William Bouguereau in his studio 1898
William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825 – 1905) needs little introduction since
he has regained fame in recent years after a period of neglect in the
twentieth century. He was the quintessential French salon painter of the
nineteenth century, so consequently he was scorned by the avant-garde.
His range of subject matter was diverse, his oeuvre included portraits,
genre scenes, mythological nudes and religious pictures. Fronia E.
Wissman noted he often showed in one exhibition paintings that
contrasted each other to demonstrate his mastery of subjects. For
example, in 1880 Salon he showed Young Girl Defending Herself against
Eros and The Flagellation of Christ.
William Bouguereau Young Girl Defending herself Against Eros 1880
William Bouguereau The Flagellation of Christ 1880
Several years ago a saw an exhibit of religious works from the collection of the Uffizi in Florence, all of the works in the exhibit were from the Renaissance or the Baroque. I could not help but notice that Christ was nearly nude in every painting, either nude as an infant with Mary or nearly nude on the cross.
How very different are contemporary depictions of Christ!
For example, I’ve seen modern paintings of the baptism of Christ, which depict him fully dressed, when it makes sense that he would wear the loin clothe seen in Renaissance paintings. H.R. Rookmaaker recognized this perception was a result of mysticism, “the synthesis of biblical thought with that of neo-platonism” which held, “This life is of no value. The material is sinful. “There are no grounds for this view in scripture, but unfortunately it had a profound effect on culture. Franky Schaeffer accounted for the effects of the mysticism on the Christian view of the arts, he writes:
“When our Christianity is allowed to become merely spiritual and inward
without the incarnation and outward expressions of God’s presence in the
world, our faith is no longer meaningful in all areas of life. This
indeed is what happened to Christianity during the twentieth century.”
“Thus people’s lives as Christians became compartmentalized. This thing
was spiritual, that one was not. The arts, creativity, enjoyment of beauty, enjoyment of God’s beauty, even an enjoyment of God’s Word in the Bible for itself, were set aside. The arts were regarded as unspiritual, unfit, and secondary to those high and spiritual goals now set forth for Christians to achieve.”
William Bouguereau Temptation 1880
Since Christians withdrew from the mainstream culture, they abandoned many vital aspects of life which came to be defined in secular terms which ironically reflect the temperament of mysticism. Following the naturalistic presumptions of Sigmund Freud, all the manifestations of culture were explained away as having roots in sexual drives.
Although Carl Jung attempted to rehabilitate Freud’s theories, Freud’s vulgarized perceptions of human agency remain dominant in the current world-view. Beauty and nudity, which in the past were a potential subject for a wide range of creative expression, were rejected in the twentieth century as mere kitsch, which only appeals to a gross sentimentality bereft of any transcendent meaning.
The tendency to affirm the mind at the expense of the
body is apparent in the neo-platonism of high modernist painters like
Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, who refuse to represent the physical and postmodernists like Mark Ryden and John Currin who have come to in vogue. In their reductionist vision and Freudian standard of sexuality we see artists whose secular views make a mockery of the flesh. This diminution of the human body and devaluation of the inherent divinity of the Image of God caused the negation of the Ideal of the Act of Love. It was denied to then have any innate or “spiritual” meaning at all.
Thus we were witnessing the “dead end” of the sterile reductionist view of Freud, and the impact on the Arts of his secular “cure” of religious dogma by his contemptuous brand of psychoanalysis. The “Salt of the Earth” spoken of in the parable of Christ, was thrown out of the marketplace of artistic ideals.
William Bouguereau Inocencia ca.1880
What is wonderful about Bouguereau is that he was active before the
split between the rational and the physical, his figures are so lifelike
one is given the presence of the soul in the flesh. His technical skill
was so great he was able to incarnated the spirit in the body. His work
reflects a reverence for life.
William Bouguereau The Youth of Bacchus 1884 (detail)
Thorough out his lifetime, Bouguereau painted Venus and Cupid, Nymphs
and Fauns as archetypal figures in Arcadia while many of his Academy peers, under the spell of a “blind” positivism painted the ancient world as a historical account.
As the alternative voice of what came to be called holistic or “depth” psychoanalysis, in which Carl Jung noted that,”Every society has its idea of the archetypal paradise or golden age that, it is believed, once existed and will exist again.” Unfortunately, postmodern culture has lost contact with these archetypes which is reflected in pessimism of the culture. It is my unswerving belief that much of the turmoil in our world is due to the fact we have lost contact with the archetypes so well exemplified and exalted in Bouguereau’s art.
Far more than an aesthetic balance of form and color, I find peace of mind in his realm of eternal beauty. It is this vision which needs to be once again given its “Day” to heal mankind and western culture of it’s tragic artistic “fall” into the present post modernist decline seen in the arts.
William Bouguereau Song of the Angels 1881
William Bouguereau Baigneuse Assise 1879
William Bouguereau La Bourrique 1884