On this Day in the History of Art: Dante Alighieri born (1265), Samuel Cousins born (1801), Friedrich Schiller died (1805), J.M. Barrie born (1860), Muppets by Jim Henson are premiered on TV (1955)
It would not be too unusual to hear advocates of Objectivist philosophy claim that the art of William-Adolphe Bouguereau visually embodies Ayn Rand’s philosophy more than any other painter and in many ways they would be correct. However, I have many mixed feelings about his body of work. I find some of his work to be exquisitely beautiful and yet others seem incredibly bland or even antithetical to my values. This week I'm going to post two images per day of Bouguereau’s work--one piece that I like and one that I don’t.
I admit that I have some hesitations about criticizing his work. Not only was his technical rendering skill far superior to mine (and I could certainly benefit from some of his criticisms), but I don’t think art criticism is a particularly useful field of endeavor (despite some of the lengthy commentary I often post here--I sometimes can't help myself.) In truth, I have no interest in convincing anyone that his work is either good or bad, or that they should or should not enjoy it. That being said, the idea of comparing fourteen paintings simply seems fun, interesting and educational for me, which is the purpose of this blog. So perhaps you will just enjoy his work and/or my comparisons and commentary regardless of your opinion of Bouguereau’s works.
Creation Date: 1882
Size: 81.6875 x 42.5 in. (207.5 x 108 cm)
Media: Oil on canvas
Location: National Museum of Art, Havana, Cuba
The first painting here is my favorite of Bouguereau’s works. I love the pose of the figure and how the shape of her body relates to the shapes of the black cloth. I appreciate the way the dark cloth and the pale body are integrated into a compositional design. The transparency of the cloth is painted with great subtlety, as is the moon in the sky. I love the way her single toe supports her, and on the surface of water no less. Effort has been put into conveying the idea that she has almost no weight and her pose is simple, but fantastically elegant. The view of life is incredibly positive. In this world, life is positive, vivid, relaxed, and beautiful. As with most works of art that I appreciate, I don’t have much more to say about it except that I think it's absolutely wonderful.
Creation Date: 1896
Size: 47.64 × 63.19 in. (121 × 160.5 cm)
Media: Oil on canvas
Location: Private collection
Although this painting is not devoid of virtues, it is a Bouguereau painting that I dislike. The pose here is bland, inexpressive and it reminds me of a pin-up girl rather than a concretization of a view of man and reality, but the most serious criticism I have of this painting is that it pointlessly, and distractingly, reveals the process of its creation in two ways.
First, I can't help but notice that this image was created by assembling different images. The first image must have been created in the same way, but the integration is a little better. Here, the lighting is not entirely consistent between the landscape and the figure and it looks more like ambient indoor lighting than clouded daylight. The spatial depiction of the wave is incorrect—it is clearly not about to strike the woman, but it does not look properly distant either. The ocean appears more to be like a backdrop, similar to the kind that high school photographers use. When high school photographers want to take a senior portrait of a student standing in a forest, instead of walking into a forest with the student they simply place him in front of a large photograph of a forest and the effect may or may not be convincing. I would not be surprised to learn that this painting was made in this way—it was a common practice for portrait painters to place sitters and models in front of large, painted backgrounds of landscapes just like the high school photographers do. I have no criticism of this method per se, but it can backfire.
The second and more damning criticism I have for this painting along these lines involves the way the figure is propped up on the beach. I am referring to the darkened “rocks” that the figure has underneath her hands which were obviously not actual land formations but the edge of a table or platform. If this woman were actually sitting in this way, her hands would be flat against the ground, or sinking into the sand, but instead the fingers are curled around the edge of the squared surface of a modeling platform or table. Instead of rectifying this discrepancy by changing the position of the fingers, Bouguereau simply went with it and tried to make plausible irregularities in the beach. Not only do these irregularities look fake, but to have someone resting their weight on wet sand lumps without sinking a bit would be quite an accomplishment as well. In contrast, the weightlessness of the Evening Mood painting is emphasized by the single point of contact between the figure and the surface of the water—a similar effect could have been created if Bouguereau had considered it, but instead, the audience is expected to simply look past this error or else invent some extra magical explanation for it.
This points out a weakness of Bouguerueau’s artistry: he was too dependent upon his chambre claire. That is, rather than using an optical, projection tool to fulfill his artistic goals, he let the tool use him. He was too unwilling to deviate from the specific reality in front of him to better fulfill the function of the art he was trying to create.
The title is another item of criticism for me although I admit that The Wave could be worse. I do not like it when painters present a pin-up girl with a title like Truth or Virtue and while The Wave seems less awful, I see no reason for it. The painting would have been more aptly titled something closer to the real purpose of the painting such as Pretty Girl.