Fernando Botero

Fernando Botero
Fernando Botero

As we are in the middle of holiday celebrations I thought I would lighten my blog with an artist whose works always bring a smile to my face.  He is very popular, extremely talented and has a style of his own which is instantly recognisable.   Although one would not compare his works with those of Raphael or Titian, they are truly a joy to behold.  My featured artist today is the Colombian, Fernando Botero.  I will intersperse his life story with some of his paintings and I have concentrated on his version of some of the world’s greatest works by the Masters of the past.

The Dancers by Fernando Botero (1987)
The Dancers by Fernando Botero (1987)

Fernando Botero Angulo was born on April 19th 1932.  His birthplace was Medellin, an industrial town situated high up in the Colombian Andes.  He was the second of three sons of David Botero and Flora Angulo.   His mother was a seamstress and his father was a salesman and due to the mountainous terrain of his home region, had to travel around on horseback.   In 1936, when Fernando was just four years of age, his father died of a heart attack and one of his uncles became the main man in his early life.  In 1938 he starts his education at a local primary school.  He proved to be a very able pupil, so much so that at the end of his primary school education, he gained a scholarship to the Jesuit high school in Medellin.

Whereas young boys in Britain dream of being a soccer star, Fernando’s dream was to become a bull fighter and at the age of twelve, as well as his normal schooling, his uncle had him enrolled at a bull fighting school.   During his time at school he began to show a love of drawing and painting with watercolours and his first watercolour work was one of a bull-fighting scene.  His artwork improved steadily and in 1948 he, along with other aspiring artists of the regions, held a group exhibition of their work.   The following year he begins to draw illustrations for the Sunday supplement of the Medellin newspaper, El Combiano.   He finished high school in 1949, aged 17, and enrolled at the Liceo de Marinilla de Antioquia in the neighbouring town of Marinilla.   To attend this college he had to part fund his education and he did that by continuing with his illustrative work for local newspapers.  He completed his education in 1950 and after a few months working as a stage-set designer he moves to Bogotá.  He has been slowly building up a collection of his own works and in 1951 he exhibited a mix of watercolours, drawings and oil paintings at the Leo Matiz Gallery, some of which were sold.  Buoyed up by the sale of his work he takes himself off to the coast that summer and spends the time relaxing and painting.

Self-Portrait in the Costume of Velazquez by Fernando Botero (1986)
Self-Portrait in the Costume of Velazquez by Fernando Botero (1986)

In 1952 he had a second exhibition of his work which included all of his previous summer’s work.  The exhibition was an outstanding success and all his paintings were sold and he was better off by $2000.  His coffers were further filled by 7000 pesos which he received for the Second Prize at the Ninth Salon of Colombian Artists held in Bogotá.  Now with all the money he had accrued he could realise his dream of going to Europe and studying the paintings of the European Masters.  He and some of his artist friends set sail aboard an Italian liner bound for Barcelona where he arrived during late autumn.  After a short two-day stay in the Catalonian capital he went on to Madrid and enrolled at Madrid’s academy of art, the Academia de San Fernando.  He was somewhat disillusioned with the teaching he received at the academy and remained there for just two semesters.  Botero spent most of his time whilst in Madrid making many visits to the Prado where he saw the works of the great artists of the past such as Titian, Rubens, Goya and his all-time favourite, Velazquez.  He made a number of copies of the originals which he managed to sell.  In 1986 he completed a self portrait dressed as Velazquez.

The Arnolfini Portrait by Fernando Botero (1978)
The Arnolfini Portrait by Fernando Botero (1978)

Over the next few years Botero travelled around Europe.  In 1953 he lived in Paris, with his friend the film director, Ricardo Irragarri in the Place des Voges.  Although Botero falls into the category of a Modern artist he favoured the Louvre over the establishments exhibiting modern works.  It was at the Louvre that he became interested in early Italian art.  At the end of the summer of 1953, Botero and Irragarri moved to Florence.  For Botero it was love at first sight and he decided to make Florence his home, set up his studio in the Via Panicale and also enrolled at the Academia San Marco where he learnt all about fresco painting and went to art history lectures centring around 15th century Italian art, the time often referred to as the Quattrocentro.  In Florence he was then able to study the works of the Renaissance masters.  He also extensively travelled around Italy on his motorbike visiting Arezzo, Padua, Siena and Venice and at every stopping-off place he would visit the local museums and seek out the works of the great Italian painters such as Piero della Francesca, Giotto, Uccello, Carpaccio, Giorgione and Titian.

Mademoiselle Rivière (after Ingres) by Fernando Botero (2011)
Mademoiselle Rivière (after Ingres) by Fernando Botero (2011)

In all, Botero remained in Europe for four years before returning to Bogotá in March 1955.  He did not return empty-handed for during his four year European sojourn he had been continually painting and on his arrival back in Colombia he was excited to exhibit these works at the National Library in Bogotá.  His last exhibition of work in 1952 had been a sell-out and so he had high hopes for this new set of paintings.  Alas, it was a total anti-climax.  The people who came to the exhibition did not like what they saw.  They wanted to see more modern works of art and Botero was offering a more classical and academic style of paintings.  None of his works sold.  Botero was now in desperate need for money and, for a ten week period, he even took on a job as a car tyre salesman to earn enough to feed and house himself.  He then reverted to earning money by his illustrative work for magazines.

Gloria Zea by Fernando Botero (1956)
Gloria Zea by Fernando Botero (1956)

A turning point in his life came in December 1956 when he married Gloria Zea, the daughter of the liberal political leader Germán Zea Hernández.  The couple moved to Mexico where Botero believed his modern art would attain the same fame that the Mexican painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo had found.  The couple went on to have three children, Fernando born in 1957, Lina born in 1958, and Juan Carlos born in 1960.  It was also in this year that Fernando Botero first produced a work which incorporated his own inimitable style.

Still life with Mandolin by Fernando Botero (1956)
Still life with Mandolin by Fernando Botero (1956)

It was during his short stay in Mexico that Botero produced a work which was entitled Still Life with Mandolin.   This was his first work in which we saw what was termed his “puffed-up” style.   In this painting Botero had experimented with scale and volume. In the work we can see how he has puffed-up the size of the instrument and altered the true size of the hole in the instrument, out of which resonates the sound.  This unusual enlargement of shapes and people in his works of art became known as Boterismo.  When asked why he always painted fat people, he denied it.   Botero was a figurative painter but one could not label him as a realistic painter and although his paintings may be focused on his depictions, they could not be further from reality.  It is not just the people we see in his works of art who are voluminous,  all the inanimate items depicted also took on this over-sized quality.  His deformation of the people and items he depicted in his work was a transformation into his own imitable style.  One cannot compare his work to those of his favourite painters Velazquez and Raphael as that would be like comparing apples with oranges.  However there is something about his work which I find totally beguiling.  I am captivated by his over-large people.  It is a type of art which makes you smile and surely that cannot be bad.

The Death of Luis Chaleta by Fernando Botero (1984)
The Death of Luis Chaleta by Fernando Botero (1984)

Botero and his wife left Mexico and returned to Bogotá.  In 1957 he had his first solo exhibition in the United States, in Washington DC. And it was whilst he was at the exhibition he was able to study the works of the leading American contemporary artists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.  He returned to Bogotá via Mexico, fully invigorated by what he had seen in America.  He returned to his homeland and was an artistic hero.  In 1958 he was appointed professor of painting at the Bogotá Academy of Art.  He had his work exhibited at the Gres Gallery in Washington, owned by Tania Gres whom he had met the year before.  A second solo exhibition of his paintings at her gallery was staged in 1960.   More and more of his work found favour among American collectors and he spent more time away from home in the United States. He realised that to progress as an artist he had to move to America.   This may have put a strain on his relationship with his wife as in 1960 his marriage to Gloria was dissolved.

Mona Lisa, Age Twelve by Fernando Botero (1959)
Mona Lisa, Age Twelve by Fernando Botero (1959)

Botero moved to America and set up his studio in an apartment in Greenwich Village during the winter of 1960.  The sales of his work slowed down and he was living a frugal and somewhat lonely existence.  Botero was a fighter and his determination carried him through these inauspicious and difficult times when money was tight, rejection of his work was the norm and his paintings often received unfavourable reviews from the art critics and his New York colleagues who belonged to the Abstract Expressionist school.  However in 1961 he was given the Guggenheim International award for his painting entitled The Battle of the Arch-Devil and his big break came in 1963.  The Metropolitan Museum in New York had on display Michelangelo’s Mona Lisa and to counter this attraction the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art decided to buy Botero’s 1959 work entitled Mona Lisa, Aged 12 and had the large square canvas (211cms x 195cms) hung in the foyer of their museum.  It caused a sensation and overnight Botero became famous in the city.  One thing led to another and soon Botero was the toast of the city and was introduced to the contemporary artists whose work he had always admired such as Pollock, Rothko, Fritz Kline and de Kooning.  With fame came fortune and he moved from his small studio to a much larger one in New York’s Lower East Side.

