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Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts

‘Bouguereau & America’

“The problem with nasty Bouguereau was that it didn’t sell,” writes James Fenton. “The problem with nice Bouguereau was that it sold so well that it undermined the intermittent impulse to unleash nasty Bouguereau. The sort of eroticism Bouguereau peddled from the Salon demanded a strict understanding, a kind of collusion with the public. This is respectable. That, on the other hand, would be scandalous. So much depended on the depilation of women. Still, it is sometimes hard to see how these distinctions were made. Faun and Bacchante (1860) has a smiling faun (human enough save for his pointed ears) supporting a largely naked bacchante, whom he has been plying with wine. In a short while he is going to take advantage of her drunken condition, just as Pan took advantage of every one of the drunken Maenads. Meanwhile we are invited to admire the bacchante’s pert nipple.

“The Bouguereau revival began in 1984 with an exhibition that traveled from the Petit-Palais in Paris to Montreal and the Wadsworth Atheneum. The idea was to promote a reexamination of so-called pompier art (a seemingly snobbish term implying that the paintings of the juste milieu are the sort of art that firemen would produce, if they could paint), and to make a case for looking at Bouguereau with fresh eyes. When an artist has been not only revered by his students (who used to save his burned matches and cigarette butts as relics) but also in a position of great power over many years, a resentment can build up against him that can take generations to dissipate. Bouguereau had a great deal of patronage to deal out, in the form of opportunities to exhibit in the Salon, medals and awards, and so forth. If you were his student, you increased your chances of success—or so it was certainly believed.

“The 1984 catalog, though not lavishly produced, is full of interesting information. The show differed from the Milwaukee exhibition in presenting numerous drawings and preparatory works, and suggestive comparisons with sculpture and ephemeral art. By contrast, Milwaukee takes forty-odd paintings from American collections and looks at the way they became distributed in the US, typically first by appealing to the taste of industrialists, then by being given to museums, and finally through some minor shuffling as works were deaccessioned and passed around. I came away from Milwaukee curious to know what Bouguereau’s drawings were like, whether there might have been oil sketches and cartoons, what his church decorations were like, and with many other questions, which the 1984 catalog very often answered. One may say that these questions were beyond the remit of the current show. But a biography or chronology might have come in handy.”


For more information, visit brooksmuseum.org.

Category: Exhibition
Memphis Brooks Museum of Art
1934 Poplar Ave,
Memphis, TN