Friday, February 2, 2018

Bouguereau in His Studio

This photograph of William-Adolphe Bouguereau (French 1825-1905) in his studio shows the painter halfway up a ladder refining the line drawing for a large painting. 

Behind him on a wall are plaster casts of fragments of the human and animal figure. The casts give him reference to ideal form. On the small easel are small color studies or premiere pensée.

Bouguereau would typically develop a line drawing (often called a 'cartoon') on a separate piece of thin paper, then transfer that drawing onto his canvas, and ink it with India ink.

Engravings of Bouguereau in his studio were published for an enthusiastic readership in the same way that behind-the-scenes videos are used today to promote movies. 

He brought a model into his studio to pose for Hemera, goddess of the day. She is lit by the same soft, indirect skylight that he has on his work. The model is able to maintain her upraised arm with the help of a dangling rope.

This photo shows the same scene that we saw in the engraving. When you see the reality of the model, you realize how much Bouguereau was enhancing or 'plussing' what he saw to match his idealized vision of the world.
First photo is from: "The Illustrated American," 1890
Previous posts: plaster castspremiere pensée.
Book for color images: Bouguereau
Best book on Bouguereau's method: William Bouguereau, 1825-1905: Catalog
I cover classical methods in my book: Imaginative Realism


Howard Lyon said...

Excellent post. I always enjoy anything on Bouguereau. It is amazing to see his model, with the painting. I think he had a wonderful sense of proportion and ability to idealize beauty. His study of the forms that you pointed out in his studio seemed to have paid off!

I purchased the two part book set from Antique Collectors Club, for a small fortune, but have been really happy with it. It is a wonderful book on WB. I believe it is sold out, but they republished one of the books, the better one IMO. I have all the other books you linked to in your post as well and I believe this to be the best in terms of information and reproduction quality.

Here is a link for Amazon:

Thanks again for the post! See you at Portrait Society this year.


Adam Atomic said...

There's a tremendous amount of critical work on Victorian nudes (esp John Berger et al) that defends Gannaway's comments on the pieces, and specifically speaks to the fact that although some of them ostensibly portray "strong woman characters" doesn't necessarily obviate or obliterate the ways in each they are also passive or decorative, or presented in a way that is very specifically intended to be pleasurable or titillating to a male viewer.

Add to that the fact that the vast and overwhelming majority of nudes in museums worldwide are exclusively of women, and I think it might be premature to reject Gannaway's reading of these pieces or their role in society, both in modern times and maybe more importantly when they were painted. They were political works then, as they are now (in addition to their other qualities of composition and so on)

I'm not sure if removing the works from public display is productive or helpful, but I'm hesitant to use my reaction to that decision to invalidate or negate Gannaway's curatorial and critical commentary in this case (esp given decades of critical thinking on this topic preceding this particular stunt).

Great fan as always, just surprised to see a relatively shallow reading of this incident here of all places! Art is complicated. Simplifying it is a little tragic to me.

Adam Atomic said...

Also I've posted this response on entirely the wrong article. Obviously meant as a reply to the Waterhouse stuff. Apologies!

James Gurney said...

Adam, I've probably missed a lot of the contemporary critical work you're talking about because I'm more interested in reading primary sources from the times the works were created. I like to start with what the artists themselves said about their work, and what the critics from their time said. I don't have much use for most modern theorists, because they're so far removed from the creative vortex. There are a few exceptions, historians who really do their research and don't just spend their time erecting categories or trying to convince others of their prejudices. I would be happier if curators took a step back and just gave the titles and the name of the artists on the cards, and perhaps a relevant verifiable fact or a revealing anecdote instead of art-speak or platitudes. I guess we'll find out what Gannaway has to offer after she sifts through all the opinions she has solicited and eventually decides to release the painting out of her ill-conceived captivity. But I'm sure Mr. Waterhouse and the rest of us would rather the painting speak for itself.

scottT said...

Stockton CA may not have had a lot in terms of culture, but the Haggin museum does boast a major Bourguereau entitled The Nymphaeum. I can't help but think of it now in light of Manchester (and what Gannaway would think of this celebration of the female nude) but when I lived there, I spent a lot of time in awe of the sheer virtuosity and unbelievable surface finish on display in this large painting. Honestly, I think that in this day and age it's silly to think anyone would have a prurient interest in such work, being so obviously reflective of the fashion of its time. But maybe that's just me.

Adam Atomic said...

Thanks so much for the reply! I'm 100% certain that I've missed nearly all contemporary critical work as well, to be fair.

For what it's worth, just based on your obvious interest in where the paintings came from in the first place, and in terms of historians or critics who actually do good research, I think you might enjoy John Berger's work, and Ways of Seeing (1972) in particular. As a fellow lover of art and someone who is good at communicating complex ideas about visual art especially <3 It's on my art shelf right next to Color & Light...

The thing about Berger is he is not just a good researcher but also very plain-spoken and no-nonsense. Ways of Seeing is very much rooted in the when and the why of the original paintings - not just in the painter's own words, but in the words of their patrons, and in the words of historians of the era, contemporaries, and critics of the time. He is never trying to apply modern or arbitrary new frameworks to old art (which I agree can be frustrating), but instead thinking critically and specifically about the environment in which the old art was produced.

