Boring Old Bouguereau Makes for a Surprising New MAM Exhibition

A star of the much-maligned French Academy, the 19th-Century French painter had his own dark side.

If you ever read that the Impressionist painters of the late 19th Century rebelled against the “Academy” and classical themes, and didn’t know who that exactly was, the Milwaukee Art Museum has a leading candidate: William-Adolphe Bouguereau, the French painter who lived between 1825 and 1905.

Bouguereau loved the (arguably stuffy) French Academy, part of the Institut de France, that educated young artists and put itself forth as the arbiter of style, and he was a devout Catholic. He was fine with abiding by great authority and was seen as an anti-rebel, The Man, which somehow made him an unfashionable but frequently luminous painter.

MAM’s new show, Bouguereau & America, has a few major organs, and which organ you’re in depends on whether the porcelain women with Italian facial features are treated as mythological-classical figures (along with some well-realized centaurs), polite paying subjects, or peasant women and poor children, all of them unrealistically clean, as the show notes.

‘The Thank Offering,’ 1867

The deeper you go into the show, staged in MAM’s big rotating gallery, the more you begin to question whether Bouguereau really was such a bore. The final chamber, lined with his “sensual” paintings, has a famous canvas, Nymphs and Satyr, from 1873 where a squad of nymphs attempt to drag the hooved Satyr (which cannot swim) into a pond, getting well beyond classical ideas and charms.

Another painting reportedly attacked and ripped during a 19th-Century exhibition shows a cyclone of nude bodies.

In both, it’s as if the characters have stepped down from careful poses and succumbed to the darkness of the mortal world. Bouguereau, more than anyone, would have understood the difference.

His work has many fine qualities: a great hand with fabrics and shadows and rendering all the little back muscles, like the Old Masters, and ethereal, silky cloths and aprons. Some of his female faces (especially the raging Furies) are astounding and burn themselves into memory. He was both a crowd-pleasing painter and one whose loftiness drew wealthy buyers and clients.

‘Fraternal Love,’ 1851

At Eternity’s Gate, the Vincent Van Gogh movie that came out late last year, shows Van Gogh fiercely striving toward an inner light, even as darkness is collapsing around him: He wants to redefine nobility to include the momentary and every day. His way of seeing elevated all of it.

Bouguereau had his own ways of pushing the everyday into the sublime and tearing down the same, although none of it came with radical changes in style as he imitated styles hundreds of years old. He stayed within the system, pushing subtle changes in subject matter and occasionally doing something outrageous.

Doesn’t that count as rebellion?

Go See It: Bouguereau & America at the Milwaukee Art Museum, through May 12.



Matt has written for Milwaukee Magazine since 2006, when he was a lowly intern. Since then, he’s held the posts of assistant news editor and, most recently, senior editor. He’s lived in South Carolina, Tennessee, Connecticut, Iowa, and Indiana but mostly in Wisconsin. He wants to do more fishing but has a hard time finding worms. For the magazine, Matt has written about city government, schools, religion, coffee roasters and Congress.