Thursday, April 16, 2009

It's National Bouguereau Week

image: art

William Bouguereau: Song of the Angels.

There is an 11" by 15" painted sketch for this painting. I suspect there is one such preparatory study for most of Bouguereaus' paintings.

Young girl defending herself against cupid, 1880

This is a graceful and rhythmic design . There is a device going on here called counterchange. That is the practice of placing darks behind your lights, and lights behind the darks to show the forms and the arabesque of the figures.

Arabesque is a fancy word for outline, that painters once used. I don't know if it is in use today. My teacher Ives Gammell used it frequently. I find myself using studio lingo from the Edwardian era because those were the words that Gammell taught with, and they describe the ideas he espoused. I am sometimes surprised to find how archaic they are. Another painter will ask what I mean by a certain word and I realize that the word to which I am accustomed , has slipped from usage. The words you use to describe things, color how you think about them.

When I say outline, I think of what Gammell called a coat hanger. That's a dark line around something that has nothing to do with its actual appearance.He would when teaching figure drawing , point out for correction a coat hanger line. When he said arabesque, he meant a beautiful artistic line having an expressive value apart from its job of fencing off the figure from the outside world. He might also talk about the edge of a group of trees or an assemblage of figures, as enclosed by an arabesque.

If you look at the figure of the Cupid his whole figure is relieved against a dark background. Even the leg thrown onto the feebly resisting girl is set against a dark drape. When his hand holding the dart comes out from in front of the foliage it is counterchanged dark against the sky.

Reluctance girl is dark against the sky. However, Bouguereau has brought a spray of leaves behind her dark hair . He has kept the degree of difference between the figure and its background and her hair and its background the same. As soon as her face emerges from beneath the hairline it is immediately placed against the sky again.

As I have said over and over again, nothing smart gets into a picture by accident. Bouguereau deliberately monitored the contrast between his figures and the background and designed the picture to keep them always relieved against their opposite value by a set ratio. Real smart stuff.

Below is a drawing for the painting. This would be the last in a chain of drawings he made for a painting. Impressionist painters just set up and go , without a lot of planning ( drawing ). But a painting as highly resolved as this has to be carefully planned before committing the image to paint. I own a book called "How I Make a Painting" by Norman Rockwell. In this book he describes his order of preparation for a painting and it is the same as Bouguereau's.

The first step is thumbnails, lots of matchbook sized ( remember matchbooks?) doodles to rough out the general idea. When that is established, the next drawing is a larger and more definitive , and often there is a painted sketch. Drawings are then made from the model for every figure and studies are made for drapery and the natural elements surrounding the figure. Finally these are assembled into a cartoon. Often the same size as the finished work, the cartoon is as nearly what the artist wants the picture to look like as he can make it. An awful lot of problems can be avoided by working them out before the brush touches the canvas. When you are working on a large painting with multiple life sized figures, when things go wrong they go so terribly wrong.

Study of a blond womans' profile.

I am guessing that this is like the painted sketches he made on the way to a painting. Below is a drawing done in preparation for an existing painting.

I would have you notice the fabulous amount of careful preparation that went into the making of these paintings. It is very different from the idea most people have today, of the artist making his paintings quickly, and in a non aware state of pure creativity. They imagine this automaton artists' subconscious taking over, and that he awakens an hour later to find the completed masterpiece, wet on the easel in front of him. He then dresses in black, puts on his sunglasses, and goes clubbing till dawn, in a disco somewhere, filled with hundreds of other artists like him. You can still smoke there.

More tomorrow, including the historical French percusers to the subject matter of Bouguereau and also a donkey.


Mike Thompson said...

A couple of years ago I saw a show at the Cincinatti Art Museum of Andrew Wyeth's master drawings for a dozen or so famous temperas he painted, including several of the actual finished temperas and watercolors. There were around 120 or so pieces in the show which included the prep work for Cristina's World but not that finished painting.

Elaborate preparation. Working out different poses. Different angles. Etc. Etc. Etc. It was interesting that, even though he signed them, he often just let the dog walk all over some of them as there were a lot of paw prints in the show. (Cezanne sometimes let his unwanted watercolors blow away on the wind. Recently one fetched 25 million. Granted, it was undoubtedly better than those he let sail away.)

Like Bougereau, Wyeth invested a lot of effort assembling thousands of grain of rice sized brush strokes into his temperas and he didn't want to screw up doing it so he prepped a lot. I wish master drawings were exhibited more often so students could see how much work ''genius'' requires.

Unknown said...

After viewing the images in this post, what strikes me is the flatness of his foliage, plants, etc. that frame the figures. Maybe that is what helps the figures look so soft and round?

armandcabrera said...


Thanks for shining a light on this great painter. I have the exhibition catalog from the 1984 show. It has images of his sketches, thumbnails, drapery studies, hand and foot studies and more for some of the paintings. Amazing the amount of work that went into each piece.
When you consider he managed to paint one every three or four weeks of his career, it really is amazing.


Stapleton Kearns said...

Most of our art heritage was made in this manner,like most of our buildings were built from blueprints.Impressionist painters who have what they are painting, in front of them, often are not aware of the great pains artists of the academy went to in order to construct their paintings.I have a big charcoal study that I have set aside and will return to soon. I will post it as it happens.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I suppose that it may have had that as a part of its purpose. However I think the most important reason was idealization. The figures are ideal so as not to look like that blond girl, with the big eyes and feral expression who rings up my groceries at the market, caught skinny dipping.I always forget her name. Kristle I think.

The landscape itself is stylized so as not to look like the swimming hole where she might be discovered.If it was a believable landscape it puts her into the real world,and naturalism as we discussed can give vulgarity in allegorical painting.
Painters today don't worry as much about that....Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...


I saw that show at the Wadsworth Athenaum. It was so incredible. I wish I could have used prepararort drawings, I have books that contain them. But I don't have the permission to do that, as they are copyrighted. The ARC has a lot of stuff and they allow me to use their images so I work from what they have.
I think the reason he could get them out the door at that pace is BECAUSE he did all of the preparatory work. It actually speeds things up,and cuts down on painting crashes......Stape

jeff said...

Bougereau was one hell of a draftsman the control and modeling on those two figures is outstanding.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I am introducing another fine draftsman tomorrow for comparison...Stape