Friday in the atelier: "La Vague" by Bouguereau

Admirers of William Bouguereau have written hundreds of thousands of words about this wonderful, masterful painter – the greatest artist you’ve never heard of before. I don’t have the skills nor the time to create a condensed version that will do credit to the original writers, nor to Bouguereau himself. So I'll refer you to the Art Renewal Center's biography.

I will say a few small things that I think every art appreciator should know about Bouguereau.

Most important, he was a master among masters. Most of the more than 800 paintings he accomplished were life-sized or larger, each with exquisite detail. When I went to the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco to view the original “Broken Pitcher” I didn’t know this. I was astonished to find that painting was almost 5 feet tall.

The emotion in “Broken Pitcher” made me somewhat weepy. I got tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat. I know what a broken pitcher is supposed to symbolize, and the duel meaning and the apology in her eyes made me want to protect her.

The second most important thing you should know about Bouguereau is that his success, his selflessness, and his modesty are the very reasons why his reputation was hatefully tarnished by the jealous and the unskilled. His works were hidden, shunned, and criticized by what later came to be known as “modernist” painters and critics. “Technical and unimaginative” were the best criticisms. During the height of the modernist movement in the 1960’s, Bouguereau’s works sold for mere hundreds of dollars, and some owners of his works stored them so negligently that the paintings were damaged.

Even today, artistic bullies who could never hope to command half of Bouguereau’s skills dismiss his works, and have gone so far as to suggest that Bouguereau used a primitive form of camera to create his masterpieces, because no mere human could possibly draw or paint that well. This form of slander is popular, and often repeated.

Lastly, remember that Bouguereau was progressive for his time. Bouguereau, along with other artists in his time, advocated for the integration of women into art schools. He opened his personal atelier to women students, and pushed for them to be admitted into official art schools and courses. Due to his efforts, and the efforts of other like-minded artists, women were allowed into the Julian Academy and into the French National School of Fine Arts. (École des Beaux-Arts.)

Now, as to why I chose to display this particular painting. Bouguereau is known for painting mythical and religious fantasy and for painting poor waifs. I’ve read of both subjects being criticized for various reasons and will take this opportunity to point out that Bouguereau’s goal was to paint beauty, and his gift to us was the ability to see beauty in everyone and paint it so we could see it too.

This painting, called “The Wave” (La Vague) and painted in 1869 shows how Bouguereau not only paints beauty, but how he paints emotion. The woman in this painting is glad – joyful and content and a bit playful. She gazes as if the viewer is her lover. Briefly I can imagine myself as her consort and share this moment with her. Here is a woman who is unselfconsciously happy to be where she is, and is happy to share the moment with her intimate viewer.

I can’t look at this painting without smiling. I use this painting to lift my spirits when I’m down. Where “Broken Pitcher” made me feel pity and protectiveness, “The Wave” makes me want to run hand in hand, throwing rocks into the waves while laughing.

That’s the power of art. And Bouguereau is a master of this power.


John said...

The emotion in “Broken Pitcher” made me somewhat weepy. I got tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat. I know what a broken pitcher is supposed to symbolize, and the duel meaning and the apology in her eyes made me want to protect her.

In Fronia Wissman's biography of Bouguereau, she wrote that the broken pitcher in Academic painting represents a loss of innocence.

Anonymous said...

I am sorry, but could you look at her hands in La Vague? Do you not see how they are bent as if grasping a table edge? The sand is even painted to fit her palms, making strange, unnatural cubic shapes. The nude was obviously in a different setting when this as painted. Why could Bouguereau not paint her hands to naturally lie on, or fit the shape of the sand? Maybe it IS because he was painting from a photograph?

Calladus said...

Why yes, the nude IS obviously in a different setting than is depicted. There is NO WAY that Bouguereau could "freeze" that wave just as it is cresting - so obviously the whole thing is a fraud, a juxtaposition of photographs that he "photo-shopped" together.


Never mind that the nude probably posed in a studio, that Bouguereau probably made several studies of her, and got her just the way he liked her and then filled in the background from his studies of the ocean.

