The impressionists are so admired and well-known today that it is hard to believe they were originally rebels. Rebels, true to type, against the entrenched conventionalism of institutions – in this case the Academies.
We’re all familiar with the Impressionists and their art. But no-one epitomises Academic art like W. A. Bouguereau.
His art – canvasses filled with delicate, soft figures lounging somewhere in nature – is incredibly detailed, often mythologically inspired, and quite beautiful. His figures strike a balance between idealism and impressive naturalism. His different models are clearly individuals, but they are all obviously fantasies. The overwhelming focus on the aesthetics of the female form makes me somewhat uncomfortable today, but Bougeureau was catering to the commercial tastes of his time, and I can understand that. This was certainly not Art for Art’s sake, and that’s okay.
They are still masterpieces. Well, mostly.
One thing has always got to me about Bougeureau’s works. All those little children- cute, right? But look at the eyes.
He’s not a favourite artist, but I find him interesting as an emblem of his times – and as a reminder of the other side of western art history, the side characterised not by brilliant rebellions and innovations but by staid, conventionalised commercialism. It’s easy to forget that the latter were almost always the greater force.