About Bouguereau by Stapleton Kearns

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About Bouguereau

Stapleton Kearns

Monday, November 23, 2009

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, makes 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. 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 will write a few articles showing 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 man's reputation is proceeding. The restoration of this one most forbidden artists' reputation tracks the destruction of the tyranny of the official art establishment.

William Bouguereau
The Wave | 1896 | Oil on canvas | Private collection

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 by 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 Cézanne, 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"?

Is There a 'Modern' Perpetuity?

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.

Stapleton Kearns is a former student of R.H.Ives Gammell and Robert Douglas Hunter. He is a member of the Guild of Boston Artists who lives and works in Derry, New Hampshire.