On Friday, February 22nd, we went to see the current exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum, Bouguereau & America. This exhibit explores the exceptional popularity of the French artist William-Adolphe Bouguereau with American patrons during the last half of the 19th century.
Bouguereau was one of the last great “classical” artists. As a member of the French Academy, he made his name creating “historical” paintings (which could include Biblical or mythological subjects), which was what the Academy approved. As he noted, his “frantic” paintings did not sell as well as “Venuses and Cupids,” so he painted a lot of pretty subjects that were very popular with purchasers who wanted works of art of obvious quality that would nevertheless not disturb their guests. I can somewhat understand this: Bouguereau’s Orestes,* which shows the title character being tormented by the Furies, is a great painting, but I wouldn’t want it in my dining room.
There’s no question that Bouguereau was a great painter. His composition, draughtsmanship, anatomy, polish, and color sense are all exceptional. He was a skillful portraitist. It’s really only in his subject matter that he falls at all short. Besides “Venuses and Cupids,” which, due the frequently nude subjects, did well with male collectors, being religious, he also painted many attractive Virgins with Child, and similar subjects. He also had an interesting line in what are referred to as “Little Beggars,” which feature pretty, well-fed, unlikelily well-dressed, and impossibly clean “poor” children as beggars or peasants. These were popular with female buyers who were interested in pieces showing compassion or sentiment. (In fairness to Bougereau, can you recall ever seeing a painting where the subject’s feet were not clean? I mean, not even dusty, let alone muddy? I can’t--.) I had the impression that these were the 19th century equivalent of the “big-eyed children” of Margaret Keane in the mid-20th century.
By 1900, the end of the show’s period, new styles of painting, such as Impressionism and Realism, were making inroads with critics and collectors. However, Bougereau continued his impressive output until his death in 1905 at age 79. It is estimated that he finished more than 800 paintings in his lifetime. The notes at the exhibition show that his works were the foundation of many important private art collections, which went on to become public or academic gallery collections.
We were very glad to see this interesting exhibit. The exhibit continues through May 12th.
*Orestes, son of Agamemnon, gets one of the rawest deals in classical myth. Filial duty requires him to avenge his father’s murder. However, his mother, Clytemnestra, is guilty of it, and, when he kills her, he is punished by the Furies for the sin of matricide.