Category: Academic art

Bouguereau & His American Students

What possible relevance could Adolphe-William Bouguereau, a French academic painter from the Victorian age, have in today’s world? That in essence is what the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette asked when it interviewed me regarding a display of the painter’s works at the Frick Art & Historical Center of Pennsylvania. The Frick exhibit, In the Studios of Paris: William Bouguereau & His American Students, runs from July 6th, 2007, to October 14th, 2007, and it’s the first show of its kind to examine Bouguereau’s past position as a leading teacher of painting.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette thought my input as a contemporary realist painter and critic of Bouguereau and his present-day followers, would make for a well rounded examination of Bouguereau in current times. In addition to me, the newspaper interviewed Dr. Eric M. Zafran, an authority on French academic painting and the Curator of European Art at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut. Also interviewed was art historian Charles Pearo and artist-writer, Claudia Giannini. Not to be left out of any discussion pertaining to Bouguereau, opinions regarding the legacy of the academic painter were expressed by his chief devotee, Mr. Fred Ross, Chairman of the Art Renewal Center. You can read the full Pittsburgh Post-Gazette interview here.

Self portrait by Bouguereau

[ Self-Portrait - William Bouguereau. Oil on canvas. 1879. ]

Today as painting evolves and struggles to find its place in the early 21st century, Bouguereau (1825-1905; pronounced: boo-ger-Oh), becomes relevant since he represents one of two elemental paths contemporary painters can choose from - painting as a conservative expression of tradition, or an innovative expression of change. Obviously Bouguereau embodies the former, and aside from the fact that I believe we have many things to learn from academic artists when it comes to the technical handling of paint, I stand with those who seek new approaches to the problems of modern-day painting.

In a notice on the official Frick website announcing a talk by Dr. Zafran on the subject of the academic painter, it’s stated that: “To appreciate Bouguereau one has to essentially forget the twentieth century and modern art and enter into the spirit of the nineteenth century.” I might add that one would also have to forget what was happening in the 19th century as well, as Bouguereau’s art represented a headlong flight from the pressing realities of his time. We shouldn’t feel smug about this either, as many of today’s artists share that same zeal for their ivory towers.

As a youth Bouguereau studied at the conservative official academy, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and eventually he would be elected to head the Académie des Beaux-Arts. But Bouguereau lived during a period of earthshaking change, witnessing the rise of industrialism and the working class, women demanding the vote and inclusion into positions of power, the Franco-Prussian War, the Paris Commune of 1871 and the wave of reprisal killings that took the lives of tens of thousands of Parisian Communards. Yet, in Bouguereau’s paintings there is not the slightest inkling of any of this. And therein lies the problem with an uncritical appreciation of William Bouguereau. It’s as if his meticulously painted Satyrs, winged celestial angels and plump innocent cherubs were intentionally meant to conceal the grinding poverty and growing class conflict of his day - and indeed, that’s exactly the role his escapist canvases filled.

Painting by Bouguereau

[ The Invasion (Detail) - William Bouguereau. Oil on canvas. 1892.]

Defenders of Bouguereau will point to his “sympathetic” portraits of the poor, which for the most part are sweet nonthreatening portraits of healthy young peasant girls that reveal nothing about the lives of the dispossessed. Such paintings were popular with Victorians, who preferred grimy reality be covered by a veneer of sentimentality. One need only compare Vincent van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters (1885) to Bouguereau’s The Haymaker (1869), to understand my point. Van Gogh gave us a harshly realistic and unromanticized portrayal of people who worked their fingers to the bone just to maintain a subsistence level existence. His peasants are the color of the earth they dig. Their backbreaking labor under a merciless sun has turned them old before their time. They eat their modest dinner of boiled potatoes with calloused and knobby hands. Van Gogh has shown us real life. By contrast, one can’t imagine Bouguereau’s fair-skinned and rosy-cheeked peasant girl engaged in the exhausting work of pitching hay from sunrise to sunset - let alone breaking out in a sweat over any type of manual labor. Bouguereau’s pleasant creature may make the more luminously beautiful painting - but she has nothing to do with real life.

Bouguereau once said, “One has to seek Beauty and Truth. There’s only one kind of painting. It’s the painting that presents the eye with perfection.” One can just imagine the rejoinder from those young upstart Impressionist painters of the late 1800’s, “Yes, but whose beauty? Whose truth?” Clearly, there was more than one kind of painting going on in Bouguereau’s day.

