Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Bouguereau's Sentimental Canvas

THEY sit on a lonely stretch of land: One plays a little pipe; the other folds her arm over her sister's knee in perfect childlike innocence. The sky is overcast and pale; the children wear rustic dresses. Every single brush stroke is hidden. The paint lies like glass on the canvas, and the skill of the painter is beyond question. William Bouguereau's sweet genre painting, ``Two Girls'' (1900), conveys peace, beauty, intimacy, gentility, elegance, and mastery of technique. It is, arguably, the most popular painting at the Denver Art Museum, much sought after by the public, though often despised by contemporary art critics.

Bouguereau was a 19th-century French painter, a member of the Academie des Beaux Arts, which had created an imposing aesthetic doctrine, a set of rules that governed painting and sculpture. He made lots of money in his time, and was greatly admired, although most of his paintings were purchased by rich, under-educated Americans. He enjoyed great prestige and power, while the wildly experimental Impressionists and others considered decadent were despised and denied membership in the Academy. Many artists endured hard times because they could not or would not conform to Academy standards.

About these ads

But art has a way of asserting itself. Perhaps those whom the Academy refused, like Manet, Pissaro, and Whistler, were better off going their own way, making their discoveries, and living outside the sanction of official art circles.

After all, Bouguereau's particular craft, like that of his more famous Academy colleagues - Jean-Leon Gme, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, and Eugene Delacroix - was exacting almost beyond belief: It required great skill and a particular talent, years of arduous effort, and months of planning, drawing, and perfecting each piece. There was no room for spontaneity or experiment in academic painting.

Gustave Courbet had refused membership in the Academy on the grounds that it was an obstacle to artistic progress. He also refused a Legion of Honor award on the grounds that the state was not competent in matters of art.

But then, Courbet had a patron. He could afford to affront the public, the government, and the Academy. But for most artists, the Salon, the Academy's annual art exhibition, was the only way to become known and to prosper as an artist. It was something like Hollywood today for a young filmmaker. A few hardy film artists continue to make art films or artful independent films, but many more either capitulate to Hollywood or drop out of the profession altogether. There is very literally a ``Hollywood standard'' of filmmaking that has influenced most of the entire world's film production and suppressed experimentation and innovation. And yet, despite the cultural imperialism of Hollywood, good films - even great films - have emerged from the ``academy.''

JUST like 20th-century moviegoers, 19th-century art consumers prized what they best understood: works that were accessible and at the same time, clearly products of great, studied skill.

And what was most prized in the 19th century was despised in the 20th by artists, critics, and collectors alike. Much of academic painting was lifeless, pretentious, and dull. Yet some of it still glows from within, offering a little more than exquisitely perfected skill. Not much, but something - like a good, simple Hollywood movie.

And like a movie, Bouguereau's paintings are easy to understand - immediately. There are no secrets here, no psychological or painterly complexities. You know at a glance what he is trying to say about these children, how he romanticizes their rustic beauty and idealizes their youth and innocence.

About these ads

``It's popular because it is accessible,'' says Timothy Standring, the Denver Art Museum's adjunct curator of European Painting. ``Everybody likes the palette: It's a very sensate, tactile picture that you don't really have to think too much about. It doesn't raise questions about the nature of art. It reaffirms what people's notions are about art - those notions that talent has to be involved with painting. Your ability to render foreshortening, drapery, a sense of atmosphere - all those characteristics of painting are evident. It reassures people.''

Dr. Standring points out that 19th-century French academic painting has undergone some critical reevaluation in recent years.

``It was disparaged because many art historians failed to recognize what its intentionality was all about - since it's not Cezanne, doesn't reveal any post-Impressionist aesthetic notions - it's the status quo of academic painting. But that's what many people wanted, and Bouguereau was one of the best to do it. He was a great painter. The backlash of criticism was that for so long [the Academy] was the overwhelming force in what art should be. Bouguereau himself reacted vociferously against modernist notions that were nonacademic.''

Modern critics demanded something else from painting in the 20th century. The Academy had refined its rules so completely, defining the parameters of painting so comprehensively that it eliminated the natural evolution of art from its definition of art. Impressionism's breathtaking experiments with light, the formal complexities of Cezanne, and the attempt to reflect the world as it really was were all dismissed by the Academy. But later critics avenged the innovative artists with virulent rejection of the Academy.

There was plenty of bad academic painting, too: plenty of hackneyed historical and mythological subject matter, plenty of pretension, and plenty of mere prurience dressed up in the elegant craftsmanship of the Academy. Most academic painters were lousy.

But not all. Ingres and Delacroix remain brilliant lights in the darkness of academic values. And while he was never as brilliant, even Bouguereau does not deserve an ignominious relegation to the dust heap.

``[``Two Girls''] romanticizes those girls, but it isn't forced melodrama,'' says Standring. ``This one still has discipline and restraint - and I think that's what gives it that universal character that is going to work tomorrow and a decade from now. The meaning is so delicate. What we regard as content may be laughable in comparison to Cezanne. It's not even apples and oranges. But it does succeed in what it attempted to do. It's well painted. Sure it's accessible; sure it's nothing we have to think hard about. It doesn't have any allegorical or symbolic content: It's just about good academic painting.

``There are many narratives in the history of art,'' Standring continues. ``If you recognize the rules by which this painting was made, it succeeds brilliantly. It's a continuation of genre painting. It's not history. It's not religious. And he has brought his best artistic notions to it. And when you recognize those methods by which he created that painting, it's quite a significant statement.''

In working up ``Two Girls,'' Bouguereau probably executed 50 drawings prior to the drawing on canvas - studies of hands, drapery, faces, feet - all of which would have been assembled into a compositional structure. And the paint was applied with such painstaking care as to hide the brush stroke altogether - the very opposite of the art-as-process we are so familiar with today, Standring says. It was incredibly labor-intensive.

No, ``Two Girls'' doesn't question the meaning of art or of life. It doesn't require anything at all of the viewer - no intellectual or spirited engagement with the ideas. And yet, its appeal has lasted. Visitors come in droves to see it, and look on it with relief and delight when they find it. Like a Frank Capra movie, it is romantic, idealized, a little foolish. And like a Frank Capra movie, there is something genuine in its idealism. Any parent of daughters recognizes those fragile moments of peace, of unselfconscious gentleness of which little girls are quite capable. And that is true to human experience, too. We don't have to think about it, because we recognize instantly that fleeting glimpse of girlhood.

And there is a difference between sentiment and sentimentality -

the cheapening of feeling. There is nothing cheap or manipulative about ``Two Girls.'' It doesn't reflect any of the problems of human experience, but it does capture a single moment of bliss - albeit, posed in a studio.

IT is a pity that for so many years, the likes of ``Two Girls'' discouraged the public appreciation of more intelligent works. But, all those social fusses aside, all that prejudice on both sides suspended, this particular painting by this particular artist has something to say to us even now.

``That fragile content [sentiment] is almost dismissed today,'' Standring says. ``By singling it out and bringing it to our attention, it can maybe help us stop this faced-paced world and say, yes, this is valid and valuable and it broadens our whole human experience.''

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.