once posing for a painting class, and it was the first day. We were setting up the pose, and when I entered the room I saw they had already put out a big, soft chair for me to sit in. Fine. So I disrobed and took a pretty good pose leaning across the seat with one leg over the arm, and my other arm near my face. The hand of that arm gently grazed my cheek. The lines were great and the pose was natural. The instructor loved it. But then she left the room, and the students fucked with whole thing. The class monitor came over to me and shoved a half-dead wilted flower in my hand, the one that was by my face. “Hold this”, she said. Talk about a false gesture! It was so stupid. I asked her, “Why do I need this?”, referring to the flower. And do you know what she answered? “So you’re DOING something”. I had to bottle up my laughter.

    My point is that I was already doing something. I was half-reclined in a chair, in the nude. looking peaceful and pensive. But for these “artists” that just wasn’t good enough. To me, that reveals a profound inadequacy on THEIR part, not the model’s.

    100Swallows, you might want to note the above comment from ColdSilverMoon. He is also an artist’s model, and he responds powerfully to Bouguereau’s figures, much like I do. We’re looking at things in an entirely different way. We are the subjects. We pose. We put our nudity- and our personalities – on display for others to see. We express with our bodies. To us, the great glory in art is the exaltation of the human figure. And Bouguereau did it well. I would have been very happy to have been one of his “calendar girls”.

    I’m definitely going to check out those other Bouguereaus that you mentioned. Thanks for your comments!


  5. artmodel says:


    I’m so glad that I posted about Bouguereau since you’ve revealed your admiration for him! This is great 🙂

    I totally agree with you about Nymphs and Statyr, and yes, that figure in the background with the raised arm is fabulous! When I look at the painting, my eye keeps going to her – both her action and her countenance.

    My favorite element of an art pose is rhythm. And I see some terrific rhythms in these Bouguereaus. I fully understand why you would use his work as a posing reference. They are useful, inspirational, and challenging! But the challenge makes it worthwhile.

    Thanks so much for commenting. Great to have your voice on Museworthy. And please feel free to email me about other artists you’d like me to post about. If they inspire you, my fellow model- it would be my honor and pleasure 🙂


  6. artmodel says:


    Your opinions are as valid as anyone else’s. As far as I’m concerned, MORE valid than any blowhard art critic’s. Especially here on Museworthy, art models get special status in the opinion department 🙂

    You make a great point about “false poses”. When we work, aren’t all our poses “false” in a sense? You’re right. We stretch, we twist, we lunge, we bend. Nobody does any of those things consciously and deliberately – and HOLDS them for two minutes – in a normal, natural setting. We’re trying to display anatomy, movement, action, and, yes, even some human emotion. But there is always some “false”note in that it is still a POSE, no matter how you slice it.

    That floating pose, the last Bouguereau painting Lost Pleiad, is my favorite of the bunch. I especially love the arms and her head turned into her shoulder. Beautiful. I did a pose similar to that for a 40 minute (two twenties). It wasn’t that bad! Not easy, of course, but doable.

    Thanks for commenting, exbrun!


  7. I never read other peoples comments before writing my own. Before I post it though I then read them. I have changed nothing! It is a great post Claudia and I hope it will develop further!

    On seeing these and many others for the first time with adult eyes, I was impressed by their beauty; impressed by the skills of the painter; impressed by style and colour especially of the “flesh” (for all that does and does not imply). I am secretly releaved that here was a great painter who had been buried by the twentieth century like so many others, not for lack brilliance but for fashion? Art has a habit of coming back into fashion.

    Hockney made only one sound comment. I will leave you to decide whether Bouguereau has managed to capture convincing eye contact with in groups of people in his paintings.

    Like all work by human hand, some of it is outstanding. It is the ones that are not that 100swallows so rightly suggests is lacking something. I think they are missing that metaphorical twinkle that Boucher, see

    and even Etty’s work had. Bouguereau was not trying to appeal to the darker side, nor even the humorous side of sensuality. No flirting going on here even in the Nymphs and Satyre! So they fitted into the time, the era when High Art was above those things. No wonder they took such a terrible fall; tragic for the artists’ family in the following generations. But then the world was in for great change in everything, the great war of 1914 – 1918 just speeded it all up. The Great Exposition of San Francisco in 1915 was the last shot at High Art.

    Now Art reflects and sometimes leads the rise and fall of public morality. Some would argue that it is the job of artists to push the boundaries, test taboos, rattle the establishment but that was not Bouguereau’s mission; his was to reflect beauty without titillation.

    God I sound pompus!

  8. Sorry, only half the link was picked up there for some reason, you will need the whole lot to get to see Marie Louise Murphy. It’s worth it!

  9. 100swallows says:

    Come on, Claudia–that wasn’t a knife and it wasn’t aimed at your heart! We were talking about Bouguereau, weren’t we?, not about his models. I hope artists will go on painting fit, beautiful, joyous and energetic women; and that there will be models for them as serious and dedicated as you. I know models are often misunderstood–and not only female ones. But right from the first I met real professionals who taught me to respect them and their job because of their own respect and devotion to their work.