Painting by Bouguereau

[ A Young Girl Defending Herself against Eros (Detail) - William Bouguereau. Oil on canvas. 1880. ]

When it came to aesthetics, Bouguereau was a stalwart conservative who opposed the onrush of modern painting that was surging all around him. As a commanding figure in the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, Monsieur Bouguereau was able to successfully block, for a time, the rising tide of the Impressionists, who wanted to paint real life with all of its roughness. Instead of theatrical, highly finished paintings devoid of brushstrokes and based upon long past historical themes, the Impressionists concentrated on the world around them, insisting on colors and techniques as vibrant and bold as their chosen subject matter. Paul Cézanne blithely commented on Bouguereau’s success at hindering the Impressionists by referring to “the Salon de Monsieur de Bouguereau.” And it was Edgar Degas and his circle of associates who mocked the polished artifice of academic painting by referring to it as Bouguereaute (”bouguerated.”) In a letter written by Vincent Van Gogh, his opinion of Bouguereau couldn’t have been any clearer;

“I already told Gauguin in my last letter that if we painted like Bouguereau we could hope to make money, but the public will never change and likes only what is sweet and slick.”

However the most amusing story I know of concerning the clash between Bouguereau and the Impressionists came from Gauguin himself. In his autobiography, The Writings of a Savage, Gauguin tells of visiting the office of Henri Roujon, director of the Beaux-Arts. Hoping the academy would purchase some of the paintings he made in Tahiti, Gauguin wrote:

“So here I am in the office of the august Roujon, director of the Beaux-Arts. He said to me: ‘It is out of the question for me to encourage your art, which I find revolting and do not understand; your art is too revolutionary not to cause a scandal in our Beaux-Arts, of which I am the director, seconded by the inspectors.’ The curtain twitched and I thought I saw Bouguereau, another director (perhaps he’s the real one, who knows?). Undoubtedly he was not there, but I have a wayward imagination, and as far as I was concerned he was there. What! I a revolutionary, I who adore and respect Raphael? What is a revolutionary art? When does it cease being revolutionary? If the fact of not obeying Bouguereau or Roujon constitutes a revolution, then I confess I am the Auguste Blanqui of painting!” [Gauguin refers here to one of France’s most incorrigible revolutionists.]

Bouguereau openly proclaimed his aversion towards modern painting when he said, “In painting, I am an idealist. I see only the beautiful in art and, for me, art is the beautiful. Why reproduce what is ugly in nature? I do not see why it should be necessary. Painting what one sees just as it is - no - or at least, not unless one is immensely gifted. Talent is all redeeming and can excuse anything. Nowadays, painters go much too far, just as writers and realist novelists do. There is no way of telling where they’ll draw the line.”

Having defined painting and beauty in such a narrow manner, it’s hard to imagine that Bouguereau’s definition of good painting would have included Goya’s 1808 masterwork, The Third of May, which depicted a massacre of Spanish civilians at the hands of Napoleon’s invading army. Aside from rubbing our faces in an ugly and most unpleasant scene, Goya’s canvas must have appeared a raw, unfinished and crude monstrosity to the genteel eyes of academic painters like Bouguereau. Yet, does Goya’s tour de force not possess a terrible beauty? This is the reason for art critic Robert Hughes calling Francisco de Goya the first modern artist and an exemplar of modernism. All the same, Bouguereau reserved a special ire for those defiant painters of his own day, “One shouldn’t believe in all those so-called innovations. There is only one nature and only one way to see it. Nowadays, they want to succeed too fast, this is how they go about inventing new aesthetics, pointillism, pipisme! All this is just to make noise.”

Considered one of the top painters of his day, Bouguereau attracted thousands of aspiring artists, who joined his seminars and workshops at the Académie Julian and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Those students fervently sought instruction and criticism from the master, and in the last quarter of the 19th century, he offered training and advice to some 200 American student artists. The Frick exhibition combines 80 paintings, drawings and prints by Bouguereau as well as artworks by some of his more promising American students like Robert Henri, Elizabeth Gardner, Minerva Chapman, Cecilia Beaux, Eanger Irving Couse, Arthur Wesley Dow, Henri Tanner, and Lawton Parker.