'Man on Horse', a bronze sculpture by Fernando Botero (1992)
‘Man on Horse’, a bronze sculpture by Fernando Botero (1992)

In 1964, Fernando Botero married for the second time.  His wife was Cecilia Zambrano.  In 1971 he rented a flat in Paris and commuted between the French capital and New York.  The couple had a son, Pedro in 1974 but a year after their son’s birth, the couple separated.  Sadly Pedro was killed in a car accident in 1979 in which Botero himself was severely injured.   As the years passed, sculpture gained great importance in Botero’s life.  In 1983 Botero moved to Pietrasanta, a Tuscan town in Italy which was famous for its foundries and numerous marble quarries. He was so taken up by his sculpture work that he spent several months each year in Italy.   However he never abandoned his painting and it was during this period that he turned out many works depicting bull-fighting which gained many favourable reviews and were much in demand for exhibitions.

Fernando Botero at an exhibition of his Abu Ghraib paintings in 1957
Fernando Botero at an exhibition of his Abu Ghraib paintings in 1957

His fame continued to grow and in 2005 he completed his most controversial series of over 80 paintings and drawings which depicted stylized renditions of prisoner abuse by American guards at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Although these works had been exhibited in Europe, it was not until 2007 that they had been shown in the United States, with the exception of a small private show at New York’s Marlborough Gallery.  On January 29th 2007, the exhibition Botero: Abu Ghraib opened at the Doe Library of the University of California at Berkeley. Forty-three works from the series were on show, each depicted the torture in Abu Ghraib. The exhibition was sponsored by the Centre for Latin American Studies. These were powerful and disturbing depictions and the prisoners’ large bodies dominated the large canvases.  People who looked at the works often spoke of how they too felt the pain and empathized with the people who suffered the dreadful conditions of their captivity.

A recent photograph of Botero and his wife Sophia Vari
A recent photograph of Botero and his wife Sophia Vari

Botero has never established a settled lifestyle and seems to be always on the move travelling between New York, his summer house in Colombia, and his apartments in New York, and Paris as well as his house in Pietrasanta.  Fernando Botero, who will be 82 in April 2014,  is currently married to his third wife, Sophia Vari, a highly respected and talented Greek sculptor.

If you would like to read more about Fernando Botero and his art,  I can recommend you buy the small, well illustrated book simply entitled Botero.  The author is Mariana Hanstein.

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Elizabeth Jane Gardner – the resolute and tenacious artist.

Elizabeth Jane Gardner by William Bouguereau (1879)
Elizabeth Jane Gardner by William Bouguereau (1879)

The artist I am looking at today is the American, Elizabeth Jane Gardner.  If you read my last blog, which was the conclusion of the life of the French Academic painter William Bouguerau, you will know that Gardner was his second wife.  This is not a story about the wife of a famous painter dabbling with art.  This is a story about the fighting spirit of an acclaimed painter – a great artist in her own right, although it has to be said that she was often criticised because much of her work resembled her husband’s genre pieces.

Elizabeth Jane Gardner was born in October 1837.  Her birthplace was the town of Exeter in the American state of New Hampshire.  It was here that she attended junior school.  After completing her regular school education in 1853, she attended the Lasell Female Seminary at Auburndale Massachusetts.  The college, which was founded in 1851, was named after its founder Edward Lasell, who was a great believer in female education.  It was at this college that Elizabeth studied languages and art.  She graduated in 1856 and for the next few years was a teacher of French at the newly opened Worcester School of Design and Fine Arts in Massachusetts.

Whilst she had been studying art at the Lasell Seminary she would often question the teaching she received but it dawned on her that the foundation of all good painting stemmed from the ability to master the art of drawing.  It was probably during the time spent in her art classes there that she nurtured the desire to one day, go to Europe and live and study art in Paris, which was then, the capital of the art world and the Mecca for all European and American artists.  This artistic ambition to savour French life and its art was probably delayed by the American Civil War and her dream was not realised until 1864, when she and her former art teacher at the Lasell Seminary, Imogene Robinson, set sail for France.  They got themselves a flat in Paris and that summer obtained licenses as copyists at the Louvre and the Musée du Luxembourg.  For the duration of that summer they fulfilled artistic commissions from America by copying paintings in the collection of the prestigious galleries which they also sold to the locals.  However Elizabeth’s main reason for coming to Paris was to receive further artistic tuition at one of the prestigious art academies and so in the autumn she applied to enter L’École des Beaux-Arts, the foremost art institution.  She was horrified that her application was rejected, not on the grounds of her ability but on the grounds of her sex.  L’École des Beaux-Arts, like many art establishments at the time, had a male-only admissions policy and refused to admit females into their hallowed corridors.  The banning of women from the L’École des Beaux-Arts was not lifted for another thirty-five years, in 1897.

Whether it was her and her American companion Imogene’s need to fulfil their initial aim for coming to France, to receive tuition from an established artist or whether it was the simple fact that the public art galleries were not heated and copying works of art in the cold establishments became less pleasant, the women gave up their commissioning work and in the winter of 1864 they looked for an artist who would provide them with some tuition.   Established artists were happy to nurture and teach aspiring artists provided they could pay.  The more the student was willing to pay the better the class of artist who would become their tutor.  Elizabeth’s companion Imogene was in a much better financial situation than Elizabeth and was able to secure Thomas Couture as her mentor and tutor whereas Elizabeth who was not as well off settled for a lesser-known painter Jean-Baptiste-Ange Tissier, whose students were mostly women.

Portrait of Elizabeth Gardener Bouguereau by her husband William Bouguereau (1895)
Portrait of Elizabeth Gardener Bouguereau by her husband William Bouguereau (1895)

Elizabeth Gardner was a resolute and determined character and was not going to be put off by red tape and sexist bureaucracy of the art academies and so devised a plan on how she would gain admission to one of the Parisian art schools.   Before she had left the shores of America, she had been ill and had lost a lot of weight and had had to have her hair cropped short.  Her figure had taken on a boyish appearance which part facilitated her ingenious plan. She decided to pose as a young lad but for a woman to walk the streets of Paris dressed as a male she had to have permission from the Paris Police Department!  The law was passed on November 17th 1800 when Paris city chiefs had placed the order on the statute books that required women to seek permission from the police if they wanted to “dress like a man.”   The order was issued at the end of the French Revolution when working-class Parisian women were demanding the right to wear pants in their fight for equal rights.  Parisian women activists, during the Revolution, had also requested the right to wear trousers as a political gesture and like their male working-class revolutionaries became known as “sans-culottes” for wearing trousers instead of the silk-knee breeches preferred by the bourgeoisie. It was modified in 1892 and 1909 to allow women to wear trousers if they were “holding a bicycle handlebar or the reins of a horse”.  Such an old fashioned law!  Actually not, for it was only in January 2013 that the French Minister of Women’s Rights, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, said that the ban was incompatible with modern French values and laws and although it had been ignored for many years it was only right that the law was officially repealed and so French officials invalidated the 213-year-old order that forbade women in Paris to dress like men and wear trousers.  The French government had been opposed to women wearing trousers for it was a simple method of preventing women, who dressed as men, from gaining access to certain offices or occupations which were male-only domains.

The rear of the Gobelin Factory (c.1830)
The rear of the Gobelin Factory (c.1830)

Elizabeth’s plan worked, for in 1865, she successfully applied to the drawing school of the prestigious Gobelin Tapestry factory which was best known as a royal factory supplying the court of Louis XIV and later monarchs.  At the beginning she was accepted as a young lad but after a while her fellow students and instructors realised that she was actually a young woman.  Whether it was because of her outstanding drawing ability or her determined personality, one may never know, but despite the discovery of her sex, she was allowed to stay.

In the Académie Julien in Paris by Marie Bashkirtseff (1881)
In the Académie Julien in Paris by Marie Bashkirtseff (1881)

One person, who was also impressed with her ability and strength of mind, was Rodolphe Julian.  He had established the Académie Julian in 1868 as a private studio, a school for art students. The Académie Julian was a kind of feeder school for art students who wanted to later gain admission to the École des Beaux-Arts as well as offering independent training in arts. At that time, women were not allowed to enrol for study at the École des Beaux-Arts, but this new Académie Julian accepted both men and women, albeit they were trained separately, but most importantly, women participated in the same studies as men, which included access to classes which taught the basis of art – drawing and painting of nude models.  The Académie Julian was particularly popular with aspiring American artists for it did not have an admission’s precursor of having to be able to speak French.

