This is my third and final look at the life and works of the Classical French artist, Adolphe-William Bouguereau. In Part 1, I looked at his History painting Dante and Virgil and in Part 2 looked at one of his many religious works, The Flagellation of Christ. Today I want to look at a completely different type of work he began to paint at the start of the 1850’s. Why, if his classical History paintings were so successful, did he want a change of artistic genre? The simple answer has to be money. The commissions he once received from the church for his monumental religious works and the private commissions for his large History paintings had dwindled and he had a growing family to support. He needed to increase his income.
In my last blog I looked at Bougereau’s early life. I had reached the stage when through the financial backing of his aunt and money he had accrued by painting small portraits of the parishioners, who attended his curate uncle, Eugène’s church, he could head to the art capital of the world, Paris, and continue his studies. The year was 1846 and Bouguereau was almost twenty-one years of age. Through the recommendation of his former tutor at L’École Municipale de Dessin et de Peinture in Bordeaux, Jean-Paul Alaux, he was accepted into the studio of François-Edouard Picot at Paris’ École des Beaux Arts. Picot’s reputation had been built on his mythological, religious and historical paintings and so was the ideal mentor to Bouguereau who had always admired the academic History works of art. His enrolment at the prestigious art school was a dream come true for Bouguereau as such an acceptance into this celebrated art establishment was the ultimate goal of all aspiring artists and it was the beginning of becoming accepted by the official artistic fraternity.
His artistic training at L’École des Beaux Arts was the standard academic type with its rigid tenets regarding the importance of draughtsmanship, life drawing, technical proficiency and ultimately the training to become a classic History painter and Academic portraitist. Many artists found the strict regimentation of the tuition too authoritarian and suffocating but Bouguereau was a true believer in the academic training and remained so all his life. In 1850, at his third attempt, Bouguereau was awarded one of the two Premier Grand Prix de Rome for the best Historical painting. It was entitled Zénobie Retrouvée par les Bergers sur les Bords de l’Araxe (Zenobia Discovered by Shepherds on the Bank of the River Araxes). His prize was a three year stay at the Villa Medici, the French Academy in Rome, during which time he also had the opportunity to travel around Italy and its countryside and studied and made copies of the works of the great Renaissance masters.
One of Bouguereau’s first paintings which saw a change in his style was completed in 1851 and was entitled Fraternal Love which can be found in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. What immediately comes to mind when you look at the scene before you? Is it a religious or secular work? We know that Bouguereau was a very religious man and had painted many religious works so is this simply another one? Is this the Virgin Mary with the blonde-haired Christ Child and maybe St John? And yet the title is a secular one with no reference to members of the Holy Family. So let us just contemplate what we are looking at. We see a mother and her two boys. The younger child, who sits on his mother’s lap, holds his elder brother’s face between his chubby hands and kisses him. The mother looks down lovingly at this demonstrative display of filial love. She is wearing a blue dress which of course makes us immediately think of the colour blue which we see in most portrayals of the Virgin Mary.
The painting was purchased by the Boston merchant and avid art collector, Thomas Wigglesworth and at the time when he purchased the painting it was known as Madonna and Child with John the Baptist but one must remember that Bouguereau’s gave the painting the secular title of Fraternal Love and by doing so transformed the painting from a religious one into a secular genre scene and by doing so enhanced its selling prospect as there were now far more buyers who would purchase a secularized Virgin Mary than the very religious portrayal of her in Christmas Nativity scenes.
However Bouguereau did paint religious works featuring the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child and it is interesting to compare the secular painting, Fraternal Love, with the one he painted thirty years later, in 1882, entitled Madonna and Child with St John the Baptist, which is housed in the Herbert F Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. The Christ Child in this religious work still has the curly blonde hair and John the Baptist the curly dark hair which we saw in the Fraternal Love painting. Once again we see the close connection between the two children. The setting for this painting, in comparison with his secular work, has a more formal setting. It is an inside setting unlike the outside scene of Fraternal Love. In this work the Virgin Mary is seated on a white marble throne which almost takes up the full width of the work. Behind the throne is beautiful ornate tapestry. The inclusion of such details adds a sense of traditional art of the great Masters which he must have witnessed during his time in Italy. The painting is a depiction of tenderness between mother and child. Look at the pose of the Christ child as he looks down at his friend, John the Baptist. Even at this early age, one recognises a close bond of friendship between the two. It has to be more than just a mere coincidence that Bouguereau has depicted the Christ child with his arms fully extended outwards in a fashion that reminds us of the crucifixion that will come in the future.
In 1854 Bouguereau returned to Paris. Two years later, in 1856, aged 31, he married Marie-Nelly Monchablon. The couple went on to have three sons, Georges, Adolphe-Paul and William-Maurice and two daughters, Henriette and Jeanne-Léontine. Sadly his younger daughter, Jeanne-Léontine, died in 1866 when she was just five years old, Georges died in July 1875, aged sixteen, but the saddest of all was that his forty-year old wife Nelly died giving birth to their fifth child, William-Maurice, in 1877 and he died a seven months later.
