“- Still more Venuses this year... always Venuses!" - The French master of academic art William-Adolphe Bouguereau

30 November 1825, the French master of academic art William-Adolphe Bouguereau was born in La Rochelle.

“- Still more Venuses this year... always Venuses!... as if there were any women built like that!“ (Honoré Daumier’s satire on the Paris salon, the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris)

William Bouguereau: "The First Mourning" (1888)

Vowing to never paint war is an endearing attitude, especially from a successful artist creating works of art in the manner of the best-established style in a time when glorifying war was socially and politically more than comme il faut, both in the visual arts as well as literature. Fortunately, not even during the nationality-crazed 19th century, gory charges, roaring broadsides and heroic last stands around shot-torn flags were to everyone’s taste as a permanent decoration for living quarters. Salon art found far different sujets to denote allegiance to bourgeois value propositions, usually in the half-draped female guise of allegories and scenes from morally valuable mythological or religious tales from days when walking around in one’s smallclothes or draped in bedclothes was, obviously, de rigeur. Pastoral scenes were not to be scoffed at either, especially if they showed shepherdesses and exotic girls carrying water jugs. And even if lines or glances of the mythological heroines turned out to be a bit too much on the racy side, they were still part of the canon of classical education, an inherent part of bourgeois self-conception back then, and thus acceptable.

“- Still more Venuses this year... always Venuses!... as if there were any women built like that!,”
Honoré Daumier, 1864

Well into the 20th century, to simulate a metropolitan fire house at major alarm, it was enough to mention “salon art” and “Bouguereau” in artists’ circles. Bouguereau’s student Matisse, who usually soaked his comments about his former teacher in irony, at least acknowledged the benefits of a classical art education. The rest usually philosophised with the hammer. On the other hand Bouguereau’s remark that Impressionism and what followed was, first and foremost, not good painting, had a damning effect on many forms of modern art in the eyes of the contemporaries. In the turmoil of the last century, Bouguereau was duly forgotten and his mastership of the academic style that included, in his own words, to see colour and line as basically the same thing instead of focussing only on form, that made him one of the greatest oil painters in art history, was only recently rediscovered. While the New York Cultural Center staged a show of Bouguereau’s works almost as a cabinet of curiosities in 1974, illustrating the follies of a bygone era, prices along with appreciation of his art are steadily on the rise since then. Unsurprisingly, since a superficial approach to his paintings is rather easy, even if the classical background his contemporary audience once had is, by and large, forgotten along with the cultural implications, in the best and the worst sense, of 19th century salon art. Bouguereau’s paintings remain a thing of treacly beauty in technical perfection. And it is not without irony that they are as controversially discussed today as the modernists were during his life and times.

William Bouguereau: “Birth of Venus” (1879)

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