Whether it was beginners luck or just the fact that she had become a successful and talented artist but in 1868 she had two of her painting accepted by the Salon jury.  To have a painting exhibited at the Salon was a great moment in the life of an aspiring painter.  It was not just in recognition of their talent but it enhanced the value of their future works.  Elizabeth was delighted and wrote home to her parents:

“…when the ex’n opened both of mine were hung in full view among foreign artists and raises the value of what I paint…” 

Elizabeth Gardner’s works were often found in the annual Salon exhibitions and in the exhibition catalogues she, like many other artists whose works were on show, would often name the well know artists who had taught them.   This was an attempt by artists to boost their status and their “artistic bloodline”.  It is by looking at these catalogue entries that we know that Elizabeth received tuition from Hugues Merle, a contemporary and friend of Bouguereau from 1868 to 1874.  The name of the artist, Jules-Joseph Lefebvre was added in catalogues in 1875 as was the name of William Bouguereau from 1877 onwards.

Moses in the Bullrushes by Elizabeth Jane Gardner (1878)
Moses in the Bullrushes by Elizabeth Jane Gardner (1878)

In 1878 Elizabeth Gardner put forward a religious painting for inclusion at that year’s Salon.  It was entitled Moses in the Bulrushes.  She had started the work the previous year and was pleased with its progress.  In December 1877, she wrote about her progress with the work to her brother, John, who was back home in Exeter, New Hampshire:

“… I have advanced my picture of little Moses a good bit this month. The canvas is now covered and now comes what is to me the hardest part. I have always ideas enough for nice subjects but it is so hard to make the reality come up to the dream. I get sometimes quite frantic over it…” 

The work was accepted by the Salon jurists and exhibited in 1878.  The Arts critic of the American Register, a newspaper for expatriate Americans living in Paris wrote in the April 6th edition:

“…‘Miss E. J. Gardner has just completed her picture for the Salon, Moses in the Bulrushes. The subject is taken at the moment when Moses has just been placed amongst them, and his sister has parted the bulrushes to watch the approach of Pharaoh’s daughter, who is seen in the distance. The expression of anguish in the mother’s face is especially well rendered, and the coloring is remarkably fine…” 

The fact that she had put forward a religious painting for inclusion at the Salon was a brave move as history and religious paintings were looked upon as the highest form of art genre.  It was a genre that was also looked upon as being artistically, a male-only domain and female artists were often discouraged from attempting such works.  However as we know, Elizabeth Gardner was a strong-minded person and never shied away from controversy if she believed her course of action was right.  Her submission of this religious work entitled Moses in the Bullrushes, put her in direct competition with her male counterparts.  It was also interesting to note that her take on the event portrayed was from a female perspective.  She had depicted the two women, the mother of the baby and the Pharaoh’s daughter, as courageous women who were saving the life of the baby, Moses.

As the sale of her paintings increased with her popularity, so her financial situation improved.  Things got even better in the late 1870’s when the renowned Paris art dealer Goupil began purchasing her work and in the 1880’s her work was so much in demand that the prestigious Knoedler art dealership of New York, was buying her Salon paintings, sight unseen.  This art dealership had formerly been a subsidiary of the Parisian art dealers, Goupil & Cie.

Elizabeth had reached one of her most sought-after ambitions in 1868 – to have one of her paintings exhibited at the Paris Salon.  However Elizabeth was not one to rest on her laurels and her next ambition was not only to have her work hung at the Salon exhibition but that it was deemed worthy of an award.   She had to wait another nine years for that happening.

One of Elizabeth Gardner’s artistic mentors was William Bouguereau.  Elizabeth and her companion Imogene were living in a flat in rue Nôtre-Dame des Champs in the Montparnasse district of Paris, the same street in which Bouguereau and his family resided.  Elizabeth became known to the family and was on friendly terms with Bouguereau’s wife, Marie-Nelly. William Bouguereau and Elizabeth Gardner must have become quite close during this time as, eight months after the tragic death in childbirth of Bouguereau’s wife in April 1877, the grieving widower proposed marriage to Elizabeth.  Elizabeth was happy to accept but Bouguereau’s mother and daughter Henriette were horrified.  The daughter threatened to leave home and join a convent if a marriage took place but this threat was never tested as Bouguereau’s of the vociferous, sustained and obdurate opposition from his mother to the formalising of the partnership was enough to halt any proposed wedding plans.   However the couple became engaged in 1879 and Elizabeth wrote about Bouguereau, their betrothal and her thoughts about his mother.   In a letter she wrote:

“…And now about my engagement…. I am very fond of Mr Bougereau and he has given me every proof of his devotion to me.   We neither of us wish to be married at present.  I have long been accustomed to my freedom.  I am beginning to attain a part of the success for which I have been struggling so long.   He is ambitious for me as well as I for myself.  As it is I can’t help working very much like him.  I wish to paint by myself a while longer.  He has a fretful mother who is now not young, 78 I think.  She is of a peevish, tyrannical disposition and I know she made his first wife much trouble…” 

Elizabeth and Bouguereau continued to work together and seemed happy or maybe just resigned, to accept a long drawn out courtship.

The Farmer's Daughter by Elizabeth Jane Gardner (1878)
The Farmer’s Daughter by Elizabeth Jane Gardner (1878)

The realisation of Elizabeth’s ambition to be awarded a medal at the Salon came in 1887.   By this time, the popularity of her work had surged and she had been inundated with commissions but her mind was focused on her Salon entries and in December 1886, she wrote to her brother John of her desire to achieve that ultimate success:

“…I must work to get a medal in Paris and not for money a while longer.   All will come right in time I am confident if I work hard and am patient…”

In a letter to her sister Maria in January 1887, she again sounded both resolute and optimistic about her award prospects:

“…I am bound to get a medal some year…”

Finally in 1887 the Salon awarded her a medal (third class) for her work entitled The Farmer’s Daughter.  The idea for the painting came to Elizabeth whilst she was on a painting trip in the countryside.  Whilst out, the weather turned nasty and a downpour ensued.  She took refuge from the rain by sheltering in a farmer’s barn and it was whilst there that she saw the farmer’s daughter feeding the hens and ducks.  So impressed by what she saw, she decided to make a quick sketch of the scene which led to the finished prize-winning work.  The painting is a depiction of unspoiled rural living and must have been seen as a breath of fresh air in comparison to paintings by the up-and-coming Impressionists depicting city scenes and the onset of modernity.  Gardner’s tranquil scene would probably have made many people want to exit the city and sample the peacefulness and serenity of the countryside and was for the owner of such a painting, it was a reminder of how life was in simpler days.

The award she received for her work was the first and only medal that was ever bestowed on an American woman painter at the Paris Salon.  She was ecstatic and on May 30th 1887, she wrote to her brother John back in America:

“…My pictures at this year’s Salon have just received the medal which I have waited for so many years. I hasten to write you by the first mail for I know you will All sympathize with me in my happiness. The jury voted me the honor by a very flattering majority – 30 voices out of 40 ….No American woman has ever received a medal here before. You will perhaps think I attach more importance than is reasonable to so small a thing, but it makes such a difference in my position here, all the difference between that of an officer and a private, and I hope it will be a good thing for the sale of my paintings. I made an extravagant risk in my large one this year. Monsieur Bouguereau is very happy at my success. He is as usual President of the Jury, it is his great impartiality which has so long kept him in office. He has always said that I must succeed through my own merit and not by his influence. I hope to send some photos soon….I have nearly a hundred letters of congratulation and dispatches to acknowledge today. I have begun by the dear ones at home…”

This work by Elizabeth was to receive further awards when it was exhibited in the Gallery of the United States at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1889 where it was awarded a bronze medal.   To understand how great an achievement this was, one has to remember she was up against some of the finest American painters such as Thomas Eakins, William Merritt Chase and John Singer Sargent.

The Imprudent Girl by Elizabeth Jane Gardner (1884)
The Imprudent Girl by Elizabeth Jane Gardner (1884)

The work was exhibited along with another of her works, the somewhat controversial, L’imprudente (The Imprudent Girl).

Elizabeth and William Bouguereau had been courting for seventeen years, unable to marry for fear of crossing Bouguereau’s mother who was adamant that the couple should not marry.  However in 1896 his mother died aged 91 and the couple wasted no time in getting married. The colour of Elizabeth’s bridal gown was black and white because, as she explained, although it was her wedding day, she was still in mourning for Bouguereau’s mother.   The groom was 71, and the bride 59 years of age.  Elizabeth wrote home about their change in circumstances:

“… The old lady died on February 18th at the age of 91.  Her devoted son who had borne with such affectionate patience all her peculiarities was quite afflicted by the change [in her health].  He had so long had the habit of subordinating every detail of his life to her desires, of which the first was to rule without opposition in his house…”

After marrying Bouguereau, Elizabeth almost stopped painting altogether and spent most of her time looking after her husband and his studio.  When asked why she stopped painting she simply replied:

“…He was alone and needed me. I abandoned the brush…” 

She did not resume her painting career until after his death nine years later and it was then that she signed all her works in her married name.