Painting by Robert Henri

[ Gregorita - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. A student of Bouguereau, Henri came to reject academic art and went on to help establish the Ashcan school of social realist painting. In the early 1900’s Henri traveled to Taos, New Mexico, where he painted this portrait of a young Native American woman.]

Interestingly enough, while the American painter Robert Henri (pronounced ‘hen rye’) was one of Bouguereau’s star pupils at the Académie Julian, he would come to entirely repudiate academic painting and embrace Impressionism, only to reject it later on as a “new academicism.” Henri became one of the founders of the Ashcan School, the early 20th century movement of American realist painters whose works focused on the social realities of big city life. Ironically, Henri represented the modernist trend Bouguereau hoped to thwart, and essential lessons learned from the academic master were used by Henri as a springboard for the Ashcan revolution in art.

As an academic painter, Bouguereau’s hand provided endless melodramatic oil paintings dealing with Greek myths, Christian religious stories and genre scenes. That Bouguereau produced dazzling realist canvases demonstrating clear mastery over technique should be apparent, that these were saccharine works pleasing to the elites of his day and supportive of the status quo, should also go without saying. But I have a twofold question for contemporary artists that rises out of a study of Bouguereau and all that swirled around him, a query that accordingly makes a reconsideration of Bouguereau vital; do you have mastery over your chosen discipline, and if so, are you using it simply to please and support today’s equivalent of the academy?

When Art Becomes Inhuman

The article When Art Becomes Inhuman was written by neo-conservative Karl Zinsmeister for a 2002 edition of The American Enterprise magazine. Zinsmeister’s commentary was a general condemnation of modern art, with a sharp focus upon the extremes of postmodernism - which he described as a “left-wing cause.” Zinsmeister sarcastically declared, “Surely you’ve noticed that the art smarties never lay out Cuban flags for gallery visitors to trample on, or decorate Martin Luther King’s picture with elephant dung.” He mocked the mental state of abstract artists by saying, “mightn’t it tell us something that Willem de Kooning’s abstract expressionist compositions didn’t change in quality after he lost his mind to Alzheimer’s disease?” Zinsmeister even compared Gays to child molesters when he wrote that works singing the praises of “voyeurism, drugs, homosexuality, and pedophilia” filled the nation’s trendy art galleries.

You might think Karl Zinsmeister to be just another intransigent stick-in-the-mud who takes the furthermost right-wing position on every social issue, a narrow-minded individual to be dismissed and forgotten - and you might be right - save for the fact that he’s a newly appointed member of the Bush administration.

In May of 2006, President Bush picked the 47 year old Karl Zinsmeister as his principal domestic policy adviser. Over the years Zinsmeister has played a leading role in America’s “culture wars,” working for the past 12 years as editor in chief for The American Enterprise magazine. That glossy periodical is associated with the American Enterprise Institute - a think tank for neoconservatives that has done much to shape the policies of the Bush White House. Perhaps President Malaprop first noticed Zinsmeister by way of a comic book published by Marvel Comics in 2005. Combat Zone: True Tales of GI’s in Iraq, was written by none other than Karl Zinsmeister, and supposedly based on his experiences as an “embedded” journalist with the American 82nd Airborne in Iraq.

I mention Zinsmeister’s political views because they have a direct correlation to his likes and dislikes concerning art, and a man in such an influential position should be carefully listened to. It comes as no surprise that conservatives and traditionalists have applauded Zinsmeister’s cutting remarks against modern art - he has a powerful mass base that represents a populist backlash against contemporary art. The Art Renewal Center (ARC), those champions of all things conservative in art, reprinted Zinsmeister’s article in its entirety - though they neglected to inform their readership of the author’s neo-conservative political orientation or the fact that he works for the Bush administration (the ARC has since removed Zinsmeister’s article from its archives, but the piece was reprinted on the right-wing Free Republic website in 2003).

I’m not a supporter of the postmodernist super-stars of the art world Zinsmeister attacks in his article, and any regular reader of this web log knows I’m one of their staunchest critics. But where the right sees politically correct left wingers bent on destroying western heritage, I see apathetic apolitical intellectuals who are socially disengaged. There are few sectors of society less interested in political theory and activism than the contemporary art world, as a cursory view of international art web sites and web logs makes perfectly clear.