Hey, I understand that it is obvious to many experts that no one can possibly paint lifelike figures without mechanical aid.

And before you answer - read my comment moderation policy. Failure to do so will result in your comment not going through.

Crritic! said...

I think the "primitive form of camera" you refer to is a Camera Obscura. It is not a "form of camera"; it is a camera. It was far from primitive but a highly sophisticated machine that pre-dated the technology for fixing a photographic image by several centuries. Photography was born when the means was developed to fix the image that appeared in the Camera Obscura permanently.

Many of the greatest artists in history used the Camera Obscura. To suggest that Bouguereau did is not a slander. Have a look at David Hockney's book "Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters". Hockney points out that the use of optics does not diminish the immensity of artistic achievement. He reminds the reader that a tool is just a tool, and it is still the artist's hand and creative vision that produce a work of art.

Calladus said...

Speaking as a video engineer who designs camera systems during my day job, a "Camera Obscura" is nothing more than a film-less pinhole camera, and therefor "primitive". Show me film, and I'll upgrade my qualification to "basic". Add a focusable lens, adjustable shutter, and a method of removing and replacing film and I'll grant it the status of modern.

You quote Hockney as an authority. I've seen Hockney's work. Maybe it's a case of those who can't, criticize? I did read his book one day while sitting in a Borders book store - and then it only took a few minutes to overturn his "camera" argument by (A) proving that Bouguereau paints from the bone structure up, and (B) proving that modern artists - some of whom I profile here - use the same technique, and don't rely on camera - primitive or modern.

Crritic! said...

Of course it's not modern by today's standards. I wasn't saying it was, only that pre-photography, the Camera Obscura was a sophisticated aid. It came in many forms, from a make-shift tent with a basic lens at the top to a beautifully constructed wooden box with reflex mirrors, lenses as good as anything made today, a frosted glass back and a flexible tripod support. Obviously it didn't have a shutter - it didn't need one. Shutters were also not a feature of early photographic cameras for most of the nineteenth century.

In Bouguereau's day, photographic cameras were comparatively more sophisticated than they were (people still use them today), and so were Camera Obscuras. The only reason the Camera Obscura is not still used today is that since the 1920s photographic cameras are so light, portable and ubiquitous, so they are a preferred option for source material. Neither of these things replace draughtsmanship or visual memory. They don't now and they didn't in Bouguereau's day.

No one would doubt the mastery of a painter like Vermeer just because he used optic devices to aid perception. The idea is absurd.

Your comment about Hockney is just ignorant. While he does some wildly distorted images, he is also one of the great draughtsmen of the 20th century. Look at his pencil drawings, particularly the early ones.

When I read your post, I wasn't aware that you were talking about this particular figure in this particular painting. Is someone saying he used the Camera on this? Drawing from the skeleton to the muscles to the skin was a mainstay of academic drawing instruction throughout the 19th century (as it still is in many studio schools) so it's not surprising that Bouguereau would have used this method. My impression of this painting (and several others of his) is that the figure is painted from life, but that the face was out of his imagination (or fantasy). It is too generalised and unspecific to belong to any real person, especially when compared to the body, which is quite specific.

Calladus said...

You know, I just don't get the human tendency to underestimate our ancestors. The pyramids and Easter Island statues are too difficult or complex to have been made by mere humans, so aliens must have done it. Humans just couldn't fly to the moon, so it must have been faked by NASA on a stage. Romantic Realism is just too perfect, so the artists must have had some sort of assistance.

To prove this, pseudoscience proponents go all over the place to put together tenuous evidence in order to make a case that falls apart upon simple examination.

Hockney doesn't say that the old great masters used lenses, he thinks they used a curved piece of reflective metal, and has even suggested a “pinhole” camera made out of a room. Your suggestion of lenses and a neat little box on a tripod, while still primative, don't coincide with Hockney's explanation of artists of DaVinci's era.