The Shepherd David by Elizabeth Jane Gardner (1895)One other of Elizabeth Gardner’s painting of note was completed just before she married William.  It was another religious painting entitled The Shepherd David and was based on a passage from the Old Testament story (1 Samuel 17:34):

“…And David said unto Saul, “Thy servant kept his father’s sheep, and there came a lion and a bear and took a lamb out of the flock…”

The work depicts David demonstrating his worthiness to fight Goliath when he tells the tale of how he, as a shepherd, battled with wild beasts which were menacing his flock. In the painting Elizabeth has shown the young David kneeling in triumph on a dead lion while at the same time grasping a lamb under his right arm.   He looks upward towards the heavens, with his left arm raised in recognition that God had given him the strength to fight off the wild animals.  Elizabeth was proud of the painting and wrote to her sister Maria in America that she full expected to see her painting receive full-page coverage as one of the best works of art in 1895 in Goupil’s, the esteemed Parisian art dealers, art directory.

Elizabeth and William worked happily together from their studio in rue Nôtre Dame des Champs and, even at the age of 78, Bouguereau took his new wife to Italy a country he hadn’t visited since 1850 when he had won the Prix de Rome prize and the stay at the Villa Medici.  The couple would spend their summers away from the claustrophobic atmosphere of the French capital and return to the calming ambience of his birthplace, La Rochelle.  It was here that William Bouguereau died of a heart attack on August 19th 1905, three months short of his eightieth birthday.  His body was transported back to Paris and he was buried in the Cimetière de Montparnasse.

Art critics of the time often disapproved of Elizabeth’s painting style, saying that it copied too closely the style of her husband.  However Elizabeth was unrepentant and was very proud of her work and in a 1910 interview stated:

“I know I am censured for not more boldly asserting my individuality, but I would rather be known as the best imitator of Bouguereau than be nobody!”

The similarity in style between works painted by her and her husband was probably a financially astute decision as she was well aware that this genre of art, the sentimental secular works, was very popular with the public both in France and even more so in America where clients could not get enough of her and her husband’s art.

Elizabeth Jane Gardner Bouguereau, a native of New Hampshire will be remembered as the feisty young woman who challenged the French art establishment.  She was proud to be different and by so doing, signposted the way for many other women to challenge the stranglehold that males had on the world of art.   Elizabeth died at her summer residence in St. Cloud, a western suburb of Paris in January 1922 aged 84 and was buried, like her husband William, in the Cimetière de Montparnasse in Paris.

If you are interested in the life and work of Bouguereau and Elizabeth Gardner I do suggest you buy the excellent book,  Bouguereau  by Fronia E. Wissman, an author who has written or contributed to a number of books about French artists.

Adolphe-William Bouguerau. Part 3. A change of genre

Rest in Harvest by William Bouguereau (1865)
Rest in Harvest by William Bouguereau (1865)

This is my third and final look at the life and works of the Classical French artist, Adolphe-William Bouguereau.  In Part 1, I looked at his History painting Dante and Virgil and in Part 2 looked at one of his many religious works, The Flagellation of Christ. Today I want to look at a completely different type of work he began to paint at the start of the 1850’s.  Why, if his classical History paintings were so successful, did he want a change of artistic genre?  The simple answer has to be money.  The commissions he once received from the church for his monumental religious works and the private commissions for his large History paintings had dwindled and he had a growing family to support.  He needed to increase his income.

In my last blog I looked at Bougereau’s early life.  I had reached the stage when through the financial backing of his aunt and money he had accrued by painting small portraits of the parishioners, who attended his curate uncle, Eugène’s church, he could head to the art capital of the world, Paris, and continue his studies.  The year was 1846 and Bouguereau was almost twenty-one years of age.  Through the recommendation of his former tutor at L’École Municipale de Dessin et de Peinture in Bordeaux, Jean-Paul Alaux, he was accepted into the studio of François-Edouard Picot at Paris’ École des Beaux Arts.  Picot’s reputation had been built on his mythological, religious and historical paintings and so was the ideal mentor to Bouguereau who had always admired the academic History works of art. His enrolment at the prestigious art school was a dream come true for Bouguereau as such an acceptance into this celebrated art establishment was the ultimate goal of all aspiring artists and it was the beginning of becoming accepted by the official artistic fraternity.

His artistic training at L’École des Beaux Arts was the standard academic type with its rigid tenets regarding the importance of draughtsmanship, life drawing, technical proficiency and ultimately the training to become a classic History painter and Academic portraitist.  Many artists found the strict regimentation of the tuition too authoritarian and suffocating but Bouguereau was a true believer in the academic training and remained so all his life.  In 1850, at his third attempt, Bouguereau was awarded one of the two Premier Grand Prix de Rome for the best Historical painting.  It was entitled Zénobie Retrouvée par les Bergers sur les Bords de l’Araxe  (Zenobia Discovered by Shepherds on the Bank of the River Araxes).  His prize was a three year stay at the Villa Medici, the French Academy in Rome, during which time he also had the opportunity to travel around Italy and its countryside and studied and made copies of the works of the great Renaissance masters.

Fraternal Love by Bouguereau (1851)
Fraternal Love by Bouguereau (1851)

One of Bouguereau’s first paintings which saw a change in his style was completed in 1851 and was entitled Fraternal Love which can be found in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  What immediately comes to mind when you look at the scene before you?   Is it a religious or secular work?   We know that Bouguereau was a very religious man and had painted many religious works so is this simply another one?  Is this the Virgin Mary with the blonde-haired Christ Child and maybe St John?  And yet the title is a secular one with no reference to members of the Holy Family.  So let us just contemplate what we are looking at.  We see a mother and her two boys.  The younger child, who sits on his mother’s lap, holds his elder brother’s face between his chubby hands and kisses him.  The mother looks down lovingly at this demonstrative display of filial love.  She is wearing a blue dress which of course makes us immediately think of the colour blue which we see in most portrayals of the Virgin Mary.

The painting was purchased by the Boston merchant and avid art collector, Thomas Wigglesworth and at the time when he purchased the painting it was known as Madonna and Child with John the Baptist but one must remember that Bouguereau’s gave the painting the secular title of Fraternal Love and by doing so transformed the painting from a religious one into a secular genre scene and by doing so enhanced its selling prospect as there were now far more buyers who would purchase a secularized Virgin Mary than the very religious portrayal of her in Christmas Nativity scenes.

Madonna and Child with St John the Baptist by William Bouguereau (1882)
Madonna and Child with St John the Baptist by William Bouguereau (1882)

However Bouguereau did paint religious works featuring the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child and it is interesting to compare the secular painting, Fraternal Love, with the one he painted thirty years later, in 1882, entitled Madonna and Child with St John the Baptist, which is housed in the Herbert F Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.  The Christ Child in this religious work still has the curly blonde hair and John the Baptist the curly dark hair which we saw in the Fraternal Love painting.  Once again we see the close connection between the two children.  The setting for this painting, in comparison with his secular work, has a more formal setting.  It is an inside setting unlike the outside scene of Fraternal Love.  In this work the Virgin Mary is seated on a white marble throne which almost takes up the full width of the work.  Behind the throne is beautiful ornate tapestry.  The inclusion of such details adds a sense of traditional art of the great Masters which he must have witnessed during his time in Italy.  The painting is a depiction of tenderness between mother and child.  Look at the pose of the Christ child as he looks down at his friend, John the Baptist.  Even at this early age, one recognises a close bond of friendship between the two.  It has to be more than just a mere coincidence that Bouguereau has depicted the Christ child with his arms fully extended outwards in a fashion that reminds us of the crucifixion that will come in the future.

In 1854 Bouguereau returned to Paris.  Two years later, in 1856, aged 31, he married Marie-Nelly Monchablon.  The couple went on to have three sons, Georges, Adolphe-Paul and William-Maurice and two daughters, Henriette and Jeanne-Léontine.   Sadly his younger daughter, Jeanne-Léontine, died in 1866 when she was just five years old, Georges died in July 1875,  aged sixteen, but the saddest of all was that his forty-year old wife Nelly died giving birth to their fifth child, William-Maurice, in 1877 and he died a seven months later.

Pieta by Bouguereau (1876)
Pieta by Bouguereau (1876)

Two of Bouguereau’s greatest works derived from the sorrow he suffered at the death of family members.  In both works he has utilised religious themes to present to the world his grief and feeling of loss.  His 1876 work entitled Pietà was thought to be based upon the Virgin and Christ of Michelangelo’s marble Pietà. Bouguereau completed the painting shortly after the death of his son Georges.

Vierge Consolatrice - The Virgin of Consolation by William Bouguereau (1875)
Vierge Consolatrice – The Virgin of Consolation by William Bouguereau (1875)

In 1877 Bouguereau dedicated a painting to his late wife Nelly who died in childbirth and his youngest William-Maurice who was seven months old when he too passed away.  It was entitled Vierge Consolatrice (Virgin of Consolation).  In the work we see the black-clad Virgin of Consolation, once again sitting on a white marble throne behind which is a large colourful tapestry.  Lying across her lap is a young woman who grieves utterly inconsolable at the death of her child, the body of whom we see lying naked at the Virgin’s feet.  The Virgin has raised her hands in prayer.   She is the intermediary between the mother and heaven.  At first glance one would be forgiven if we looked upon this work as being merely an over-sentimental painting but understanding the circumstances surrounding it, one becomes more understanding and less cynical.  It is thought that Bouguereau, who was a staunch Catholic, gained some solace from this work after the death of his wife and baby.

