Sunday, April 12, 2009

Bougereau and his import for non establishment painters of today.

William Bouguereau (1825-1905 ) Le Saintes Femmes Au to Tombeau

I went to the Guild of Boston Artists for the opening of a show Saturday. Before the opening a handful of the member artists met across the street for a drink and some camaraderie. Lined up at that bar was a very professional group of painters. We were T.M. Nicholas, Sergio Roffo, Len Mizarek, myself, Joe Mcgurl and Frank Strazulla. You could feel the artistic wattage like static electricity there. I think we were all a little thrilled to be included. Only a few years ago we were all padding along behind the "grown up" artists trying to learn our trade.

About Bouguereau;
The French artist Bouguereau was the greatest of the 19th century academic painters. I have always been in awe of this artist. He was as fine a technician as any painter who has ever lived. His design skills were incredible and his color though restrained, make his figures seem alive. I think his ability to paint the figure and the color of flesh is unmatched by any other artist who has succeeded him. Some of his paintings seem cloying to our modern tastes because they were a product of a very different time than ours. Most of his paintings are wonderful and if you have a problem with the sentimentality of some of them, there are still a lot of others to enjoy.

He is the artist most reviled by the contemporary, (or what my granddad called "modern" ) art establishment. I always enjoyed upsetting my doctrinaire teachers in the art school by openly championing Bouguereau. In those days they knew he was a bad guy and disapproved of him, but had never seen his art. Remember there were almost no books in that era on academic painting. Most of the avant garde teachers I knew, were in a hand- me- down revolution against an art they had never seen.

We are now far enough away from the Victorian age, that it is a historical period, rather than our previous era. Our previous era is modern. Just as we enjoy the paintings of Rembrandt and Rubens, even if we disregard the biblical or mythological scenes they portray, we are coming to enjoy the art of the Victorians despite its sentimentality. As the world grows ever more cynical and ugly, we will embrace that sentimentality, as an opposite to the valueless coarseness of our mass culture. People with no values aren't sentimental.

I think I will spend a few posts showing you some of this masters paintings and hopefully I can interest you in his sort of art. Most people today have been taught a 19th century art history that skips over the Victorian era (which oddly enough covers most of that century ).

Many major museums have now begrudgingly brought the paintings of this artist from the basement storerooms and hung them in the public galleries. The renovation of this mans' reputation is proceeding . The restoration of this one most forbidden artists' reputation tracks the destruction of the tyranny of the official art establishment.

Why I think this is important is because many of today's' rising cadre of traditional painters are building their aesthetic upon the base of Victorian art. We have for a century been dominated with an art built upon the ideas of men who a generation later than Bouguereau revolted against academic art. A number of painters today think that a hundred years of one school of thought, that of Cezanne, Matisse and Duchamp, is getting tired. They feel that their opportunity lies elsewhere than at the altar at which the preceding century has knelt. Bouguereau has become a standard around which a growing legion of artists with a new intent are forming. Some will matter, count on it.

"Modern art" is the official, and only approved art of institutional America.These painters think of "modern" as their granddaddy's' art. The want to rebel against it, they sometimes mock it, and they are drawn to its opposite, the forbidden thing, and that is traditional painting. When they begin to study that, they find it ancient, bewitching, beautiful, and intellectually deep as the well of western thought.The more they know it, the more empty the official art seems. This is the forgotten art of their culture and they recognize it when they discover it hidden down there on the bottom of their grandparents closets. It looks like home. And it makes sense.

That's' not to say that other people shouldn't continue doing "modern art" in fact most will, certainly all of those who want to teach in an art school or university, get a grant or a show in their local museum.

If you buck this "modern" only rule, you'd better be able to cut it in the outside world, because they will never allow you within the gates of the official art establishment again. I for instance can make a living painting, but I couldn't get a job teaching at any of the colleges in the Boston area. I will also never be shown in any of the publicly supported or government run institutions.I will never get a grant. I will never be written up in the Boston Globe, but I will be here, when they are not. They are bankrupt. I am only a little under capitalized. But the galleries call all the time, pretty much every day. Driving all of the traditional painters out into the real world has made us wily and self reliant. Putting the "modern" guys on a salary has made them pudgy and self satisfied.

