Bouguereau Pietà at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco

Home / Education / ARChives / Discussions

Bouguereau Pietà at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco

From Castle.Proxies.AuthorProxy

Published on before 2005

Brian Yoder wrote:
I think that there's an unexamined premise at work here, which is that the proper way to judge a painting is whether it is a perfect representation of what one would see if one were in front of the same scene in reality. [...]


Yes, I doubt very seriously that the models Bouguereau used for this painting really had golden halos around their heads, or that he really had a satyr with goat legs posing for him when he painted Nymphs and Satyr. Anatomical anomalies are a detriment in a painting when they stand out as anomalous, and/or appear awkward. There are in fact anatomical distortions that are done, and should be done, to make figures more believable, as odd as that sounds, and also more artistic, more graceful, more interesting to look at, as artists have been doing for centuries without the alterations having been noticed in most cases. One example is the size of the head relative to the body. If that ratio is not altered to make the head smaller than it really is in proportion to the body, the head not only looks too big, it makes the figure look somewhat awkward, too top-heavy. Artists have traditionally shrunk heads, yet it is rarely noticed, and then only when they've gone too far with it. Also the slight lengthening of women's necks and legs adds an extra measure of grace to the picture. With very tall people, this is not necessary, of course, because the natural proportions in their case are usually closer to what we consider ideal (the exception being the big-head fellow in the seat directly in front of me at the theater last night, but he was abnormal). The ancient Greeks recognized the importance of deviating from strictly realistic measure of natural anatomy, in their concept of heroic proportions, which we see in their sculptures. The heads are smaller than is natural in relation to the bodies, yet it looks right, and what looks right IS right in fine art.

Our anatomy critic here is applying student study standards to actual artwork, which is the wrong standard, besides which, he's mistaken in his specific criticisms even by the inappropriate standard. A student's first objective is to gain the ability to render what is being observed accurately. This makes it possible for the instructor to gauge how well the student's eye is developing, by comparing the drawing to the subject being drawn. But there is a lot more to be learned and mastered between that level and full-fledged mastery, and masterpiece artwork should not be judged by student study standards. Student-level painters cannot be expected to fully understand the more advanced concepts of art.

Virgil Elliott

Virgil Elliott is the author of Traditional Oil Painting: Advanced Techniques and Concepts from the Renaissance to the Present, published in 2007 by Watson-Guptill Publications. He is one of ARC's <u>Living Masters</u>, and an active member of the ASTM Subcommittee on Artists' Paints and Materials. Images of some of his artworks can be seen in ARC's Gallery of Living Masters and on his own web site,