The Elder Sister by William Bouguereau (1869)
The Elder Sister by William Bouguereau (1869)

In 1869, before the tragic and untimely deaths of his wife and three children, Bouguereau painted a portrait of two children and used his twelve-year old daughter Henriette and her newly born brother Adolphe-Paul as models.   The work was entitled La soeur aînée (The Elder Sister) and hangs in the permanent collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.  According to the museum, this is one of the highlights of their collection and was an anonymous gift from a lady in memory of her father.  We see Henriette sitting, perched on a rock, cradling a sleeping infant on her lap.  The capped head of the baby lolls slightly in sleep.  Henriette looks directly out at us and smiles.  She, although bare-footed, wears clean clothes.  Her skin is without a single blemish.   Even at such an early age, one knows that she will grow up to become an exquisite beauty.  The painting has a tranquil countryside setting.  Everything is “just perfect” in the depiction of the children and the background.  This portrayal strays from realism.  It is more an idealised depiction.  Bouguereau has cleverly used a various mix of colours and merged them in such a way to create an image which has a softness to it.  There is an earthiness about the work.  The colour of Henriette’s frock/tunic clothes is the brown of the ground.  It seems to almost merge in with the colour of the foreground.

For Bouguereau, the 1870’s were a very sad time in his life with the deaths of his wife and three of his children.  The only high point for him during that decade was his election to the Académie des Beaux-Arts de l’Institut de France.  Throughout his life Bouguereau was a staunch defender of the Academy and all that it stood for and the honour of being elected to become a member of the institute was one he cherished.  He wrote:

“…To become a member of the Institut…is the only public distinction I ever really wanted…” 

The Bohemian by William Bouguereau (1890)
The Bohemian by William Bouguereau (1890)

In 1890, Bouguerau completed  a work entitled The Bohemian which is sometimes referred to as Consuelo.   The young girl depicted in the painting almost fills the whole canvas.   She is a young gypsy girl and we see her seated on a stone bench on the Quai de Tournelle, which lies on the left Bank of the Seine.  In the background, across the river, we see Notre Dame cathedral and in the mid-ground we can just make out the Pont de l’Archevêché which straddles the Seine and links up the Left Bank with the Île de la Cité.  The girl looks out at us with a somewhat forlorn expression.  One cannot help but be moved by her dejected appearance.  Her clothes are shabby but the thickness of the fabric serves the purpose of keeping her warm.  Her dress is a dull grey but her multi-coloured shawl lightens up her appearance.   Her feet are uncovered which leads us to believe she is a beggar.  This assertion is further enforced as we see on her lap a violin which is the tool of her trade – begging for money.  This is not simply a painting about poverty.  In this work Bouguereau not only condemns the humiliation brought about by poverty but lauds those who strive to free themselves from destitution by virtues of their own endeavours.

One interesting aspect of this work is that we know it was changed by the artist.  How do we know that?  There is a photograph of this painting when it was “initially completed” by Bouguereau in 1889.  Bouguereau had decided to employ the photographers, Braun & Clement to photograph his complete collection of unsold works.  The photograph of The Bohemian showed a wall of bare stone behind the girl, which completely cut off any view of the River Seine or the bridge spanning it to the Île de la Cité.   It is thought that having not sold the painting that year a prospective buyer in 1890 asked for a “better” background to be added to the scene.   Bouguereau complied with the request and repainted part of the work.  There is also sign that the “8” and the “9” had been altered and over-painted with the numerals “9” and “0”, changing the completion date from 1889 to 1890.

The Young Shepherdess by Bouguereau (1885(Bouguereau painted many works featuring peasant girls.  This was an extremely popular subject in 19th century paintings.  For French artists of the time, including William Bouguereau the country peasant was somebody who lived a simple and honest life and got by through their laudable work ethic.  For the city dwellers who had not rubbed shoulders with a peasant they formed their visual understanding of who peasants were from the shepherds and shepherdesses with their multi-coloured clothes whom they saw depicted in Italian opera and theatre.  Bouguereau’s depiction of peasants was almost all of women and girls.  The setting for his portrayals of them and what they wore was often the same –  simple white blouses, overdresses of muted colours and thick material, set off by multi-coloured and multi-patterned shawls.  The female peasant was depicted bare-footed and  standing, seated or lying in some country scene such as a field or wood.  Bouguereau tended to steer clear of any other countryside indicators such as farming equipment or farm animals such as grazing sheep or cows.

Bouguereau, like all artists, needed to sell his work.  His clients were often middle and upper-middle class Parisians and the one thing the buyers did not want to be reminded of was the inequalities of life.  They did not want to be made to feel guilty about the social realities of their life and those of the peasant classes.   Unlike some of his contemporaries who were social realist painters and wanted to “accuse” through the depiction of the lower classes in their paintings highlighting how they suffered under an unjust economic system, Bouguereau’s depiction of peasant girls was all about their beauty, and little to do with any resentment or  condemnation of the class system.  His depiction of the peasant class was often very moving if, on occasions, heart-rending, but the peasants were never depicted as being threatening.   An artist and contemporary of Bouguereau, René Ménard,  wrote of Bouguereau’s depiction of the female peasants:

“… Rusticity is not with this painter and instinctive sentiment, and he paints a patched petticoat he yet suggests an exquisitely clean figure:  the naked feet he gives peasant-women seem to be made rather for elegant boots than for rude sabots; and, in a word, it is as if the princesses transformed into rustics by the magic wand in fairy tales had come to be models for his pictures, rather than the fat-cheeked lasses whose skin is scorched by the sun and whose shoulders are accustomed to heavy burdens…” 

After the death of his wife Nelly in 1877, Bouguereau lived in his house in Paris with his mother and two surviving children, Henriette and Adolphe-Paul and had taken up a post as professor at the Académie Julian in Paris.   This was a more liberal art establishment which allowed women to attend classes.  He was well thought of by his students, especially the women who idolised him.   The female artists were very appreciative of his training method and the skill he used when working with them in a lead-up to them establishing professional artistic careers.   Many of his female students were Americans and one in particular, Elizabeth Jane Gardner, fell under his spell.  She, as well as being a student of Bouguereau, was also friendly with his late wife.   Elizabeth was twelve years younger than Bouguereau.  Between teacher and student, there developed a mutual admiration which turned to love.  He told his mother and daughter Henriette that he intended to marry Gardner.  The only rock blocking this path of true love was Bouguereau’s mother.  She was a very religious person who had never been happy with the way her son had depicted so many nude figures in his classical works.  When it came to Bouguereau falling for another woman after his wife’s death, she was vociferous in her opposition to Bouguereau and Gardner marrying or living under the same roof as her and his children and so the pair’s courtship had to become more discreet and lasted almost twenty years until Bouguereau’s mother died.  Shortly after her death, in 1896, the couple married.  He was 71 and she was 59.

His daughter Henriette also married around that time, and Bouguereau was happy with her choice of husband.  However in 1900, tragedy was to strike again with his son Adolphe-Paul, who was a lawyer,  suddenly dying.  He was just thirty years old.  Bouguereau was devastated and it precipitated a deterioration of his health.  Despite this, he continued to paint and exhibit his works at the Salon.  He contracted a heart disease which although he fought hard to survive, he died a few months short of his eightieth birthday, in August 1905 at his home in rue Verdière in La Rochelle, the town where he was born.

Near the end of his life he described his love of his art:

“…Each day I go to my studio full of joy; in the evening when obliged to stop because of darkness I can scarcely wait for the next morning to come if I cannot give myself to my dear painting I am miserable…” 

Bouguereau was a workaholic.  He once sent a letter to his first wife in which he wrote:

“…When I cannot work, I am unhappy…”

And in a diary entry he wrote:

“…I rise every day at seven and breakfast then paint all day, with a light lunch at three which doesn’t interrupt my work…” 

He was always a firm believer in Academic art and Academic teaching.  He never wavered and he was often ridiculed for this view of how art should be.  La peinture bouguereauté was the derisory term given to French Salon artists and to students who painted badly!

During his lifetime he painted eight hundred and twenty-six paintings. To many people, Bouguereau was one of the greatest classical painters of his time, and some even compared him to Raphael.   However along with his admirers he had his fair share of detractors who criticized him. One such group of artists were the Impressionists who were hell-bent to rid themselves of  the shackles of traditional schools of painting. To them artists like Bouguereau were a regressive influence and hindered their move towards a new style of art.  To many people Bouguereau’s art was overburdened with sentimentality and that it was over-romanticizing.  To some, however, his art is full of beauty, compassion and piety.  I will leave you to decide which view you subscribe to.

As usual I have collated lots of information from the internet and reference books but most of the information was gleaned from an excellent book I treated myself to and which is yet another addition to my collection.  If you are interested in Bouguereau and his work I do suggest you buy it.  It is not expensive but is a true gem.  The title is Bouguereau and is by Fronia E. Wissman, an author who has written or contributed to a number of books about French artists.