Hockney is a great draughtsman? Well then so am I. And there is a logical inconsistency here. Hockney's argument is that no one is so good that they can possibly draw realistically without aid. Following that logic makes me wonder if Hockney's skill is faked? At least I would wonder if he had more than common skill. I don't know what they taught him at the Royal College of Art, but Hockney's so-called skill is nothing more than what a graphic artist might learn at the local community college. I've seen Hockney's pencil drawings. I've seen similar skill from pencil artists in the mall who display drawings of Jimi Hendrix or Elvis.

Hockney's theory is refuted by optical analysis, by art historians, and by the methods used by modern masters – those same methods that are passed down from master to master – going back to the artists that Hockney accuses. Modern masters don't use camera obscura – so why must the old masters be restricted to such?

And evidence – there is a huge gaping lack of evidence for Hockney's theories. In artist atliers we find a conspicuous lack of lenses or even curved mirrors. Rooms that were supposedly used for pinhole cameras don't add up, and could not have put the image in a useful area, or in the area that Hockney says it did. And the mere fact that rooms will sometimes act as a pinhole camera means little. When I was 10, my bedroom had a pinhole camera affect – perhaps Hockney would argue that I or my parents meant to do that? Many of the masters kept journals – none of which mention the use of a camera obscura. You would think that DaVinci would have mentioned it!

Lastly, you seem to agree that the old masters could, if they liked, paint realistically without the need of a camera obscura. So a camera obscura becomes an unnecessarily complex additional hypothesis that could be shaved away by Occam's razor.

I've read Hockney's book, and I've seen his art. He's somewhat competent if he stays away from swimming pools and paint – but he is no where near being a “great” artist. I've also seen the 60 minutes show on Hockney's theories – and found it sensational. It made national television because it was a controversial idea, not because it was true. The evidence just doesn't support it.

Do some research to the refutations to Hockney, understand them, and then make a logical argument as to why they are wrong. Better yet, bring me evidence that modern living masters just are not skilled enough to paint realistically without aid, that they use the “paint by numbers” method that Hockney seems to be claiming. But be careful in doing so, you could leave yourself open to being sued for libel.

Anonymous said...

Okay, in your opinion, why do you think Bouguereau couldn't paint her hands in a natural way? Meaning, why go out of his way to paint sand like an edge of a table and not use his great talents to make it seem as if her hand was in/on the sand?

Calladus said...

I don't agree with your premise that her hands are painted in an "unnatural" way.

graydon said...

It wasn't the camera obscura but the camera lucida, which, by means of a prism, creates an illusion of the subject an artist can trace. The was pretty common in the 19th century. So, drawing done, or at least assisted. On to the countless other Herculean tasks like color, modeling etc. That is, there is a lot more to this kind of painting which merits great admiration.

Calladus said...

Cool. So, uh, refresh my memory. Why is it that artists in the past absolutely had to rely on this camera technique, and artists today don't bother?

graydon said...

Some artists of the past used grids, the camera obscura and the camera lucida. Today, many just use photos. Bouguereau used photos from time to time as did Gerome and many of his realist students. Its not that artists in the past used drawing aids, they did, or at least many did. Hockney, however, suggests that this is why they could produce great art in the first place. If photos made great paintings, and were indeed that useful, I would expect to find thousands of painters with Bouguereau's skill today. But we have almost none. I see little correlation between talent and tools. The calculator does not make the mathematician.

nessuno niente said...

whether he used photographs (I happen to think he did) or not is of no importance. An artist can use anything --e.g Picasso-- and produce something fascinating. Degas and even Delacroix praised the photographic image as a tool to use. But the problem with Bouguereau is that the models he used always look like 19th century models, they are never real (his shoeless peasant girls have the cleanest feet, but they walk on earth all day long). His ability to paint is astounding, no one is quite up to him, but even though he takes my breath away there is always something seriously lacking in his work. It is almost as if true art is not meant to be so "perfect", the humanity is completely drained out of his work. Had he more of a soul he would have been up there with the best of the realists (unlike that hack Gerome). No realist today comes close to Bouguereau so he is in a sense the last of a breed. By the way, I am very critical of him but 99 out of the top 100 modern artists are not as good as he is.