A vision of beauty and light
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Though his name doesn't slide readily off the tongue, in his day French artist William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) was considered one of the finest painters in the world and was a commercial success. In Pittsburgh, where he was widely collected, a painting of his sold for $5,000 in 1883, a record in the city for a work of art.
"The Little Shepherdess" is the signature image for The Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, Okla., which organized the exhibition "In the Studios of Paris: William Bouguereau & His American Students" now at The Frick Art & Historical Center.
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When: tonight through Oct. 14.
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays.
Admission: $5 suggested donation.
Catalog: color illustrations with essays by leading scholars in the field, $39.95 softcover, $50 hardcover.
Information: 412-371-0600 or www.frickart.org.
Typical of the vicissitudinous nature of art tastes and trends, Bouguereau, who faded along with admiration for the academic style he perfected, has recently begun to return to the spotlight. An exhibition opening tonight at The Frick Art Museum examines him as an artist and as teacher to large numbers of Americans who crossed the Atlantic to learn from him at the Academie Julian in Paris.
Many of them were women, including such notables as Minerva Chapman and Cecilia Beaux. Ashcan School leader Robert Henri, who earlier attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, also studied with Bouguereau.
Their work is represented among 50 paintings, drawings and prints in "In the Studios of Paris: William Bouguereau & His American Students," which was organized by The Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, Okla.
William Bodine, director of The Frick Art & Historical Center, says that a Bouguereau in the Philbrook, "The Little Shepherdess," became "the signature image for that museum." The Philbrook's James Peck, Ruth G. Hardman curator of European and American art, decided to organize an exhibition to put the painting -- "a community icon" -- into a larger context, Bodine says.
Peck addresses who Bouguereau was and shows how he influenced American artists at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Surprisingly, this is the first exhibition to do the latter, although approximately 220 Americans chose to study with Bouguereau because of his artistic mastery, but also to be associated with his fame.
Bodine says he was pleased to bring the exhibition to The Frick when contacted by Peck, a longtime colleague, because he's always loved Bouguereau's work, giving as example the artist's detailed depiction of hands and feet. "He paints the most beautiful feet I have ever seen. He was a brilliant painter."
"The Little Shepherdess" -- full-length and life-sized before a pastoral setting -- gazes confidently and assessingly at the viewer. No rugged peasant, her dress is clean and in good repair, and those beautifully rendered hands and feet don't show the marks of rural labor. She's flanked by two similarly sized and equally idealized depictions of young peasant women, and careful examination reveals that the same model has posed for all three.
Bouguereau painted this "Self-Portrait" in 1879 to commemorate his engagement to artist Elizabeth Jane Gardner.
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Sarah Hall, Frick curator of exhibitions and registrar, smilingly says that Bouguereau's shepherdesses are sometimes referred to as "Cinderellas" because they seem more destined to marry a prince than to labor in the fields.
Bouguereau was a serious artist who aspired to be a history painter, and he excelled in technique and in a range of subject.
In 1850, he won the prestigious Prix de Rome, and the influence of the years spent in Italy may be seen in the classically inspired "Idyll: Family From Antiquity."
He became particularly good at representing children. In "Madonna and Child With St. John the Baptist," for example, Bouguereau "got the ripe, fleshy child's skin [of the Christ child and the young saint] just right. Its roundness and the slight baby fat feeling, that makes you want to touch children," observes Hall, reflecting upon her own child. The painting's composition and balance are so right that you wouldn't want to change anything, she adds.
Eventually Bouguereau found his niche, Hall says, in paintings of children and those of single shepherd girls that became his "bread and butter."
American collectors didn't buy nudes, Hall says. They were too prudish for that. But these very self-possessed peasant girls held appeal, their subtle charm and titillating quality bolstered by the language of symbols. For example, "Young Girl" holds in her right hand yarn and knitting needles, suggestive of innocence and hard work; but atop them is a folded paper that could be a note from a lover who has arranged a meeting -- or simply a confidence she's sending to a friend.
Of particular interest is Bouguereau's distinguished, somewhat flattering and searching "Self-Portrait," completed in 1879 upon the occasion of his engagement, two years earlier, to Elizabeth Jane Gardner, one of his most successful students and the one who most emulated Bouguereau's style.
Gardner, who arrived in Paris without the backing of wealthy family that some of the artists enjoyed, was unique among American, especially women, artists in that she was able to support herself as a copyist of original masterworks, a service that was at the time reputable and in demand. In 1873, she was among the first three women to participate in life drawing classes at the Academie Julian in the company of men.
Above: "He Careth" is by Elizabeth Jane Gardner, a student of Bouguereau's who later became his wife.
Below: Anna Elizabeth Klumpke is among the artists exhibited in "In the Studios of Paris: William Bouguereau & His American Students." Her large-scale "In the Washhouse" was accepted into the Salon of 1888 (Paris), and in 1889 was awarded the gold medal for best figure painting at the 1889 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts exhibition, Philadelphia.
Bouguereau and Gardner had a "long protracted engagement," Hall says, in part because his mother disapproved of the relationship, finally marrying in 1896. While inconvenient, Gardner credited her development as an artist to the freedom she maintained outside of marriage.
Hall says it's hard to tell a Gardner from a Bouguereau. One distinction is that "she tends to paint adult female heroines as opposed to Lolita-esque girls." In her painting of young lovers "Daphnis and Chloe," the latter places a floral crown on her own head, an act of empowerment.
In another painting, reminiscent of Mary Cassatt's domestic subjects, a seated woman gently holds two children as they all watch birds feeding on a windowsill. The original French title was "Ne Bougez Pas," translating to "Do Not Stir" or "Keep Still." It's unclear who assigned the English title, "He Careth," adding a religious overlay. Gardner enjoyed birds, caring for more than 20 in her Parisian studio and feeding others daily at her windows.
The many other students exhibited present quite a variety -- from a luminous, realistic 79-by-67-inch depiction of four women "In the Washhouse" by Anna Elizabeth Klumpke to the kind of Impressionistic works that Bouguereau disapproved of -- and sometimes one has to search for his influence.
It's difficult to see in the latest piece in the show, for example, Frederick Waugh's energized, circa 1930s seascape "Silver Light," but it surfaces in the academic technical rigor of Waugh's 1890 "Ladies Having Tea," which also exhibits Impressionist influence in the depiction of rituals of daily urban life and Oriental subject matter. In Waugh's "Peasant Landscape" of 1883, with three women tilling cabbages in the countryside, the connection is evident.
The American Indians of Eanger Irving Couse may similarly seem unconnected, until one thinks of them as the equivalent of the French peasant for this Taos Society of Artists founding member. The "Pueblo Water Carrier," a standing, full-length female, stares directly at the viewer surrounded by the symbols of her culture, a direct reference to Bouguereau's shepherdess.
"The Hill Stream," a circa 1914 work by New Hope, Bucks County, Impressionist Walter Elmer Schofield, is complemented, at this venue only, by another Schofield painting, "The Ravine," purchased by Henry Clay Frick from the artist. The impressive, large landscape is not usually on display, and this is a rare opportunity to see it.
A drawing and a watercolor by Bouguereau, lent by an anonymous Pittsburgh collector, will also be seen only here.
Frick had purchased a painting from Bouguereau during an 1895 studio visit in Paris, but when the wealthy industrialist turned his collecting focus to Old Masters, he sold his Bouguereau. Such is the changing face of art.
First Published July 3, 2007 3:46 pm