Answering Questions about Bouguereau's Attitudes

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Answering Questions about Bouguereau's Attitudes

From Jeffery LeMieux

Published before 2005


Tanya Zivkovic wrote:

Mr. Jeffery,

Here is how I read your email, which I did enjoy, and read twice just because I liked it so much:

Bougueareau good.

History lesson.

"Beggar" girls="Naturalism".

Chuck Close bad.

Art speak.

Is that how you wanted it to come across?

I simply stated that the girls are not dirty and they would be in a realistic portrait, and that I find realism to be more helpful in humanitarian efforts than Idealism.

I did ask for someone to stomp on me, and I think you did a nice job. Thanks!

Saying someone is poor or came from nothing does not make them a humanitarian. Mr.Ross did not speak to Bougueareau's PHILANTHROPY but to his aim at "elevating" "beggars". Which I do not think he did.

I own a dictionary. Telling me what philanthropy is the way you did was rude. Did you mean to be rude, or am I just reading that wrong? Do you think I am 10 years old? They call that a question.

Philanthropy is not the same thing as humanitarianism. It can be a part of it, but giving someone money for some paint and art brushes "under the table" or buying someone bread and soup if they need it does't win you the Nobel Peace Prize or Humanitarian of the Year for that matter. It makes you a good person, I am not arguing whether he was a good person. I am saying that his portraits of "beggar" girls put bread on his table and maybe a little bread in the mouths of his models, but does that make him a humanitarian?

Deeds create humanitarians. He dedicated his life to painting idealized forms. There is nothing wrong with that.

Don't tell me he was "elevating" the beggars while he was painting them. That comment from Mr. Ross just seems rather unseemly.

Ms. Tanya:

I must disagree on the subject of Bougueareau the humanitarian. He's one of my favorite artists for a number of reasons beyond the fact that his artwork is surpassingly crafted. First, he wasn't born into money or leisure so when he wanted to attend the Ecole Des Beaux Arts, he had to get in on talent alone and support himself with outside work while there. While he was able to gain admission, he was 99th out of his class of 100 on entering. His upper-crust classmates nick-named him "Sisyphus" because they thought his constant labor would prove socially fruitless. Just goes to show what the right kind of effort can create, eh?

When he became popular and then leader of the French academy, he would help struggling art students "under the table" with his own money with nary a word to anyone that he was doing it. They call that philanthropy. He was a great spirit with all the troubles of any accomplished man. He doesn't deserve to be relegated to an historical closet. He was one hell of a better guy than Gauguin, or Pollack, or a thousand other modernists ever were that's for sure.

And as to the Victorian age, we must be careful not to confuse today's view of that era with truth. The European colonial age was begun in the 1600's first with the Portuguese and then the Dutch. . . notice that maritime power coincided with colonial interests. By the Victorian era, European colonies had been well established, and some had even thrown off their original status as colony. When the British and French came into maritime power, they inherited lots of problems. The Victorians solved many of those problems including the emancipation of women, universal suffrage, a war in part over the legitimacy of American slavery, the elimination of slavery worldwide except where it continues to exist in some Asian and African countries, the industrial revolution, and on and on.

Given the world they inherited, I believe the Victorians were much more than simple puritanical and repressive prudes. They had an expansive worldview and a commitment to lofty principle which in many ways they were able not only to hold but to put into action. This drive to ideological refinement also shows in the popular artwork of the day. In Bouguereax's "beggars," he is appealing to the nobility in all of us by presenting a vision of the nobility in the least of us. It is a very progressive view, and I think would be properly termed "naturalistic" or maybe even "picturesque" rather than "realist." And of course Chuck Close has demonstrated with his clogged-pore, tooth-gunky close-ups of faces that we really want our stark honest "realism" only in digestible doses, eh?

It seems to me that the way the Victorians are viewed today is as much or more a result of our own culture's pervasive self-centered post-adolescent desire for radical freedom at any cost than a recognition of the moral necessity of intelligent limits on our desires and behaviors, a realistic portrait or reflection of our own cultural hubris more than an accurate picture of the past.