Two of Bouguereau’s greatest works derived from the sorrow he suffered at the death of family members. In both works he has utilised religious themes to present to the world his grief and feeling of loss. His 1876 work entitled Pietà was thought to be based upon the Virgin and Christ of Michelangelo’s marble Pietà. Bouguereau completed the painting shortly after the death of his son Georges.
In 1877 Bouguereau dedicated a painting to his late wife Nelly who died in childbirth and his youngest William-Maurice who was seven months old when he too passed away. It was entitled Vierge Consolatrice (Virgin of Consolation). In the work we see the black-clad Virgin of Consolation, once again sitting on a white marble throne behind which is a large colourful tapestry. Lying across her lap is a young woman who grieves utterly inconsolable at the death of her child, the body of whom we see lying naked at the Virgin’s feet. The Virgin has raised her hands in prayer. She is the intermediary between the mother and heaven. At first glance one would be forgiven if we looked upon this work as being merely an over-sentimental painting but understanding the circumstances surrounding it, one becomes more understanding and less cynical. It is thought that Bouguereau, who was a staunch Catholic, gained some solace from this work after the death of his wife and baby.
In 1869, before the tragic and untimely deaths of his wife and three children, Bouguereau painted a portrait of two children and used his twelve-year old daughter Henriette and her newly born brother Adolphe-Paul as models. The work was entitled La soeur aînée (The Elder Sister) and hangs in the permanent collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. According to the museum, this is one of the highlights of their collection and was an anonymous gift from a lady in memory of her father. We see Henriette sitting, perched on a rock, cradling a sleeping infant on her lap. The capped head of the baby lolls slightly in sleep. Henriette looks directly out at us and smiles. She, although bare-footed, wears clean clothes. Her skin is without a single blemish. Even at such an early age, one knows that she will grow up to become an exquisite beauty. The painting has a tranquil countryside setting. Everything is “just perfect” in the depiction of the children and the background. This portrayal strays from realism. It is more an idealised depiction. Bouguereau has cleverly used a various mix of colours and merged them in such a way to create an image which has a softness to it. There is an earthiness about the work. The colour of Henriette’s frock/tunic clothes is the brown of the ground. It seems to almost merge in with the colour of the foreground.
For Bouguereau, the 1870’s were a very sad time in his life with the deaths of his wife and three of his children. The only high point for him during that decade was his election to the Académie des Beaux-Arts de l’Institut de France. Throughout his life Bouguereau was a staunch defender of the Academy and all that it stood for and the honour of being elected to become a member of the institute was one he cherished. He wrote:
“…To become a member of the Institut…is the only public distinction I ever really wanted…”
In 1890, Bouguerau completed a work entitled The Bohemian which is sometimes referred to as Consuelo. The young girl depicted in the painting almost fills the whole canvas. She is a young gypsy girl and we see her seated on a stone bench on the Quai de Tournelle, which lies on the left Bank of the Seine. In the background, across the river, we see Notre Dame cathedral and in the mid-ground we can just make out the Pont de l’Archevêché which straddles the Seine and links up the Left Bank with the Île de la Cité. The girl looks out at us with a somewhat forlorn expression. One cannot help but be moved by her dejected appearance. Her clothes are shabby but the thickness of the fabric serves the purpose of keeping her warm. Her dress is a dull grey but her multi-coloured shawl lightens up her appearance. Her feet are uncovered which leads us to believe she is a beggar. This assertion is further enforced as we see on her lap a violin which is the tool of her trade – begging for money. This is not simply a painting about poverty. In this work Bouguereau not only condemns the humiliation brought about by poverty but lauds those who strive to free themselves from destitution by virtues of their own endeavours.
One interesting aspect of this work is that we know it was changed by the artist. How do we know that? There is a photograph of this painting when it was “initially completed” by Bouguereau in 1889. Bouguereau had decided to employ the photographers, Braun & Clement to photograph his complete collection of unsold works. The photograph of The Bohemian showed a wall of bare stone behind the girl, which completely cut off any view of the River Seine or the bridge spanning it to the Île de la Cité. It is thought that having not sold the painting that year a prospective buyer in 1890 asked for a “better” background to be added to the scene. Bouguereau complied with the request and repainted part of the work. There is also sign that the “8” and the “9” had been altered and over-painted with the numerals “9” and “0”, changing the completion date from 1889 to 1890.
