Courbet vs. Bouguereau

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Courbet vs. Bouguereau

From Virgil Elliott

Published before 2005


James Levergood wrote:
I assume that many out here do not have a grasp of what realism is because you all claim to be realists and how you want to be just like Bouguereau where Bouguereau himself was in opposition to realism and was himself an idealist instead. If you really like Bouguereau then what you like is not realism but idealism. However, as for some of the members sites that I have visited, I have seen some great artwork. Not any of it would consider to be idealism. What I have seen from the members out here is that you are mostly indeed realists. Realists in the sense of Courbet. Yet I have heard many derogitory comments towards Courbet in favour of Bouguereau who hated Courbet. This all brings me to the conclusion that you do not quite understand what realism is and what the difference between it and idealism is. If I am wrong forgive me. But you did not represent that you were aware of this through your discourse.

James,

You are still mistaken in assuming that none of us understand what realism meant in the 19th century, as you had originally said you believed. So now at least you have backed off enough to allow for exceptions by changing it to "many out there," and that's a step in the right direction. I doubt I am the only exception among the many artists and scholars who belong to this forum. But you're still making assumptions that have too little basis when you say, "You all claim to be realists" who "want to be just like Bouguereau," among other discrepancies between the truth of the matter and what you state you believe it to be. That is still colossally presumptuous of you, and I find it hard to forgive a transgression while it persists. If you've paid attention to what I have written, you will have to acknowledge that I have repeatedly expressed disdain for the general practice of pigeonholing artists and art into too-rigid categories, and if you can find an instance in which I called myself a realist, or stated that I want to be just like Bouguereau, please present it before you make such assertions, if you expect anyone here to accept what you say as valid.

There is another consideration as well, and that is that living languages are in constant evolutionary flux, with words taking on different meanings as people use them differently over time. "Realism," as used in the 19th century, had a different meaning then than it does in common usage today, just as many other words and phrases do. It is not necessarily reasonable to assume that anyone who uses the term as it is popularly understood today, when speaking to an audience of people who will recognize what is meant, does not therefore understand what it meant in the time of Courbet. In fact it's insulting to infer that we are so ignorant of art history. If you are younger than 40 years of age, then I'm on safe ground in stating that I understood art history better than you're giving me credit for before you were even born.

If you have ever seen my paintings, and failed to recognize that I do idealize the human form, then I suppose I deserve credit for having done so in such a convincing manner that it is not noticeable because it looks right, and indeed that was my intention in doing it the way I did it. But the idealization is there in every figure and portrait I have ever drawn or painted since around 1958, and probably earlier than that, whether you have seen the pictures or not, and whether you have noticed it or not, if you have seen them. Not only do I idealize the human form, I take liberties with all the shapes, forms, colors, elements, in any scene I paint or draw, in the interest of making it into a work of art and to say what I want it to say. I also often introduce things from my imagination that are not really there at all. If I've been able to pull that off without it being obvious, then I've done it reasonably well. But I don't see how you could surmise, from looking at my work, that I want to be just like Bouguereau. If I did, I would choose Bouguereau lighting, i.e., diffused daylight as from an overcast sky, as the dominant lighting in my pictures, and would avoid stark contrasts between light and shadow, for one thing, and I would restrict my subject matter to what you might term Bouguereauesque subjects. As is evident in my work, that is not what I tend to do. So you're way out on a limb with that assertion, with nothing substantial to support you. Persist with it at the further peril of your credibility, or acknowledge your error and correct yourself. You aren't the only one here who has studied art history.

Virgil Elliott