... we find (among others) the Academics, like William-Adolphe Bouguereau. This is from the wow-I-can-definitely-see-what-it-depicts-but-itís-boring-me-to-tears school of art. It has no urgency. Great art is almost by necessity always inspired by personal experience in the world and time we live in. Trying to remove yourself from it will turn the art into stories about virtually nothing. And thatís what we see in Bouguereau. An artist trained in the old school, with all the craft of tradition but none of the spirit gained from experience. That experience doesnít need to be one of terror, but giving an artwork weight demands an ability to pick up what is going on around you and inside you. And we are not talking socio-political particularities here, but an existential understanding. What does it mean to be human during this time and this place?
When I was younger, I agreed with this article. I thought Bouguereau was a very talented picture maker, but ultimately a boring, pointless artist. (I also thought that Bach was boring music.)
Now that I'm older, and by that I don't mean softer, but on the contrary, harder, more disciplined, more perceptive, and more experienced, I have changed my mind.
Now I find Bouguereau one of my favorite painters (and Bach one of my favorite composers) and can't help but find this old DLA/DMU article a rather naive, superficial view of the function of art in general and the nature of Bouguereau's paintings in particular.
Again, I definitely personally understand where the author was coming from though, and no disrespect is intended toward him, merely disagreement.
In my opinion, Bouguereau was neither purely-mechanical-photorealism nor was he Thomas Kinkade-esque pretty stories.
His paintings do in fact carry a lot of urgency, and on two levels:
(1) When nearly everyone was being hip and rebelling against traditional drawing and painting methods, Bouguereau, Ingres, and a rare few others were maintaining them
(2) When nearly everyone was being hip and rebelling against traditional painting subjects, Bouguereau and a rare few others were upholding them
The author of the article correctly notes that great art should not be (or at least, need not be) mere sociopolitical commentary (as even the least propaganda-like of it is transient and vain), but then makes the error that Bouguereau has no personal, subjective, existential import in the here and now.
This is a gross ignorance of the power of metaphor and myth. Bouguereau paintings are laden with metaphysical and psychological symbolic and allegoric power, and these principles most definitely apply to the existential experience of the individual by their nature of being eternal verities. What could be of more weight than that which is everywhere and everywhen true?
But coming down from the clouds, even those of you readers skeptical of perennial "Truths" cannot deny the romanticist themes in Bouguereau, in his treatment of nature, youth, senses, and emotions. And yet even in this more down-to-earthiness, Bouguereau does not fall into the egodrama of self-expression or of merely illustrating "what is going on around you and inside you". Instead, he shows patterns of life and experience which any intelligent and noble soul can relate to: the loss of virginity and virtue, the longing for a better world, the joy of friendship and kinship, the mystery of the past, the complexities of love, the majestic yet simple beauty of nature, and much more.
I can never be sure whether I am merely projecting qualities onto Bouguereau that aren't there. That possibility aside, what I can be sure of is that, as I have aged (only 26 years old, but nonetheless), I have found that we too often over complicate things in life, perhaps as a nervous distraction, a way to entertain ourselves, a way to escape and avoid facing the fact that maybe, just maybe, the answers to the deep questions of life are a lot more simple than we think, and that we merely have not yet found the courage to face them and accept their implications, for it would mean an end to nearly all of our thought and activity, as nearly all of it is in vain (not merely in the sense of never comparing to the Eternal and Infinite, but also in the simple sense of never even living up to our own highest personal visions and values for ourself).
Now, when viewing art, whether it be a Bouguereau painting, a Bach concerto, a Sacramentum album, or an Incantation album, I simply ask myself: is it beautiful, and does it make me want to live a beautiful life?