William Bouguereau - Cold?

Home / Education / ARChives / Foundational Discussions

William Bouguereau - Cold?

From Gerald King

Published before 2005


I'm a little behind in my reading of Goodart. This is a response to the criticism of Bouguereau.

I think the most interesting part of this discussion is reading of emotions in a work of art. In some ways Patrick reads the figures in Bouguereau paintings as lacking a variety of emotions.

Patrick Lawrence wrote:
I am not saying he showed no emotion in any painting or that he always painted exactly the same painting. But in general he has a pretty narrow range of both.

Patrick also seems to think that Bouguereau was limited in his ability to create figures showing a variety of emotions, or perhaps, he intentionally created figures showing limited emotions? However, if Bouguereau was first and foremost interested in appealing to the tastes of his time and intentionally limited the emotional content of his work as Patrick wrote:

I think he painted exactly for the market taste. Now if that happened to also be his taste I don’t know. But it’s pretty easy to look at his work and see it fit the market at the time.

It would seem that Bouguereau was not incapable of producing a variety of emotions but rather chose to.

I am fascinated with our ability to deduce the intent of an artist from his work. I know the great modern masters denounce commercial intent in favor artistic integrity and went about proving their purity and piety by producing works that offended the sensibilities of most viewers. However even here, it is hard to read their intent because such work often found commercial success and the artists may have been merely catering to a new (crazy) market.

The point is that all artists want to communicate and sell their wares, and such intentions are not wrong. It certainly cannot be deduced from observing art work. This is a canard used by 20th century modernists to discredit or discourage realistic art or art based upon observation and cognitive understanding of life and the world we live in. Pejorative labels such as “mere illustration,” “commercial”, “hack or hackney” and “kitsch” are samplings of the indictments leveled at realist artists of the 20th century (and late 19th century Academic art such as Bouguereau.) To read the “intent” from the works of any artist is a common mistake usually made by those that want to find fault with an artists work. Such criticism should be ignored as a residual of 20th century indoctrination.

Of more disturbing concern is a failure to truly appreciate the ability of an artist to create images that can be visual read and felt by others. Bouguereau was not merely copying photographs of talented actors who could express complex human emotions. Nor was Rembrandt beholding to a model for the expression on his “Lucretia’s” face before and after she stabbed herself. This may seem to most people who watch movies and have seen photographs of everything under the sun to be rather passé and not something wonderful. Today’s art viewer seldom reflects upon the profundity of artists to articulate complex human emotions. We can hardly expect them to ask how an artist obtains or gained this ability for it is assumed they were born with it. I guess the easiest way to digest the awesome accomplishments of individuals is to say they are gifted (from God) and let it go. Next slide, please.

But Patrick says that Bouguereau’s figures show a narrow range of emotions. I don’t quite know what this means other than he is judging the works upon a narrow range of features. Human emotions are complex and as anyone who has played poker knows, they are not easily or correctly read. The face is not always the best indicator of emotions. In the old days prior to the close up and special effects movies were much more attuned to body language and relied upon actors and actresses who knew how to talk with their whole torso. The emotions created by (not copied) by Bouguereau involve the whole figure. His critics delighted in pointing out that his figures were “of a piece” meaning perfect, but lacked emotion. This was a sly attempt to make light of his ability to express real human emotion. If a figure is “perfect” in every way, does that not mean that the artist has created an image of a figure which appears alive or real? If it appears alive or real would it not then reveal emotion? Perhaps the human emotion is subtle and not the popular over-kill found in comic books.

For fifteen years I have copied the great masters at the NGA. I have often been ask, what is the hardest thing to copy? Over the years I have given a variety of answers: the color, scaling the forms to the canvas, the face, the textures or painterliness. Today, I know that the hardest thing to replicate (or create) is human emotions. Imagine the emotions of 10 lions waking up in their den with Daniel. (Daniel in the Lion's Den by Rubens.) Rubens not only gives them human emotions but creates 10 different ways a person wakes up. God, what a genius.

I am convinced that it is not the works of Bouguereau that are limited, but the viewers limited understanding and appreciation of real art. I do not feel capable of judging Bouguereau on a scale of 1-10 but I know his work if Great Art.

Patrick knows this, too.
-- Gerald King