Things that Berger is interested in beyond simply the title of the painting and the name of the artist:
- who paid for the painting to be made
- who were the models in the painting
- who are the people in the painting intended to represent in that era
- yes, the specific allegories referenced in the compositions but also the value those allegories had to the patron and audience at the time the painting was produced
- what were the social standings of the artist, the patron, and the audience for the painting
- what sorts of connotations and meanings did the medium itself have at the time (esp oils, esp in terms of their ability to render luxuries and things valued or exclusively owned by the upper classes, etc)

These essays will be 50 years old in a few years, which is pretty wild haha. But again, never weird modern stuff applied to the old things to justify someone's tenure, and instead just providing insight about Victorian art at the time it was made, and oil nudes especially. As someone who wasn't able to study art history but still loves the arts, for me it was fascinating to gain more context about the ecosystem in which these paintings I admire were created, and I think it adds a lot of value and a lot of texture and a lot of .... richness, a lot of humanity. To me those things add to the work, they don't take away.

If you ever take Berger for a spin I'd love to hear what you thought. I think you would dig it (but I've been wildly wrong before - like for example not even commenting on the correct article) and I think it might add a little bit of context for this particular curatorial fiasco as well.

I hope you aren't too overwhelmed by the comments, and am looking forward to more great posts as always.

Unknown said...

Great post! This is the first time I am visiting your site… Its cool and I like your writeup. More over, the quality of your posts are just awesome!

James Gurney said...

Thanks for the thoughtful followup, Adam. Sounds like I might be interested in what Berger has to say.

Scott, I haven't been to the Haggin, but I'm aware they have some fine works there, including lots of Leyendeckers, right? I did a post a while back on the museums that have strong collections of Academic tradition and Golden Age illustration.

Howard, thanks for chiming in. We all appreciate your "practical scholarship," getting in there and trying out techniques that the earlier masters used. See you at the Portrait Convention, yes.

Journeyman said...

If you want to read Berger try his Selected Essays collected by Geoff Dyer.
The early Essays are from the 1950's and these are the bases of what would become the TV series “Ways of Seeing”
Berger is regarded as one of the major essay writers of our time covering a very wide range of subjects. So if you enjoy good writing you will enjoy following his trains of curiosity.

Peace said...

Thank you for those pics, I've never seen those before. I've been traveling the world and seeing all the Bougs I can. Even in his home town in La Rochelle France, I convinced the priest to let me into parts of the church to get up close pictures of his works.

I've observed and read just a slightly different account of the transfer method. What I've read is that he transferred via red chalk, and then came back in with red ink. But, having closely inspected 100+ bougs in person, I find something far more beautiful in his execution.

On top planes (usually facing the sky) the line is cool, perhaps black chalk, graphite or India ink as you suggest. However, on the bottom facing planes, where blood pools, it seems red was used. Of course I could be wrong.

But, what I think is of greater value is the concept. Planes facing the cool sky would reflect cool. Warm planes facing the ground or where blood pools, warm.

Let me know if you would like some close up shots to see to what I refer.

James Gurney said...

Thanks, P of P. Do you mean the color of the line changed from top planes to bottom planes or that the color of the rendering of flesh? I certainly haven't seen as many Bouguereaus as you, and if you'd like to put some closeups in a Dropbox folder or something, I'd love to see them.

Lou said...

I like your concept James of beginning learning about artists through their own words first.
In anticipation for what turned out to be a wonderful Wyeth exhibit in Seattle I starting reading much on Wyeth including the authorized biography. However, the book I enjoyed the most was his autobiography where he selected pieces and wrote about each painting. Some of the descriptions included juicy bits and pieces of the tiny little things that germinated the painting. Should be a mandate for every artist on their 50th birthday.

Rob Howard said...

Fortunately for the serious student, Bouguereau's life and practice are recorded in scrupulous detail. He had a thriving business in his prints and for those, he and assistants would paint a smaller replica of the large piece and ship that off to the printer, where the plates could be prepared as the large piece was scraped and finished and received a preliminary varnishing. In that way the prints were on hand when the piece was debuted.

Although from modest background, he grew to become very well-off and generously donated time and space to teaching up-and-coming artists. An altogether fine fellow who had perfect timing. He died just as his popularity was beginning to fade. He married his American student and she was quite a capable painter in her own right.

The Clark museum at Amherst College is not that far from you and has some excellent examples of his work. He was capable of a wide range of fleshtones as he demonstrates with his painting of the nymphs pulling the satyr into the pond. Each one of the nymphs is different. He also has a nude with almost white shin with a hint of the bluish venous layer. That's a real show-off piece that puts every brush owner in his or her place. In the satyr picture there are background figures which upon getting close are just banged int with a few strokes. There's a lot to study from him.

Tom Hart said...

I'm sorry to add to the off-topic discussion (off-topic in this thread, anyway). But I feel compelled to object to Adam Atomic's characterization of the Gannaway discussion as shallow. That's unfair. What I, for one, object to is Gannaway's removal of the painting (and others?) in order to make a political point, regardless of the validity of that point. The opinions of Gannaway, Berger and others are worthy of reflection and discussion. But censorship - a characterization that I stand by - is a misguided, perhaps dangerous, way to invite discussion.

Carole Mayne said...

As a new reader to your blog, I am thrilled that you post so much pertinent information about the fine art of creating and studying fine art! Your painting and drawing knowledge is as stupendous as your own artwork. Thank you for your commitment and passion. I paint and teach and love to learn and grow on every level! (-:

siddharth yadav said...

Couldn't be said better. Thanks you sir

AnneDroyd said...

Something mysterious links Bouguereau, Blake, and Da Vinci and their depictions of the human form: they had the Keys to the "kingdom". All three share an awareness of and access to energetic blueprints of the human body that go beyond simple anatomy.