Atelier · November 3, 2006

Friday in the atelier: “La Vague” by Bouguereau

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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