    But remember; the real subject of a painting is not the model herself–at least in my idea of art. I guess that’s where the misunderstanding came up, and I’m sorry. The model is, as you call yourself, the muse and the inspiration. But the artist transforms you, even if he thinks he is merely copying. I would be a hypocrite if I said I disliked Bouguereau’s beautiful women or that I didn’t feel some of the joy they radiate. And that beauty and that joy of theirs is a remarkable achievement and was the reason I wondered in my first comment to Ken why B’s paintings were not better known. But I miss something in them and I just can’t help it.

    You sound as though you thought Bouguereau’s women were merely his models faithfully copied; so that if I dismissed his painted woman as a calendar girl, I was at the same time slapping the model who sat for him and, by extension, all women. But Bouguereau’s women are his models “corrected” according to his taste and aims. It is his peculiar CORRECTION or BEAUTIFYING of them that I think turned other artists and ultimately the critics away from him.

    Hey, the gloominess, misery, and melancholy in the works of the last centuries is the reflection of the way artists have tried to deal with the ugly, cruel times they lived through. I am like you–I prefer happy works and robust, lively, pretty images of people. But it is a particularly ugly world out there and no thinking person can ignore it. Art (beauty) has a moral or a philosophical basis and what one does has to have a justification. Perhaps you think that it is enough if art makes us temporarily forget our troubles and lifts up our spirits; but I think the greatest art makes us pensive. It gives us a feeling of life and death, of the past and present, it takes us deep into our own souls and somehow, into other people’s. Decoration is at the other end. There’s nothing wrong with decoration, by the way.

    Bouguereau himslf was responsible for the false gesture I spoke of. The artist, NOT THE MODEL, is responsible for the image in his picture. I have seen silly poses proposed by both models and artists–dumb ideas come to all of us. Let me say that after looking longer at the Bouguereau paintings you show here I have to take back my remarks about the false gesture and his lack of imagination. I don’t think I should have attacked him there. And it was the pose of one of them that reminded me of an old Vargas calendar girl–though I don’t like that comparison now anymore. I wish you’d just delete that entire last comment of mine so it stops giving offense. I sure pushed all the wrong buttons, didn’t I?

  10. artmodel says:


    Thank you for assuaging my hurt feelings 🙂 I’m very glad you clarified and elaborated on your point. I understand now. Great comments!

    And no, you have not pushed a bunch of wrong buttons at all. Rather, you have generated – as you always do – stimulating and though-provoking discussion about art history. Your voice is why I visit The Best Artists.

    I don’t disagree with you about art which deals with serious themes. I love all that stuff. Great art does, indeed, provoke introspection. On the other hand, one can argue that the “purpose” of art (whatever that means!) is to portray beauty and have a spiritually and emotionally uplifting effect. I have always been able to appreciate both, as do you.

    This whole Bouguereau thing has paved the way for many future topics about art and art models. Hope you join in the discussion, Swallows.

    Thanks so much!


  11. artmodel says:


    Yes, i just responded to 100Swallows and said that this topic will definitely develop more. I didn’t anticipate that it would, but it has and that is a pleasant surprise.

    Like you mentioned, it bothered me to read about how Bouguereau became so utterly forgotten, because the tyrannical art arbiters decide who’s in and who’s out. Whether someone likes Bouguereau’s work or not, the man still excelled in what he did and earned his place in art history. No one can argue that. To be omitted from art books is just so irrational and drastic and unfair. The art world does have this problem – this mindset that there isn’t enough room for everybody. They can be a very shallow bunch sometimes.

    I see a little flirting going on with the Nymphs and Satyr. Perhaps not enough. But they are groping at him pretty good! 😉

    The link didn’t go through fully, but I’m going to try to get it now. Thanks Robert!


  12. What do you think about the eye contact? Of the four girls man handling the satyr the furthest one has a long arm compared to the blue girl, interesting visual illusion. I do not see much (I am trying to avoid the obvious words so you do not become an 18 site!) of the titillation that this one does (I try and get it right this time)

    Of course Fragonard took them a stage further; they are some very naughty versions of this one

    My argument is that poor old Bouguereau and many of his contemporaries were buried because they subscribed to a “holier than thou Art”, carefully removing all reproductive instincts from poses and settings and emphasising the beauty of the body only as form. They took the expression to its ultimate height at a time before motor cars and TV when there was time to do things ‘properly’. Even Godward’s works have a Tennysonian quality to them, lots of nobleness and unrequited love, and lines like “change and decay all around I see” (from a hymn, words by Henry Lyte, “Abide with me”).

    As public galleries opened their doors to the masses the Victorians were concerned that any encouragement of pleasures of the flesh for the poor would increase their already terrible plight.

    This is all great stuff, no problems but it soon became unfashionable speeded up by the changes and terrible international problems in the first half of the 20 century.

    Here are the links to Tennyson and Godward which failed to work here.

  13. Ken Januski says:

    Hi artmodel,

    Well I stumbled upon this site and this post while checking out the various links on 100swallows’s site. I’m sorry I didn’t run across it earlier, closer to the time that I mentioned Bouguereau in the Degas post . But better late than never….

