Artistry as pretty as a picture
Idealized paintings in a 19th century exhibit renew age-old questions about art's emotional and intellectual roles.
By LENNIE BENNETT
Published March 4, 2007
Is beautiful art an anachronism?
That question began to be asked more than 100 years ago when young artists challenged the strict code that had defined "good" art for centuries, a code that had idealized and elevated the human figure, the landscape, the idea, to nobility and perfection.
It's still being debated.
An exhibition at the Appleton Museum of Art is an opportunity to initiate more discussion. "In the Studios of Paris: William Bouguereau and His American Students" firmly places itself on the side of beauty and its relevance today. It looks back to the turn of the last century, the time when the issue became an aesthetic battleground for the soul of art that led to a full-fledged revolution.
If you were an artist with ambition in the late 1900s, Paris was the place to be and William Bouguereau 1825-1905 and pronounced BOO-ger-o was the teacher to have. Bouguereau was one of the most successful painters of his time, a member of the elite, influential Academie des Beaux Arts. At 25, he won the coveted Prix de Rome for his precocious talent and studied in Italy for three years, soaking up its Renaissance lessons and adding them to his already prodigious technique. With his fellow academy members, he controlled who exhibited at the annual Salon sponsored by the French government, the art show that could make or break a career. Getting a painting accepted into the event was validation. Getting good placement at eye level, instead of near the ceiling of the Louvre's galleries where the art was almost invisible, guaranteed sales. Bouguereau's work was always prominently displayed, often sold before it was hung.
It's easy to see why. Bouguereau was a brilliant draftsman and had a ravishing sense of color. Most important, he deployed those gifts in painting to a clientele who wanted "genre" scenes of the idyllic simple life.
Gallery walls at the Appleton are lined with examples. The Little Shepherdess is probably the most iconic, containing every element that made Bouguereau so popular and esteemed. A young girl faces us, stick balanced on her left shoulder. Her clothes, though of humble materials, are sumptuously rendered to create textural and compositional contrast. The girl seems totally relaxed, caught during a brief pause in her duties, as if she had just turned around to look at a passerby before turning back to her nearby flock. Her backlit hair billows softly. The skin tones are flawless. The effect, of serenity and contentment, totally belies the truth of a peasant's life, in which bare feet did not look as if they had just been groomed at a spa.
Bouguereau, who created more than 800 paintings, had done a number of mythological and historic scenes that included nudes. But the buying public indicated they wanted, in a time of growing industrialization, reminders of a vanishing rusticity and - please - no nudes. He admitted without apology to painting to the wealthy crowd who loved the sweetly sentimental depictions of pretty girls, fully clothed but given a suggestion of sexuality that provided a subliminal kick.
As prolific and perfectionist as Bouguereau was as an artist, he was by all accounts a generous teacher who took that mission seriously. Fair, kind and demanding, he grounded his pupils in incessant life-drawing classes that quickly separated the dilettantes from the truly gifted before he would allow anyone to pick up a paint brush.
A number of Americans who flocked to the French capital during that time and studied with Bouguereau are on view, too. Their fidelity to their master's lessons during their student days, followed by divergent paths in maturity (or not), tells the larger story of art's changing values.
Bouguereau's most ardent apostle was Elizabeth Jane Gardner. She was a poor, talented artist when she arrived in Paris in 1864 at age 26. Serious art classes weren't open to women at that time, so she famously dressed as a man (after applying for a license to do so, which was required by law) to attend them. She had early success as a copyist (making reproductions of famous paintings) for American clients and was a smart businesswoman determined to support herself through her art. She studied with Bouguereau for several years and apparently the two formed a romantic attachment after his wife died in 1877. They eventually married.
Gardner was the subject of criticism, sometimes malice, during her career, with charges that she rode on Bouguereau's coattails. There is no doubt she was helped by the connection but, truth is, one of her paintings was accepted to the Salon in 1868, before she began studying with him. In 1887, she was the first and only American woman to win a medal.
Her paintings are almost indistinguishable from Bouguereau's stylistically, though there are subtle differences. Her characters, like his, are often engaged in a narrative, but they typically have more intimate connections to each other. Daphnis and Chloe (1882) is painted with all the academic hallmarks of the period. But the facial expressions of the lovers have personality, with the knowingness of Chloe juxtaposed with Daphnis' ardor. There's a hint of feminism here, of the superiority of the female who seeks control by using her physical attractiveness as a ploy. To detractors, the painting was cold in its calculated perfection, an opinion that harbingered the coming artistic shift.
Like many younger painters who studied with Bouguereau, Robert Henri (1865-1929), Eanger Irving Couse (1866-1936) and Lawton Parker (1868-1954) to one degree or another repudiated the Academy's manifesto of beauty, defined as highly finished surfaces. Henri was the most strident in his rejection, as seen in two paintings distinguished by bold brush strokes and colors. Couse, too, adopted a freer style, and his choice of American Indians as his primary subject in later life seems a far cry from gentle French peasants. Parker aligned himself with a group called the Giverny Luminists, paying homage to Impressionism, the nemesis of academic painting.
Yet they couldn't eradicate elements of their early training and probably didn't really want to. All retained an interest in the human figure in their paintings and, though they interpreted it in avant-garde ways, they stayed true to its fundamentally realistic depiction.
They were part of a new wave sweeping Europe and the United States, artists seduced by new ideas championed by their predecessors - Manet, Monet, Cezanne and others - who had opposed at great cost the academic style beginning in the mid 1800s.
Now, as the 20th century unfolded, those renegades were considered the masters and painters such as Bouguereau, Gardner and Pierre-Auguste Cot, another student of Bouguereau's, were considered bourgeois and cliched. Though Bouguereau especially was always given grudging respect for his prowess, he was increasingly relegated to a secondary tier in art history.
Time, however, can be forgiving. Today, Bouguereau benefits from a revisionist attitude and a recognition that maybe those old guys were on to something in their demand for rigorous technique. There is a backlash against painting that can be full of good ideas but isn't especially well executed. And an acknowledgement that a beautiful painting isn't necessarily superficial, whether it's figural or abstract.
Then again, what is beauty?
Our ambivalence toward it has opened many enlightening doors and some that could just as well have stayed closed. William Bouguereau had no doubts even at the end of his life, when he saw the writing on the wall was in a new language. Such consistency and sureness combined with such single-minded talent may not convince everyone of his importance, but they justify his vision of the beautiful.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Lovely to look at
"In the Studios of Paris: William Bouguereau and His American Students" is at the Appleton Museum of Art, 4333 NE Silver Springs Blvd., Ocala, through May 27. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $6 adults, $4 seniors and $3 children 10 to 17. (352) 291-4455 or www.appletonmuseum.org.
From most spots in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, the museum is a two-hour drive, or less, up Interstate 75. I advise a day trip to build in time to see the Appleton's permanent collection, which includes African and pre-Columbian art, as well as 18th, 19th and 20th century European and American art. Works by several artists in the special exhibition are also in the permanent collection, including some by Bouguereau.
If you are making a day trip, Ocala has many restaurants, including the expected franchises. A popular local place is Felix's, a white-tablecloth restaurant in a pink Victorian house, which serves salads and sandwiches, as well as full meals, at affordable prices. It's at 917 E Silver Springs Blvd., between the museum and the Interstate turnoff. For reservations, call (352) 629-0339.