Bouguereau painted many works featuring peasant girls. This was an extremely popular subject in 19th century paintings. For French artists of the time, including William Bouguereau the country peasant was somebody who lived a simple and honest life and got by through their laudable work ethic. For the city dwellers who had not rubbed shoulders with a peasant they formed their visual understanding of who peasants were from the shepherds and shepherdesses with their multi-coloured clothes whom they saw depicted in Italian opera and theatre. Bouguereau’s depiction of peasants was almost all of women and girls. The setting for his portrayals of them and what they wore was often the same - simple white blouses, overdresses of muted colours and thick material, set off by multi-coloured and multi-patterned shawls. The female peasant was depicted bare-footed and standing, seated or lying in some country scene such as a field or wood. Bouguereau tended to steer clear of any other countryside indicators such as farming equipment or farm animals such as grazing sheep or cows.
Bouguereau, like all artists, needed to sell his work. His clients were often middle and upper-middle class Parisians and the one thing the buyers did not want to be reminded of was the inequalities of life. They did not want to be made to feel guilty about the social realities of their life and those of the peasant classes. Unlike some of his contemporaries who were social realist painters and wanted to “accuse” through the depiction of the lower classes in their paintings highlighting how they suffered under an unjust economic system, Bouguereau’s depiction of peasant girls was all about their beauty, and little to do with any resentment or condemnation of the class system. His depiction of the peasant class was often very moving if, on occasions, heart-rending, but the peasants were never depicted as being threatening. An artist and contemporary of Bouguereau, René Ménard, wrote of Bouguereau’s depiction of the female peasants:
“… Rusticity is not with this painter and instinctive sentiment, and he paints a patched petticoat he yet suggests an exquisitely clean figure: the naked feet he gives peasant-women seem to be made rather for elegant boots than for rude sabots; and, in a word, it is as if the princesses transformed into rustics by the magic wand in fairy tales had come to be models for his pictures, rather than the fat-cheeked lasses whose skin is scorched by the sun and whose shoulders are accustomed to heavy burdens…”
After the death of his wife Nelly in 1877, Bouguereau lived in his house in Paris with his mother and two surviving children, Henriette and Adolphe-Paul and had taken up a post as professor at the Académie Julian in Paris. This was a more liberal art establishment which allowed women to attend classes. He was well thought of by his students, especially the women who idolised him. The female artists were very appreciative of his training method and the skill he used when working with them in a lead-up to them establishing professional artistic careers. Many of his female students were Americans and one in particular, Elizabeth Jane Gardner, fell under his spell. She, as well as being a student of Bouguereau, was also friendly with his late wife. Elizabeth was twelve years younger than Bouguereau. Between teacher and student, there developed a mutual admiration which turned to love. He told his mother and daughter Henriette that he intended to marry Gardner. The only rock blocking this path of true love was Bouguereau’s mother. She was a very religious person who had never been happy with the way her son had depicted so many nude figures in his classical works. When it came to Bouguereau falling for another woman after his wife’s death, she was vociferous in her opposition to Bouguereau and Gardner marrying or living under the same roof as her and his children and so the pair’s courtship had to become more discreet and lasted almost twenty years until Bouguereau’s mother died. Shortly after her death, in 1896, the couple married. He was 71 and she was 59.
His daughter Henriette also married around that time, and Bouguereau was happy with her choice of husband. However in 1900, tragedy was to strike again with his son Adolphe-Paul, who was a lawyer, suddenly dying. He was just thirty years old. Bouguereau was devastated and it precipitated a deterioration of his health. Despite this, he continued to paint and exhibit his works at the Salon. He contracted a heart disease which although he fought hard to survive, he died a few months short of his eightieth birthday, in August 1905 at his home in rue Verdière in La Rochelle, the town where he was born.
Near the end of his life he described his love of his art:
“…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 next morning to come if I cannot give myself to my dear painting I am miserable…”
Bouguereau was a workaholic. He once sent a letter to his first wife in which he wrote:
“…When I cannot work, I am unhappy…”
And in a diary entry he wrote:
“…I rise every day at seven and breakfast then paint all day, with a light lunch at three which doesn’t interrupt my work…”
He was always a firm believer in Academic art and Academic teaching. He never wavered and he was often ridiculed for this view of how art should be. La peinture bouguereauté was the derisory term given to French Salon artists and to students who painted badly!
During his lifetime he painted eight hundred and twenty-six paintings. To many people, Bouguereau was one of the greatest classical painters of his time, and some even compared him to Raphael. However along with his admirers he had his fair share of detractors who criticized him. One such group of artists were the Impressionists who were hell-bent to rid themselves of the shackles of traditional schools of painting. To them artists like Bouguereau were a regressive influence and hindered their move towards a new style of art. To many people Bouguereau’s art was overburdened with sentimentality and that it was over-romanticizing. To some, however, his art is full of beauty, compassion and piety. I will leave you to decide which view you subscribe to.
As usual I have collated lots of information from the internet and reference books but most of the information was gleaned from an excellent book I treated myself to and which is yet another addition to my collection. If you are interested in Bouguereau and his work I do suggest you buy it. It is not expensive but is a true gem. The title is Bouguereau and is by Fronia E. Wissman, an author who has written or contributed to a number of books about French artists.