    When I mentioned Bouguereau in that post I was remembering him from 30 years ago when I was an art student who also took art history classes at Berkeley. I remember how distasteful and artificial they seemed compared to the freshness of people like Degas and the Impressionists. Before everyone jumps on me for not understanding what many of you like about him I’ d like to say that in the two to three years previous to starting school at Berkeley I drew from live models for 3 hours a night, 5 days a week, through adult education in San Francisco. I loved it and still think of it as one of the most formative parts of my artistic career.

    So I think I have some sympathies for models, certainly a sympathy for a beautiful female form, and to a large extent a real appreciation for graceful poses. It was always thrilling to find a graceful pose and try to get it down on paper. That was in contrast to some models who really just seemed too tired to pose. I don’t judge them for this but just wanted to point out that I think I was aware of a good model and a good pose when I saw one.

    So why do I think so little of Bouguereau? Well for one I don’t! I think you have chosen some of the best paintings of his that I’ve seen, or maybe it’s just seeing him for the first time in many, many hears, and in the context of admirers. His figures themselves are beautiful, graceful and very convincingly painted. That’s not true in all of his paintings, some of which just look silly, but I think it is true here.

    But as others have said something still seems off or wrong. My guess is that this is where the admirers and the detractors part ways. Why can’t these paintings just be admired for the beautiful portrayals that they are? Well they can. And I think that it’s always a mistake to try to sour someone else’s pleasure, particularly when it comes to the arts. Let people enjoy what they want.

    And yet for some of us something seems lacking in the paintings and that has also been the verdict of the ‘art world.’ This I think gets quite complex. For one thing I think that much of what goes for good in the ‘art world’ is utter nonsense. So I take what it says with a large grain of salt. So let me stick with my own reasons for not being all that fond of Bouguereau.

    I think that neither his talent, the beauty of the paintings, nor the beauty of the models themselves can be denied. My guess is that those who admire him think exactly that. But I think that there is something that doesn’t seem true about them. I think I must hear some howls of displeasure at that last line……… But I’ll stick to it.

    Seen in the best light I think you can say that his models take Classical poses, much like those of other classical poses through the history of art. But audiences, particularly artists but probably non-artists as well, have lost their affinity for classicism. Perhaps this will change at some time. But I think it’s been unpopular for more than 100 years now. Few Impressionists used the nude in their work so it’s hard to come up with real comparisons other than Degas. To me his nudes seem far realer. They live in a real world, not one of a heavenly, blue atmosphere that exists ‘out there’ somewhere.

    To some extent I think that this is taste. And at sometime it may come back into favor. But much of the most famous art of the last 125 years has used a more realistic, mundane setting. Figues seem to exist in a recognizable world, not an unearthly one as in Bouguereau. I think that really is one of my main complaints or dislikes.

    And yet you might ask, rightfully I think, who is portraying the same wholesome, joyful nudes in a realistic setting? Why isn’t that being done? I have no answer to that and I can’t think of anyone who is doing it or has over the last 125 years. Matisse did many joyful paintings but they obviously aren’t in a realistic style. But that doesn’t mean that it won’t happen

    Just like the stock market, an analogy I just can’t pass up today, there are always swings of taste. I hope that one day I’ll be able to look at someone painting a beautiful figure in a realistic setting, where the whole picture really rings true. I’m sure it will happen at some time. I just have no idea when or where.

  14. PS I am not in the pay of Sotherby’s but they have an exhibition in New York this coming week-end for those of you who like Mr William B! A rare occasion to see them before they are locked away again!

  15. Bruce Williams says:

    I have always liked his work and felt vaguely guilty for it. However, in looking back and trying to look through the eyes of the contemporary society, its quite different. 21st century minds can never truly see with the view of a 19th century viewer. That aside, I enjoy the romanticism in his portrayal of naked bodies for naked bodies sake. The Brooklyn Mueseum had a show a few years ago which covered the subject nicely

  16. artmodel says:


    Wonderful to hear from you!!

    I enjoyed your comments about Bouguereau and about feeling “vaguely guilty” about it! That’s funny, but I do know what you mean. I’ve always been a Picasso/Matisse/Gaughin etc kind of girl. Very very “hip”, you know 😉 But I surprised myself by looking at the Bouguereaus and feeling uplifted by what I saw.

    But like you said, the strength in his work has a lot to do with his portrayal of nudes. Certainly not any deep narrative or profound statements being made. Just the sheer pleasure of viewing gorgeous “nakedness” is pretty captivating just in itself.

    Thanks so much for posting, Bruce! See you soon 🙂


  17. In Nymphs and Satyr, I am especially drawn to the nymph facing forward and smiling. She looks like she is having a great time! I’m a sucker for a smile. Also, I particularly like the way that he rendered her, with reflected light from below. Not as emphatic as Degas’ footlighting. To me, that subtlety is sublime.

    • artmodel says:


      I had the pleasure of seeing ‘Nymphs and Satyr’ at the Met Museum here in New York when it was “visiting” from the Clark in Massachusetts. Great to see in person!

      Thanks for your comments.


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