It is natural for art to overthrow the established order, and the name for such upheaval is progress. Historically artists have always been visionaries ahead of their times and at odds with the status quo. The Dadaists, Cubists, Surrealists, Expressionists, Constructivists and Abstract artists all hurled their contempt at comfortable society and we’re better off for it. But these eruptions didn’t take place simply because a small group of artists fancied a new style - the ruptures were necessary because established orders became ossified and essentially had nothing left to offer. We have reached another such point in time. While the spirit and motivation of the aforementioned groups was revolutionary in intent, and a similar stance may have once moved today’s early postmodernists - no such spirit stirs in them presently. They merely clamor for wealth, press, accolades, and awards from the established circles of power - of which they are a part. Postmodernism is certainly due for an unseating, but Zinsmeister and crowd are not the ones to oust it.

Zinsmeister and his followers decry avant-garde art as the workings of an ultra-liberal and politically correct art establishment that does its best to “shock, flout, insult, and otherwise chuck rocks at polite society.” But it is hypocritical and duplicitous for Zinsmeister to condemn modern art for its supposed inhumanity, while at the same time supporting a presidency that has sanctioned torture, preemptive war and the abrogation of the constitutional rights of American citizens. In barbarous times there can be no polite society, and Zinsmeister evidently cannot understand, or refuses to admit, that “art becomes inhuman” only when society itself has become a horrid charnel house.

The Getty’s Great Bouguereau Debate

On June 6th, some 400 people packed the Harold M. Williams Auditorium at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles to hear a lecture titled, The Great Bouguereau Debate. The academic painter William Adolph Bouguereau was the president of the painting section of the Paris Salon in 1881, and depending on how you see things he was either the defender of western civilization or a major obstacle to progress. There’s no doubt that he was a tenacious opponent of the Impressionists, and that he used his position to keep that malcontent rabble at arms length - for that alone I can’t help but view Bouguereau as a reactionary and I count myself amongst his many detractors.

The Virgin and the Angels - Painting by Bouguereau.

[ Bouguereau's The Virgin and the Angels at the Getty. ]

The expectant crowd at the Getty was clearly split down the middle regarding Bouguereau’s legacy, with half of those in attendance being passionate opponents and the others enthusiastic supporters. A good portion of those present were followers of the Art Renewal Center, a group devoted to classical and academic painting that I took to task in an earlier web post titled, Art Renewal Center: A Return to the Past. The professionals who lectured from the podium also reflected the divide in the audience. Historian Gerald Ackerman and artist Peter Zokosky spoke as supporters of Bouguereau, with Zokosky presenting himself as a particularly ardent devotee. It was the chief curator of European art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Patrice Marandel, who expressed a vociferous critique of Bouguereau - comparing him to none other than Thomas Kinkade.

Los Angeles painter, John Paul Thornton, attended the debate and posted an amusing report of the proceedings on his web log - which I encourage everyone to read. While Thornton writes like an admirer of Bouguereau, and appears to defend the academic school, he actually embraces many styles of painting and has even been known to dabble in installation art. Having studied under the expressionist painter, Hans Burkhardt, Thornton possesses an appreciation for all genres of painting - from classical to extreme modernist. Like myself, he is primarily interested in “raising the bar” for today’s artist, insisting on a combination of technical proficiency and powerful content. He spends much of his time teaching draftsmanship and painting technique, and fans of figurative realist art will no doubt enjoy visiting his website

Open Letter to the Art Renewal Center

[ As a contemporary painter who is also an advocate of the painter’s craft, I’m at times mistakenly regarded as a "conservative", a laughable assertion if there every was one. In December of 2005, I wrote a critique of the Art Renewal Center, a group that actually deserves the reputation of extolling conservatism in art - in fact they are downright reactionary. My article, A Return to the Past, assailed the ARC for being new Victorians, Eurocentric demagogues who espouse a right-wing aesthetic populism. My essay struck a cord with Mr. John Nutt, an arts educator in the UK, who shared with me an open letter he composed and sent to the Chairman of the ARC, Fred Ross. Not surprisingly, the ARC has not published Nutt’s letter - so I present it here in its entirety. ]

An open letter to Fred Ross

Dear Mr. Ross

Your response to my criticism of ARC indicates that my feedback comments concerning the Art Renewal Center upset you. It was not my intention to poke a stick in a hornet’s nest but I feel it is necessary to reply in the interests of the truth of which you do not have a monopoly.

