Bouguereau Pietà at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco

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Bouguereau Pietà at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco

From Ann James Massey

Published before 2005


Piet Spijkers wrote:
The hip "structure" [in Bouguereau's Pietà] is off side, too small compared with the shoulders, also the navel is put in the wrong place, too high I think. Possibly this opinion might be coloured by the fact that it is an image on internet, but I still feel there is a serious anatomy problem. The lady on the left side has problems with her arms (perspective wise).

Dear Piet,

Like Virgil, I do not agree with your assessment of the anatomical flaws you perceived in Bouguereau's Pietà.

As to the navel, you know that it is located at or above the waist on a man, so it is not out of the realm of placement. I did a short "tongue in cheek" article on belly button locations:
http://www.annjamesmassey.com/artist/AnnJamesMassey_MenAndWomen1998.pdf

The dramatic Caravaggesque lighting means the line of the torso and leg on the right side have been lost in the shadows on the reproduction, so I feel you are misreading what you believe is the edge of the hip.

The handling of the arm of the angel you mentioned is also not incorrect in terms of foreshortening or basic anatomy. I can only think you have taken the line of the Madonna's robe coming in front of the angel's arm as the actual line of the arm. Remember that the Madonna is not flat; her arm is coming forward to embrace Christ, and thus the angel's arm is in front of the line of the robe coming from Mary's body, but behind the flow of the robe from her arm.

Of course, no painting is 100% perfect nor should it be. There is the touch; the human aspect; the shift of the brush; the concentration on composition, line or value that sometimes allows the initial anatomy is slightly missed by accident; as well as the deliberate choice to change what is reality to make the piece work better visually.

However, If you really want to nit pick and analyze, you can always find something in every masterpiece, but does it matter?

And ... is it always an "error"?

Example:
Look at the tilt of Christ's head; then draw what should be the roughly parallel lines across for the angle of the mouth, nose and eyes. Bouguereau placed the eye on the right side considerably lower than anatomy dictates.

Mistake or on purpose? I guarantee the latter.

In reality, that eye would be higher and the cheekbone would cover most of it. Visually, the eye on the right would then be mostly the line of the lashes you would see, like the left side.

Drawn as reality dictates, he could not possibly have achieved the dramatic feel the eye commands now.

And if Bouguereau had painted that eye in the same way he has, but correctly placed, the shape of the eye would not only have been anatomically inaccurate, it would have felt very wrong indeed to the viewer's eye, though the viewer may not understand why the face disturbed him.

Ok, why not straighten the head more so the eyes would naturally follow the shape etc, that he has decided for that eye? Then the drama of the head thrown completely back to it's natural extension would be lost.

I guarantee you that Bouguereau played with the eye for a while to gain the most dramatic effect and decided to put it where it looked the most natural to the viewer for what effect he was trying to achieve with the face.

It is deliberately wrong to achieve a wanted effect.

Certainly, it's not meant to be noticed. And even when we are aware, we have to applaud the understanding that allowed Bouguereau to make this choice. Most artists could not have accomplished this with such finesse and the eye would have been placed there only because they did not understand anatomy fully. And it would have looked like, and would have been a serious anatomical error.

And how many of you noticed it?
None, I hope!

I did not, until, because of Piet's email, I decided to look for a very obvious break with anatomy that was done on purpose and with great success.

This handling of the basics, the ability to deliberately distort the rules to make something seem natural and yet give a visually stronger impact, is what separates the masters from untrained artists, or even skilled technicians.

Cheers,
Ann