One of the most sublime paintings at the Birmingham Museum of Art is Adolphe-William Bouguereau’s Dawn. It’s one of four works featuring beefy, semi-nude, Victorian babes floating through the air as allegories for the times of the day. Besides Dawn there’s Day, Evening Mood and La Nuit. Dawn is the Greek goddess Eos and was known to the ancient Romans as Aurora. She was more than just a goddess; she was a Titan, a god’s god. Her tears form the morning dew. In Bouguereau’s painting she appears dancing through a swamp on her tippy toes sniffing flowers. She was—is if you believe in Greek mythology—the sister of Helios, the sun, and Selene, the moon.
Dawn was a bit of a slut, having relations with not only her Titan siblings but also any human who struck her fancy. She bore all the stars and the winds. One of her lovers was Tithonus from the royal house of Troy. At one point Dawn asked Zeus to make Tithonus immortal but he didn’t include eternal youth. Tithonus just kept getting older and older. They had two kids one of which, Memnon, fought and died in the Trojan War. The image of Aurora with the dead Memnon draped across her knees—like that of Isis and Osiris—inspired the Christian theme of the Pieta.
William Bouguereau—he didn’t care much for Adolphe and went by William or Mr. Bouguereau, probably maestro too—was one of the most celebrated painters of his time. He had early success in the accepted venues of nineteenth century Europe studying at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and showing in the annual Salons. Though he was 99th out of 100 accepted in his class he proved himself quickly by winning the Prix de Rome that included a lengthy stay at the Villa Medici, where he could study Rome’s art treasures, and four thousand francs. Despite enormous adulation and critical success during his lifetime Bouguereau would live to see his work overshadowed, even ridiculed, by new movements in art that came to dominate tastes by the turn of the century.
Bouguereau was less than 5 foot 3, a chain smoker, a glutton and a heavy drinker. He was also a workaholic, waking early to begin painting and continuing tirelessly until sundown. Despite his demanding technique he still managed to produce over 800 major paintings and countless preliminary studies during his career. He lived in the Montparnasse district of Paris in an artsy neighborhood among other painters including the American expatriate James McNeill Whistler. Being healthily heterosexual Bouguereau had five children and two wives, though not at the same time. In a short period of years he suffered the loss of his first wife and three of his children. In his grief he produced two of his most somber paintings, Pieta and Virgin of Consolation. He wanted to turn right around and marry one of his students but his domineering mother wouldn’t allow it and his daughter threatened to move into a convent if he did. He had to wait 20 years but when the mother was finally dead and the daughter out of the house he did manage to marry for a second time.
Bouguereau’s second wife was Elizabeth Jane Gardner, an American artist who had attended male-only classes dressed as a man. Eventually, through the intervention of Bouguereau, the Salons and schools were opened to women and Gardner won a medal of honor in 1887. She had considerable talent selling her work regularly but quit producing art altogether while the couple was married.
This was an exciting time to be an artist in Paris. It was the unrivaled center of culture and taste and had been for centuries. Bouguereau lived to see the entire city redesigned by Napoleon III and the construction of the Eiffel Tower. He volunteered for the Garde Nationale during the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian war and watched as messages, official and personal, were sent out by hot air balloon over the enemy forces who were constantly bombarding the city walls with artillery. Life was short and hard for most but Bouguereau had it pretty good. Then, as always, it pays to be conservative and not make waves.
The art shown in the Paris Salons and taught at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts was the culmination of a tradition that began in the Renaissance. Exhaustive study of life and a formulaic technique produced stunning results that would virtually disappear with the advent of Modernism and artists’ quest for originality. Historical painting was understood to be the noblest theme though the hardest to market. Portraits, genre scenes, classical and Christian mythology dominated–everything posed and somber. Once established Bouguereau was free to dictate his own subjects. His fame and the quality of his work guaranteed a handsome and steady income. Originality was limited to established tradition.
The little controversy Bouguereau stirred up involved his sensual nudes. The sensibilities of the time are foreign to us today. The naked children that would be obscene today weren’t an issue while the tasteful, classical figures were considered scandalous and overtly erotic a century ago. When the Le Printemps (The Return of Spring) was shown in Omaha, Nebraska an angry, American prude tossed a chair through the painting. The depiction of the life-size nude hugging herself with an air of ecstasy and surrounded by cherubs was too much for some cowboys. Though true to the cultural mores of the time the figure showed no trace of pubic hair or genitalia. She was as smooth as the baby’s bottoms surrounding her.
Bouguereau represented the end of an aesthetic. While he and his peers were living high those who were to become the heroes of the 20th century were struggling to survive. At this time the Impressionists were reinventing art. Their figures weren’t posed and their technique wasn’t that being taught in the academies or displayed in the Salons. With the advent of photography painting was losing its narrative aim and necessity. The need to paint in such a representation style was quickly disappearing. All to be salvaged from art was the expression. Beyond that Bouguereau wasn’t cool. He wasn’t a rebel. Because of his subject matter and place in history Bouguereau came to personify everything that was wrong with art before Modernism. Pick up any art history book published between 1910 and 1980 and if Bouguereau is mentioned at all he’ll be held up as a bad example or only recognized a Matisse’s teacher. He came to represent everything kitsch. When the bar at the Hoffman House hotel in New York hung his Nymphs and Satyr it started a trend of barroom nudes and only contributed to his declining reputation. By 1960 it was possible to buy a major Bouguereau for $500.
By the 1980’s the art world began to take a self-reflective position. Modernism appeared to be a hollow shell. The idea that the Modern masters like Picasso and Matisse had some special insight started to make less and less sense. Maybe artists weren’t gurus. Maybe they were just people who painted pictures—or often just displayed stuff they found laying around the house or jumped around making funny noises. If artists could be seen as just people who painted pictures then maybe there’s something to be said for actually being good at it. Bouguereau was among the first to be accepted back into the fold of what could be considered art. It would be a few more years before “illustrators” like Rockwell could be considered. Today a Bouguereau painting might fetch several million dollars at auction. Works ignored in museum basements for a century have made their way back up top for permanent display. A backlash has even begun and many are dismissing the Modernists as charlatans. Bouguereau live until 1905 and saw the Impressionists lionized and the immergence of the Post-Impressionists and Fauves. He saw the end of all he stood for and didn’t seem to understand what was coming. No one did.