Bouguereau & His Milieu
March 31st - April 30th 2011
Reconsidering Bouguereau: An Artistic Revolution
In the 1950s, the art establishment had a rather narrow view of art and art history. When abstract art was at its peak, Hudson River School paintings by Frederick Church and Albert Bierstadt were considered too realistic, too tightly painted and photographic and were often deacessioned by museums and largely ignored by collectors. Similarly, William Bouguereau was customarily derided in art-history lectures. Then along came an artistic revolution; starting with Pop Art and Andy Warhol—who owned a painting by Bouguereau—the canons of art started to broaden.
In 1984 there was a large ground-breaking multinational Bouguereau exhibition, and recently the Virginia Museum of Art and the Musée d'Orsay in Paris acquired paintings by the artist. In 2010 came the two volume publication, William Bouguereau: His Life and Works, by Damien Bartoli with Frederick Ross.
Why the renewed interest in Bouguereau? Viewed without prejudice, Bouguereau reemerges as an important and powerful artist. The late Robert Rosenblum pointed out that Bouguereau often elevated his gypsies or peasants to the august level of religious art of the past. In the veins of Bougureau’s figures, to quote Rosenblum, runs “the pure blood of Raphael and Poussin.”
During Bouguereau’s long lifetime—1825-1905—his art was potent enough to win him countless awards and international fame. Yet, after his death, the appreciation of his paintings declined dramatically. In this demonstration of the cycles of taste, Bouguereau was not alone.
Like Bouguereau, El Greco was extremely successful as a painter, but after his death he fell out of fashion in the face of the new Baroque realism. Then in the late 19th century as art became more expressive, El Greco was again appreciated. Beginning Chuck Close and the Photo Realists in the United States, and now artists like John Currin, there has been a slow but steady renewal of interest in the realistic depiction of the human figure. The revitalization of traditional studio training has also sparked new interest in Bouguereau, who was a consummate craftsman.
When new movements in art break established regimens of taste, famous artists from the past, from El Greco to Bouguereau, can again be appreciated as much, and sometimes even more, than during their lifetimes.
Gregory Hedberg, Ph. D
Director of European Art