Adolphe-William Bouguereau. Part 2 – The painter of Religious Scenes and his painting The Flagellation of Christ

Photograph of William Bouguereau (c.1870)
Photograph of William Bouguereau (c.1870)

My blog today looks at another of Bouguereau’s great history paintings.  This is one of his religious works and has all the ferocity of his painting Dante and Virgil, which I featured in my last blog.  Whether you are a lover of religious historic paintings or not, I defy you to be unmoved by the beauty of this work.  Bouguereau was a devout catholic and looked upon his religious paintings as a form of his worship of both God and mankind.  Bouguereau’s religious belief can be plainly seen in his religious works.  The painting I am featuring today is entitled The Flagellation of Christ, which he completed in 1880. Before I discuss the painting let me tell you a little about his life.

Adolphe-William Bouguereau was born in the French Atlantic coastal town of La Rochelle in November 1825.  His father was Theodore Bouguereau, a seller of wine and olive oil.  His father struggled to make much money from his business and because of the financial hardship and family tensions William was sent to live with his uncle Eugène Bouguereau, who was curate in the town of Montagne, some twenty kilometres from Bordeaux.   This enforced move to his uncles was to prove highly fortuitous for the young boy as it was his uncle who introduced him to the world of Roman and Greek mythology and had him read the stories from the Old and New Testaments.  At the age of thirteen, William’s uncle arranged for him to attend the high school at Pons where he attended his first drawing classes under the guidance of Louis Sage, a young classical painter who had once studied under Ingres.   He remained at the school for three years.  In 1841, he eventually moved to Bordeaux where his father had set up his business and once again William was with his family.  William joined in his father’s business but at the same time, in 1842, he was allowed to enrol on a two-year part-time course at the city’s École Municipale de Dessin et de Peinture.  Here he studied under  Jean-Paul Alaux, the French landscape painter and lithographer.  He could not attend full-time because of his promise to help his father during the day, and so, he only attended art classes in the early morning and in the late evening.  Despite being a part-time student he excelled in what he did and in 1844 he won first prize for the best History painting with his depiction of Saint Roch.     Following this award William Bouguerau realised that his future was indelibly tied to art.  To earn some money for himself he designed lithographic labels for jars of jams and other preserves.

Bouguereau realised that to progress with his art he needed to be in Paris which was, at that time, considered the capital of the art world.   However to live in the French capital required money, a commodity he lacked.  His father’s business was not successful enough for him to give his son the money but fortunately for William, his uncle Eugène, the curate, once again proved to be his salvation.  He arranged for William to paint portraits of his parishioners for a fixed fee and after months of portraiture he had amassed nine hundred francs.  A similar sum was given to him by his aunt and he was all set to head to Paris.

The Flagellation of Christ by William Bouguereau (1880)
The Flagellation of Christ by William Bouguereau (1880)

In my third and final blog about Bouguereau I will finish his life story but for today I want to focus on another of his great History paintings, his religious work entitled The Flagellation of Christ.   He exhibited this work at the 1880 Paris Salon.  It is a monumental work measuring 390 x 210 cms (almost 13ft high and 7ft wide).  One can easily imagine how it stood out from all the other works on show at the exhibition. This is acknowledged as being one of Bouguereau’s greatest religious works.  In this painting, Bouguereau has depicted Christ, tied to a column.  Christ’s body hangs down almost lifelessly with his feet dragging on the ground.  His head droops backwards.  His eyes are blank and unfocused. He is utterly powerless.  He can do little to stop the ferocious onslaught.  Unlike Bouguereau’s painting Dante and Virgil which I featured in the last blog, he has made no attempt to exaggerate the musculature in his portrayal of Christ’s body.  The body of Christ is that of a normal human being.  It is just like ours and in doing this Bouguereau has allowed us more easily to empathise with Christ’s suffering and pain.

A look of concern
A look of concern

We see Christ’s tormentors, two men, who stand on either side of him, arms raised in mid swing with their knotted rope whips airborne.  In the right foreground we see a third man kneeling.  He is in the process of tying up birch branches which will be used later to flagellate their prisoner.  Look at his facial expression.  It is one of concern.  It appears that maybe he is not convinced that what he sees before him is justified.  It is if he is beginning to question his part in the flogging.    In the background an inquisitive crowd gather to witness the flogging.  This is not a leering and jeering crowd we have seen in many of the crowd scenes in Northern Renaissance works.  This group of people cannot be likened to the snarling mob we have seen in earlier Passion of Christ depictions.

A child looks on
A child looks on

An old man in the crowd, maybe the father, lifts a baby aloft for him or her to get a better view.  There is little sign of compassion on the faces of the crowd.  Maybe they have accepted the charges that have been laid against Christ and feel that he needed to be punished.  However there is one exception.

Look closely at the far left of the background.  We see a young boy in a long green tunic who has turned away in horror of what is happening and has burrowed his head in the clothing of the woman who has wrapped her arm around him in a comforting gesture.  Maybe it is his mother.  Maybe she is horrified by what her young son has witnessed and is trying belatedly to protect him.  In the mid-background, there is a man wearing a white vest and grey headband.  He grips a sheath of birch branches and is readying himself to take part in the flogging.  There are a number of examples where the artist has decided to insert his own image into a work and Bouguereau has done the same in this painting.

The artist looks on
The artist looks on

Look at the face in the background to the right of the man wearing the white top and head band.  There, gazing between the spectators is a man with red hair and a red beard.  His brow is furrowed signifying his unease of what he sees before him.  This is believed to be the face of the artist himself.  He, like us, looks on at the terrible scene.

The size of the work almost certainly precluded the sale of it to a private individual and in 1881 Bouguereau gave it to the Society of Friends of the Arts in his home town of La Rochelle.  This majestic work can now be found at the Baptistery of La Rochelle Cathedral, France. 

Bouguereau never lost his love of Greek and Roman mythology which he had been brought up on from early age by his uncle Eugène.   As I said earlier, Bouguereau was a very religious man and religious imagery was a persistent theme in his paintings.   Often his religious works focused on sad and moving events and it is believed they mirrored the anguish and suffering he endured with the loss of loved ones in his own life, which I will talk about  next time.

Adolphe-William Bouguereau. Part 1 – The History Painter and his painting, Dante and Virgil

Self Portrait by William Bouguereau (1879)
Self Portrait by William Bouguereau (1879)

In my next three blogs I want to look at the life and some of the works of one of the greatest and most prolific nineteenth century French painters, Adolphe-William Bouguereau.   At a time when many of his contemporaries were railing against academic art, Bouguereau was a staunch supporter of it.  He was a pure traditionalist.  So why did he support the establishment’s stance on art and the establishment’s method of training aspiring artists when many of his contemporaries were vociferous in their condemnation of all that the art establishment stood for?  To answer that question, one must look at the way art was taught in France or more precisely in the case of Bouguereau,  how it was taught in Paris which was then considered the art capital of the world.  Artistic training in that city was centred on the government-sponsored art school, the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, which was founded in the mid seventeenth century as the Académie des Beaux-Arts and once it had become independent from the government in 1863 changed its name to L’École des Beaux-Arts.

Viila Medici, the French Academy in Rome
Viila Medici, the French Academy in Rome

It was here that young men (women were not admitted until 1898) were taught how to draw.   The actual teaching of putting paint on canvas was carried out in private studios which were often run by the professors of the school.   Artistic training was thorough and aspiring artists had to reach high standards before they were allowed to proceed with the course.  They would also have to enter work into a number of in-house competitions.  The most prestigious award being the Prix de Rome, which was given to the artist who submitted the best History painting.  Bouguereau won the coveted Prix de Rome in 1850, with his painting  Zenobia Found by Shepherds on the Banks of the Araxes. His reward was the chance to attend the Villa Medici, which was the French Academy in Rome, and remain there for four years.  During that time the student would have the opportunity to study the classical art of the Italian Renaissance masters.  The reason why the French art establishment believed that this was so important was their belief that no artist had ever achieved the level of excellence attained by the likes of Raphael, Titian or Michelangelo.  In their opinion, every aspiring artist was duty bound to emulate this type of art.

The Parisian art establishment which oversaw the running of L’École des Beaux-Arts issued artists with an official list detailing which genre of paintings they considered more important than others.  This hierarchy of genres was headed by History painting and the reason for that was that it somehow represented all the artistic skills the young artists had been taught during their passage through the Academy system. History paintings were generally very large works, and thus were nearly always destined to be hung in public places such as in churches, or the spacious rooms of government buildings or on gallery walls. History paintings delved into the world of classical, mythological, literary and religious events which had taken place in bygone days. Within this top-placed genre there was the allegorical works which, through their depiction, carried symbolic messages about good and evil. It was in these works that the depiction of nude figures, were considered acceptable and it was from years of studying the human figure in life drawing classes at the Academy that the aspiring artists were able to skilfully show off what they had been taught.

