William Adolphe Bouguereau enjoyed a remarkable popularity in the United States, particularly during the late 1800s through the early twentieth century. Lauded and laureled by the French artistic establishment, and a dominant presence at the Parisian Salons, Bouguereau’s canvases offered American collectors the chance to bring Gallic sophistication and worldly elegance to their own galleries and drawing rooms. The master’s idealized, polished images—of chastely sensual classical maidens, Raphaelesque Madonnas, and impossibly pristine peasant children—embodied the tastes of the American Victorian age, and of his Gilded Age patrons. Bouguereau canvases at one time were de rigueur for every collector and arts institution from the late 1860s to the early 1900s in America.
As art turned towards Impressionism throughout much of the 20th century, artists rejected Bouguereau’s conventional treatment of paint and form while they explored abstraction, color field painting, and investigated alternative forms of art and representation. Ostracized for nearly 80 years, his portrayals of peasants and feminine beauty during his time were strongly embraced by his contemporary academic circle but reviled as the Realist movement in visual arts and literature took hold and gave way to Modernism. The exhibition Bouguereau and America, co-organized by The Milwaukee Art Museum and The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, re-examines the work of this long-neglected artist and allows a view unencumbered by a Modernist bias. As the Wall Street Journal’s review of the exhibition concludes: “This is an important and ambitious exhibition, fruit of the kind of fresh, original idea more institutions should aspire to. Most shows confirm our taste…This one challenges it, asking us to see Bouguereau through the eyes of an age when he was lionized and Impressionism was dismissed.”
Comprising approximately 50 masterful paintings by Bouguereau, this exhibition will bring together many of the artist’s most important works, such as Le repos, 1879 (Cleveland Museum of Art); Young Girl Defending Herself Against Eros, ca. 1880 (J. Paul Getty Museum); Homer and his Guide, 1874 (Layton Art Collection, Milwaukee Art Museum), and Jeune ouvrière, 1869 (private collection, Memphis, Tennessee). This exhibition also includes a long time favorite by Bouguereau at The San Diego Museum of Art – The Young Shepherdess, 1885. Bouguereau in America offers a fresh look into how collecting Bouguereau’s work reflects the tastes, religious beliefs, sexual mores, social problems, and desires of American collectors, particularly during the late 1800s through the early 20th century.
Featured: William Adolphe Bouguereau, The Young Shepherdess, 1885. Oil on canvas mounted on board. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Edwin S. Larsen. 1968.82