No generation gets to decide for every succeeding generation what their art should be.
We have had a hundred years of modern art. The art of today is "modern", is the whole of the future "modern"?


There will be, over the next decade or so, a gradual erosion of the total ban on our cultures traditional painting in the worlds of academia and in the museums. That's not to say that "modern art" will ever go away, nor should it, but it will start to lose the power to play the dog in the manger and control the gates so tightly that only THAT form of art is shown. Modern will remain the official art of the establishment for the immediate future. But it is a dinosaur, and little proto rodents on the jungle floor, are beginning to eat its eggs.

Some day the best of our generation of traditional painters will be shown in the museums and taught about in the art schools, just like Jeff Koons and Alex Katz.



Mike Thompson said...


My workplace computer wallpaper is Bougereau's 'Song of the Angels' that is at the Forest Lawn Glendale Museum. I got the image from Art Renewal Center and tweaked out the several blemishes from small reflections in the image with Paint and then let Windows chose the center part for my wallpaper. I absolutely love the color of the linen robes the angels wear and the blue of the virgin's robe. I consider it one of the greatest paintings ever. I hope that I can go see it someday.

The other Bougereau that I plan to see this summer is 'Nymphs and Satyr' at the Clark Institute of Art in Williamstown, MA on my way out to the Cape this summer.

That man could paint.


Unknown said...

Bougereau's stuff is starting to really get big bucks in auctions too. People are finally appreciating his skill.

jeff said...

It's kind of funny that Jeff Koons is buying Bougereau's. What does that tell you. He also employs atelier trained or realist painters to make his work.

Bougereau'spainting 'Nymphs and Satyr' at the Clark Institute of Art in Williamstown, MA has been mentioned, I try to make a pilgrimage every year just to see this and other great paintings in what has to be one of the best collection of great paintings in a small museum anywhere.

I can't add to your comments on modernism, which has been the death of art education in this country.
I went to Mass Art and I can't begin to tell you the complete BS that I heard every day in that place from painting teachers.

They had this drawing class in which they had a model but not one person was was drawing the figure. The drawings all looked like weird scribbles that some 5 year old would do. This was the idea, to draw the energy and express this. I kid you not.

I think the reason fro the explosion in ateliers and schools like The Florance Academy is a reaction to this kind of absurd education based on the politics of modernity and now is fulled post-modern angst. That's why you see students doing dumb things like hanging up dead pigs and running around in their underwear with a cape like some 6 year old playing at being a super hero. (this was a thesis show at BU last year that got the praise of all the local curators)

Ok I have to stop now. This subject makes my blood pressure go up.

Stapleton Kearns said...


Work is the curse of the painting classes.

If you have never seen the Nymphs and Satyrs it as an experience. There are lots of good paintings,but that one is in another category......Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...


I wonder where they will eventually settle out. I think I may have missed my chance.I have a nice poster. The Minneapolis Museum recently got rid of theirs. I will bet they live to regret that.

Stapleton Kearns said...


But, whats the deal with Alex Katz?

My first day of art school we filled the classroom with inflated trash bags. I wanted to be Jan Van Goyen...Stape

jeff said...

What's the deal with Alex Katz.
Beats me I never liked his work.
It's naive drawing to me.
All those badly drawn heads.
I guess that's the deal, the emperors new clothes syndrome.

To be honest I don't think to much about this as it gets me kind of pissed off. I would rather look at a Sargent than Alex Katz any day of the week. Life is to short to even think about Alex Katz.

Sorry about the typos...

Rafael A said...

There is a painting in the San Antonio Museum of art by Bougereau named Admiration. It is the only piece of art I've been going to the museum to see for a few months now.

Chris Beatrice said...

I went to art school in Boston (Mass Art) in the early 1980's, and I can really identify with your comments. It's weird, though, because we had George Nick as a painting instructor... I didn't study painting there at all (I was a sculpture major). Now I'm a full time illustrator, and whenever I talk to other illustrators they condemn Modern Art, and look to what they call the "Old Masters" as having all the answers they need (they tend to lump together academic painting across a period of a couple hundred years).

As a side note, I happen to have featured Bougereau's Nymphs and Satyrs on my blog a few months back. I don't know what he could have been on when he painted that.