Once an artist had trained at the academy, he and later she, had to face up to the fact that to survive they had to sell their work.  In the past the government, the church and the wealthy aristocracy were the buyers of art works but it soon became obvious that their commissioning power was becoming limited and the new buyers of art were the Parisian people of middle and upper-class standing who had the money and wanted to fill their grand houses with fine art.  So where could these new buyers get their hands on fine works of art?  Parisian art dealers such as Paul Durand-Ruel and Adolphe Goupil did not become buyers and sellers of art until the mid nineteenth century.  Before then the most prestigious way of selling your paintings was to get them accepted at the Paris Salon’s annual exhibition.  Simply referred to as the Salon, it began in 1725 as the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. These were massive exhibitions in which artist’s works, once they had passed the scrutiny of the Salon jurists, were exhibited floor-to-ceiling and on every available inch of wall space.   Potential buyers were then able to see, in one space, the art work that was on offer.  One can therefore realise that for a work to sell, not only had it to be pleasing on the eye of a potential buyer but it had to have been hung in a prominent position at the Salon exhibition.  The advantage the History painters had over others was the monumental size of their works which often dwarfed their “competition” and therefore were always placed in a prominent position.  

Dante And Virgil by William Bouguereau (1850)
Dante And Virgil by William Bouguereau (1850)

In my next two blogs I want to look at two monumental history painting completed by Bouguereau, one secular, the other religious, but both follow the artistic traditions laid down by the Academy.   Today I am featuring the secular work, entitled Dante and Virgil in Hell, which is housed at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.  This is a truly breathtaking work and is a prime example of classic art with so much attention paid to the musculature of the human body.  The first thing that strikes one about this painting is its unfettered ferocity, which has the effect of either you wanting to turn away from it in shock or you stare at it in a mesmeric state.

The setting for the work comes from Dante Alghieri’s 14th century epic poem, The Divine Comedy, which recounts the journey made by Dante through Hell along with his guide the ancient Roman poet, Virgil.  The poem tells us that Hell is made up of nine concentric circles within the bowels of Earth.  Each of the circles houses people who have committed certain types of sin.  Bouguereau’s painting depicts the two travellers arriving at the Eighth Circle of Hell.  This is the Circle which houses the deceased falsifiers.   This Circle, nicknamed Malebolge (evil pouches) is unlike the other Circles for it is surrounded by a wall of dull iron-coloured stone, and the valley itself is divided into ten secondary circles or pouches.  The setting for Bouguereau’s work is the tenth pouch of the eighth Circle of hell. We see Dante and Virgil watching a fight between two damned souls. 

So who are the two main characters depicted fighting in the painting and why are they condemned to stay in this Circle of Hell, which is the home of alchemists, counterfeiters, perjurers, and imposters?  Dante Alghieri would have known about the two men.  One is Capocchio, a heretic and alchemist from Sienna who was put to death by public burning at the stake in August 1293.  The other is Gianni Schicchi who is condemned to Hell for impersonating Buoso Donati and making his will highly favourable to himself.  The story goes that after the wealthy Florentine, Buoso Donati, died in 1299; his relatives conducted a frenetic search for his will.  The will was eventually found but to the relatives’ horror Donati had left most of his money and possessions to the local monks. The relatives then turn to the scheming but ingenious Gianni Schicchi, who has the gift of mimicry, to help them find a solution and save their inheritance.   Schicchi has no love for the money-grabbing relatives but however agrees to impersonate Buoso Donati, as nobody, other than the relatives, knows of his death.  Schicchi successfully passes himself off as the deceased Donati and changes the will.  The irony is that Schicchi, in changing the will, ends up giving himself most of the possessions belonging to the dead man.  The relatives were powerless to do anything as they were involved in the deception!   This usurping the identity of a Donati in order to fraudulently claim his inheritance has condemned him to the Eighth Circle of Hell.

The bite to the throat
The bite to the throat

The foreground of the painting is well lit and like the powerful light almost acts as a spotlight which has picked out the two fighting adversaries, Schicchi and Capocchio, in the foreground,.  Capocchio, the heretic and alchemist is attacked and bitten on the throat by Gianni Schicchi, the usurper.  He acts like a vampire.  In the background shadows we see Dante and Virgil standing together.  Virgil is dressed in a red cloak and hat and Dante is dressed in grey.  Virgil looks down at the fighters but Dante has covered his mouth in horror at what he sees before him.  However Dante’s eyes are not fixed on the fighting but at something to the right, out of picture.  So what is he looking at?   Maybe it is more naked writhing bodies similar to those which we see below the winged demon.  

Dante and Virgil the onlookers
Dante and Virgil the onlookers

Virgil has taken hold of Dante and wants him to move on away from this horrific scene.  Hovering above them is a flying demon which we see depicted against the fiery red background of Hell. 

The smiling flying demon
The smiling flying demon

The demon has a wide smile as he sees the men below tearing each other apart.  On the floor by the fighting couple we see a man wracked in pain, the punishment for his past sins. 

Nails dig into flesh and draw blood
Nails dig into flesh and draw blood

Look carefully how Bouguereau has embellished the muscle structure of the two men.  Look how the distortion of the bodies in their over-elaborate poses has added an animal-like ferocity to the painting.  I particularly like the way Bouguereau has exaggerated the depiction of Schicchi’s violent stretching of Capocchio’s skin, his finger nails starting to draw blood whilst his knee, which has slammed into Capocchio’s back, bends his victim’s spine.

The 19th century French art critic and poet Théophile Gautier was very complimentary about Bouguereau’s painting, saying:

“…Gianni Schicchi throws himself at Capocchio, his rival, with a strange fury, and Monsieur Bouguereau depicts magnificently through muscles, nerves, tendons and teeth, the struggle between the two combatants. There is bitterness and strength in this canvas – strength, a rare quality!..” 

It is a magnificent work of art albeit a very disturbing one.   In my next blog I will feature another of Bouguereau’s history paintings, a religious one, which like today’s work has an undeniable feel of savagery, which makes the viewer nervously unsettled by what they see before them.

Judith Leyster and Tulip madness

The Merry Company by Judith Leyster (1630)
The Merry Company by Judith Leyster (1630)

Of my featured artist today, the Dutch Golden Age writer and poet Theodorus Schrevelius wrote in his 1648 book about the history of Haarlem entitled Harlemias:

“…There also have been many experienced women in the field of painting who are still renowned in our time, and who could compete with men. Among them, one excels exceptionally, Judith Leyster, called “the true Leading star in art…” 

Judith Jans Leyster was born in Haarlem in July 1609.  She was the eighth child of Jan Willemsz Leyster who was a cloth maker and owner of a local brewery, which was called Ley-ster (guide or leading star).  It is thought that her initial artistic tuition came from Frans Pieter de Grebber.   De Grebber, a member of the local painters’ guild, Haarlem Guild of St Luke, was a landscape artist and portraitist, who also designed tapestries. The reason for this belief is that the chronicler of life in Haarlem at that time, Samuel Ampzing, mentioned Judith Leyster in his 1628 book about life in Haarlem, Beschrijvinge ende Lof der stad Haelem in Holland.  He commented that Leyster, then 19 years old, was a painter who had “good and keen insight”.   It was interesting to note that he also made the comment: “Who has ever seen paintings by a daughter?” which alluded to the fact that it was very unusual for a female to become a professional painter and furthermore, in 1633, she was one of only two females in the 17th century who had been accepted as a master in the Haarlem Guild of St Luke.  The first woman registered was Sara van Baabbergen, two years earlier.

It was around this time that Judith’s family left Haarlem and moved some forty kilometres to the southwest and went to live in Vreeland, a town close to the provincial capital Utrecht.  Utrecht in the 1620’s was the home of the group of artists known as the Utrecht Caravaggists.  These painters, such as Dirck van Baburen, Hendrick ter Brugghen, and Gerrit van Honthorst had spent time in Rome during the first two decades of the 17th century and, in the Italian capital, it was a time when Caravaggio’s art was exerting a tremendous influence on all who witnessed his works and by the early 1620s, his painterly style of chiaroscuro, was wowing the rest of Europe.   Whether Judith Leyster mixed with these painters or just picked up on their style is in doubt as the family stayed in the Utrecht area less than twelve months, moving to Amsterdam in the autumn of 1629 but two years later Judith returned to her home town of Haarlem.

It is known that she met Frans Hals when she was in Haarlem but although many of Leyster’s work resembled Hals’ work, both in style and genre, art historians are not in agreement as to whether she was ever actually Hals’ pupil or simply an admirer.  Leyster’s paintings were secular in nature and she never painted any religious works.   Although she is known to have painted a couple of portraits she was, in the main, a genre painter, recording on canvas the life of everyday people.  They were, generally speaking, joyous in their depiction and were extremely sought after by wealthy merchants.

