Charity by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

Charity by Williiam Adolphe Bouguereau (1865)

It used to be the “in thing” when one talked about what one was studying to reel off a list of “-ologys”.  It always sounded very impressive.  In the art world there is the tendency to group artists in “-isms” and not so long ago I even bought a book, entitled isms, Understanding art.  Would you believe there were 52 “isms” listed and a few more words that they gave up trying to add the ism suffix.    The featured artist in My Daily Art Display today is described as a dedicated follower of Academicism and Realism with a touch of Classicism.  He is the French painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

Bouguereau was born in the Charente-Maratime seaport of La Rochelle in 1825.  His family were wine and olive merchants and as he grew older it was expected that he would join the family firm.  But for his uncle Eugène, a local priest, we may never have had the pleasure of seeing the works of this talented French painter.  His uncle managed to interest the young William-Adolphe in biblical and historical stories and even organised for the boy to attend the local high school.  Whilst at the school Bouguereau began to develop his artistic talents which not only impressed his teachers but also his father.  The course of the boy’s life changed and he was enrolled at the École des Beaux Arts in Bordeaux and later with some financial assistance from his family along with money he made from some of his paintings he took himself off to Paris where he was accepted at the École des Beaux Arts

Bouguereau enjoyed painting and drawing figures and decided that to improve his technique he would attend anatomical dissections.  During this time he studied under Francois-Edouard Picot, the renowned French painter whose artistic forte was the depiction of mythological, religious and historical subjects.  Bouguereau had his first introduction into the genre we now term Academicism.  He went on to win the prestigious Prix de Rome with his painting Zenobia Found by Shepherds on the Banks of the Araxes and the travelling stipend that went with it in 1850 and he went off to Italy and the Villa Medici in Rome which housed the French Academy.  It was Napoleon Bonaparte who located the Academy in this building and both the building and the grounds were renovated so that future French artists who won the Prix de Rome could come here for a year, soak up the Italian atmosphere and have the opportunity to study and copy the art and sculptures of the Masters of the Italian Renaissance.  It was during this time that Bouguereau, as well as studying the art of the ancient, Greek, Etruscan and Roman times,  was able to immerse himself in classical literature.  This period of his life was forever going to have a profound effect on his life and be inspirational in his choice of subjects that he would depict in his future works of art.  Bouguereau throughout the rest of his artistic life was going to strictly adhere to the tenets of Academicism.  So what is Academicism?  It is a genre of art which promoted Classical ideals of beauty and artistic perfection and by doing so establishes a clear hierarchy within the visual arts.  Academicism preferred the grand narrative or history painting genre and advocated life drawings and classical sculpture.

Bouguereau with his portraiture, especially those of women, was very popular and successful as he had the ability to merge together a true likeness of the sitter with a certain amount of beautification without it being too obvious.  He was inundated with commissions from wealthy patrons for portraits of them or their family and most of these still remain in private hands.  His artistic standing increased over the years and he was made a Life Member of the Academy in 1876 and in 1885, was made Commander of the Legion of Honour and Grand Medal of Honour, the highest decoration in France.   His art was now bringing in great financial rewards and he had built up a formidable list of clients and art dealers who were willing to handle his work.  In 1875 he started teaching drawing  at the Académie Julian which had been established in 1868 as a private school for art students, both male and female (although taught separately) and its teachings prepared the students for the entrance exam for the prestigious École des Beaux Arts

In 1856 when he was 31 years of age he married Marie-Nelly Monchablon and the couple went on to have five children.  In 1877 his wife and infant son died and in 1896 at the age of seventy-one he remarried, this time to an American, a fellow artist and academic, Elizabeth Jane Gardner who was twelve years his junior and one of his former pupils.   In 1905, Bouguereau died of a heart attack at the age of 79.  He had a long and full life over the course of which he completed in excess of eight hundred paintings.

My Daily Art Display showcases Bouguereau’s painting entitled Charity which he first exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1865.  I saw this work in the Birmingham Municipal Art Gallery a few weeks ago.  Before us, at the centre of the painting, sitting on the steps of the Church of the Madeleine in Paris, we see a woman with three children huddled together.  This is a pyramidal composition which we are viewing from a low viewpoint.  The woman in the way she is dressed reminds me of the Virgin Mary and with the baby in her lap I can almost believe that I am looking at a secular Madonna.  She stares straight out at us.  The soft features of her face plead with us to, in some way, help her with her burden.  Look how the artist has portrayed the two young children.  They have been depicted in begging poses, which are meant to tug at our heart strings.  However they seem to be reasonably well dressed and we see no signs of the clothes being ragged.  I do note that they are all bare-footed and the shirt and the chemise worn by the young boy and girl have been pulled down slightly, revealing bare shoulders but this to my mind adds to the lack of realism.  This painting found no favour with Bouguereau’s contemporary realist painters.  They castigated him for depicting the woman and children in their spurious begging poses.  They said the depiction looked completely “stage managed” and lacked the brutal reality of beggars and their terrible impoverished lifestyle.  To them, Bouguereau had sold out his Realism ideals.  To them this depiction of poverty and begging was highly idealised.  Notwithstanding whether he had “sold-out” his Realism principles in thisn instance, I still think this is a superb painting and of course I can assure you it looks even more beautiful when you stand close up to it.

I will end the blog today with Bouguereau’s thoughts about art in general and how it had affected him and given him so much pleasure.  He commented:

 “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…”.