Your website is an art educational site, but it assumes a narrow definition of education and it would seem that its main function and purpose is the rehabilitation of 19th century academic art. Its stance is to argue that academic art has been castigated and marginalized by the art establishment. It is quite possible that it was merely ignored because it was so poor, most UK and European Municipal galleries have a collection on permanent display but they are not usually humming with visitors like the Tate Modern or the Louvre. One exception is the Musee D’Orsay but that also exhibits Impressionism and Post Impressionism.

There are many definitions of education (as there are of art,) which should be about informing, enlightening, valuing and releasing the mind from the chains and restrictions of its environment. This is most effectively achieved in western education through the Socratic method of dialectic or informed philosophical debate. I am disappointed by your anger and unsubstantiated hostility to 20th century art and failure to engage in dialectic. Your site is visually quite stunning but its written dialectical content seeks only to limit and restrict thought and debate by promoting one representational art movement above all, whilst denigrating everything done since. It is also the primary source of the visual material displayed on, a website of visual and cultural vandalism, which recycles and denigrates the labours of great artists work as simple one line jokes. Very laudable educationally, considering the work displayed is an abuse of the open commons license.

In the UK, HM government prescribes the content and contextual studies of the art education curriculum. This is the culture which we inhabit. Your site shows little or no evidence that you seek a wider truth. It shows little concern to balance ideas or engage with dialectic, only pander to the popularist rhetoric of the tabloid press, by smearing and abusing the achievements of 20th century art. You have accused me of being brainwashed by an art education establishment, despite the fact that I have had fifty years of study to make up my own mind about what I personally believe about art and education. I venture to suggest that your definition of drawing is narrow, and restricted to a particular nineteenth century visual representation of reality. This view is of little practical use to a multi-cultural inner city art teacher.

You attack David Hockney and openly accuse him of lying - despite the true fact that there is a substantial amount of well documented scholarly evidence including that of the National Gallery, London, that Vermeer (to take just one example) used optical aids. Have you never heard of the “Camera Obscura” that was used by Canaletto, Guardi and others? In his book Secret Knowledge, Hockney and Professor Martin Kemp discuss known visual procedures and their evidence is presented in such a way as to allow a reader to make their own judgment. Your site doesn’t allow the reader to make an informed balanced judgment, its content brow beats him with opinion. Education is concerned with enlightenment not with enforcement as you well know. It takes 2000 years to create a civilization but the price of ignorance is that it can be knocked down over-night. Witness Nazi Germany. Hockney is a respected academic painter whose knowledge is based on a lifetime of practical working experience. These are artistic and not aesthetic judgments. Would you seek to condemn a nuclear physics professor in his math? You state that modern art is a prejudicial product of two world wars, and it’s obvious that these wars didn’t begin to touch your own world frame. In Europe we still live under their cloud, visit any UK or European village and examine a war memorial! Classicism is elitist, it served the culture of Napoleon and Nietche which in turn sowed the seeds of the twentieth centuries miseries.

Here in the UK, 19th century academic artists and academicians represent a rigid bourgeois class system, the exploitation of women as objects and hypocrisy that typifies “Victorian values”. When Mrs. Thatcher used this phrase in the eighties it was not without irony. In the UK - where there is still a class system, we are unable to simply admire 19th century academic art work without being also grimly aware of its faults, its hypocrisy, its posed faked content, yet you promote it as the paradigm of all that is good and true. Art students have to be taught to look at nature, not to copy from the plaster cast where they repeat others faults. When I was a student I was taught Slade school academic life drawing - I speak from an informed viewpoint based in practice! This is despite the fact that photography has been around since 1820 and had superseded representational painting in every single respect. Lord Leighton and Alma Tadema had very little appreciation or real understanding of the truth about the Roman Empire, they had only the knowledge of their day. As typified by their confections and middle-aged male fantasies. (Their knowledge of Roman society was limited and their images are the result of 19th century archaeological knowledge). Like Degas they made extensive use of photography as you know.

In our belief in the crucial importance of good sound academic drawing, we are probably in agreement, (although I affirm that your definition of good drawing is far more restricted and purely skills based than my own) especially when it comes to the desire to improve the skills and training of art-students. Nothing in art can be gained from re-hashing the past, even Pre-Raphaelite painting is eclectic and derivative), art moves forward not backward, just as nuclear physics does. You know this as your website contends - whether or not you yourself subscribe to a modernist paradigm.

John Nutt