Self Portrait by Judith Leyster (1835)
Self Portrait by Judith Leyster (1835)

Her famous self-portrait was completed around 1630 when she was twenty-one years of age and could well have been her entrance piece for the Haarlem Guild of St Luke’s.  In the work, she is at her easel, palette and an array of eighteen paint brushes in her left hand.  Her right arm is propped against the back of her chair and a brush, held in her right hand is poised ready to carry on painting the work we see on her easel.  She has turned towards us.  She is relaxed and seems to have broken off from painting to say something to whoever is in her studio.  The first things we notice are that the clothes she is wearing.  These would not be the ones she would wear when she was painting.  They are too good for such a messy job to be worn by somebody who is painting.  Her skilful depiction of her clothes allude to her social status and her depiction of them is a fine example of the up-to-date female fashion. Also consider, would a painter working on a painting really be clutching all eighteen of their brushes at the same time?   Of course not!   This is more a painting in which Judith Leyster is intent on promoting herself.  Through this self- portrait she is eager to reveal herself, her painterly skills and her social standing.  In this one painting she is advertising her ability to paint a merry genre scene as seen by the painting of the violin player on the easel.  This depiction of a musician was similar to the one depicted in her 1630 work entitled The Merry Company, which she completed around the same time as this self-portrait.  Of course this being a self-portrait it has also highlighted her ability as a portraitist.  It is interesting to note that when this painting was subjected to infrared photography it was found that the painting on the easel was Leyster’s own face and so one has to presume she originally intended that this painting would be a quirky “self-portrait within a self-portrait”, but presumably, Leyster on reflection, decided to have the painting on the easel represent another facet of her painterly skills – that of a genre painter.  This was her most successful and profitable painting genre with its scenes of merrymakers.  It was this type of work which was extremely popular with her clientele, who wanted to be reminded of the happy and enjoyable times of life.  Although Leyster was proficiently skilled as a portrait artist the art market was already crowded with popular portraitist and so, probably for economic reasons, she decided to concentrate on her genre paintings.

Judith Leyster's signature
Judith Leyster’s signature

Around 1629 she set up a studio on her own and started to add her own signature to her works.  Her signature or moniker was an unusual and clever play on her surname “Leyster”.  Lei-star in Dutch means “lode star” or “polestar” a star often used by sailors to navigate by and she was often referred to as a “leading star” in the art world, and so she used this play-on-words to create a special signature: a monogram of her initials with a shooting star.  She must have been successful at selling her works of art as soon she had employed three apprentices.  It is interesting to note that she had a falling out with Frans Hals who had “illegally” poached one of her apprentices and the whole matter ended up in court at which time Hals was made to apologise and make a payment to her for his action.

The Jolly Toper by Judith Leyster (1629)
The Jolly Toper by Judith Leyster (1629)

Judith Leyster completed many genre pieces in which she portrayed people as being happy with their lot in life.  Settings were often inside taverns but whereas with other Dutch artists who tended to portray the tavern dwellers with a moralistic tone around the evils of drink and the repercussions of becoming a heavy drinker, Leyster wanted to focus more on people enjoying themselves.  A good example of that was her 1630 painting which is in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum entitled The Jolly Toper or The Merry Drinker which is considered to be one of her finest works.

The Merry Drinker by Frans Hals (1628-30)
The Merry Drinker by Frans Hals (c.1628)

However with this painting came the assertion by many critics that she was merely a copier of Frans Hals style of painting, such as her choice of subjects and her brushwork.  Hals had completed his own painting The Merry Drinker in 1630 so I will leave you to decide whether there are more similarities between Leyster and Hal’s paintings other than the subject matter.

The Last Drop (The Gay Cavalier) by Judith Leyster (c.1639)
The Last Drop (The Gay Cavalier) by Judith Leyster (c.1639)

Although Leyster’s genre scenes would often focus on happiness and merriment with no moralistic judgement, she did occasionally focus on the darker side of life and a good example of this can be seen in her 1639 painting which is housed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, entitled The Last Drop (The Gay Cavalier).  It is a vanitas work, meaning it is a work of art which in some way symbolises the brevity of life.   In the work we see two men dressed in festive clothing having an enjoyable time drinking and smoking.  The fact that they are not just celebrating but are also dressed up for the occasion has led people to believe that this merriment is taking place on the Dutch holiday of  vastelaovend, which we know as Shrove Tuesday, the day before the start of Lent.  This was the day when people took advantage of the last day of merrymaking before the forty days of Lent abstinence and fasting.  However it is not just the two revellers that Leyster has depicted in the drinking scene, for between them we see a skeleton.  The skeleton holds an hour-glass in one bony hand and a skull and a lit candle in the other.  The candle both casts a shadow on the seated drinker but at the same time lights up the cavalier’s face.   The skull, burning candle and hour-glass are classic symbols of a vanitas painting which have the sobering effect of reminding us of the brevity of life and the inevitability of death.  There is no interaction between the drinkers and the skeleton which is probably an indication that as they have imbibed so much alcohol the thought of death never crosses their mind.  Look at the expression on the face of the cavalier dressed in red.  It is one of blankness and stupidity which we have often witnessed when we look into a face of a drunkard.  At that moment in time, he has no concern about his own mortality.   One final comment about this work is that it is a good example of how Leyster utilised a style of painting which was associated with the Italian painter Caravaggio and his Dutch followers, the Utrecht Caravaggists, whom Leyster would have seen earlier in her career.  It is known as tenebrism which is where the artist has depicted most of the figures engulfed in shadow but at the same time, have some of them dramatically illuminated by a shaft of light usually from an identifiable source, such as a candle as is the case in this painting, or from an unidentifiable source, off canvas.

A Boy and a Girl with a Cat and an Eel by Judith Leyster (c.1635)
A Boy and a Girl with a Cat and an Eel by Judith Leyster (c.1635)

On a lighter note I offer you another painting with a moral, but somewhat more humorous, which Judith Leyster completed around 1635 and is entitled A Boy and a Girl with a Cat and an Eel.  It is a visual joke with a moralising tale.  It is one of those paintings, typical of Dutch genre scenes, in which you have to look carefully at all who and what are depicted in the painting so as work out what is going on.  See if you can fathom it out.

The two main characters are a boy and a girl.  The boy has a cheeky smile on his face.  He has enticed the cat to join them by waving a wriggling eel which he now holds aloft, having grabbed the cat.   The little girl has now grabbed the tail of the cat, which in a state of shock and fear.  It is desperate to get away from the pair of young tormentors and has extended its claws and about to scratch the boy’s arm in an attempt to escape his clutches.  The young girl who has a face of an older woman, admonishingly wags her finger at us – so why is she so censorious?   It is believed that she is smugly warning us against foolish and mischievous behaviour alluding to the Dutch saying: ‘He who plays with cats gets scratched’.  In other words he who seeks trouble will find it. Although children are depicted in this moralising scene, it is more a warning to adults about their behaviour and many Dutch artists who painted genre scenes with a moral twist frequently used children to put over their moral message.

In the late 1630’s, a strange phenomenon occurred in the Netherlands, which had been brewing for a number of years.   It became known as Tulpenwoede (tulip madness) which saw the price of tulip bulbs rocketing.   It all began when some tulip contracts reached a level which was about 20 times the level of three months earlier.   In one particular case a rare tulip known as Semper Augustus, which had been valued at around 1,000 guilders per bulb  ten years earlier was fetching a price of 5,500 guilders per bulb in  January 1637.  This meant that one of these bulbs was worth the cost of a large Amsterdam house.  Many people, who watched the rising value of the tulip bulb, wanted part of the action.  People used their life savings and other assets were cashed in to get money to invest in these bulbs, all in the belief and expectation that the price of tulip bulbs would continue to rise and they would suddenly become rich.  Alas as we have all seen when a thing is too good to be true, it usually is, and by the end of February 1637 the price of a tulip bulb had crashed and many people lost their savings.

Tulip by Judith Leyster
Tulip by Judith Leyster
from her Tulip Book

However the rising value of the tulip bulb came as a boon to floral artists for if people could not afford the actual tulips for their gardens or pots the next best thing was to have a painting of them and even better still would be to have a book full of beautiful depictions of different tulips.   Judith Leyster realised that the public’s love of tulips could be advantageous for her and she produced her own book of tulips.

Flowers in a vase by Judith Leyster (1654)
Flowers in a vase by Judith Leyster (1654)

In 1636 Judith Leyster married Jan Miense Molenaer, another genre painter, and the two of them set up a joint studio and art dealing business.  They moved to Amsterdam as the opportunity to sell their works of art was better and there was also a greater stability in the art market.  Judith went on to have five children and the role of mother and housekeeper meant that her art output declined.  Until recently it was thought that her artistic output had all but ceased, that was until the run-up to a Judith Leyster retrospective at the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem a number of years ago when a beautiful floral still life which she painted in 1654 surfaced.  It had been hidden from public view in the collection of a private collector.

Judfith Leyster and her husband remained in Amsterdam for eleven years.  They then moved to Heemstede in the province of North Holland, where in 1660, at age 50, Leyster died.