Elizabeth Jane Gardner – the resolute and tenacious artist.

Elizabeth Jane Gardner by William Bouguereau (1879)
Elizabeth Jane Gardner by William Bouguereau (1879)

The artist I am looking at today is the American, Elizabeth Jane Gardner.  If you read my last blog, which was the conclusion of the life of the French Academic painter William Bouguerau, you will know that Gardner was his second wife.  This is not a story about the wife of a famous painter dabbling with art.  This is a story about the fighting spirit of an acclaimed painter – a great artist in her own right, although it has to be said that she was often criticised because much of her work resembled her husband’s genre pieces.

Elizabeth Jane Gardner was born in October 1837.  Her birthplace was the town of Exeter in the American state of New Hampshire.  It was here that she attended junior school.  After completing her regular school education in 1853, she attended the Lasell Female Seminary at Auburndale Massachusetts.  The college, which was founded in 1851, was named after its founder Edward Lasell, who was a great believer in female education.  It was at this college that Elizabeth studied languages and art.  She graduated in 1856 and for the next few years was a teacher of French at the newly opened Worcester School of Design and Fine Arts in Massachusetts.

Whilst she had been studying art at the Lasell Seminary she would often question the teaching she received but it dawned on her that the foundation of all good painting stemmed from the ability to master the art of drawing.  It was probably during the time spent in her art classes there that she nurtured the desire to one day, go to Europe and live and study art in Paris, which was then, the capital of the art world and the Mecca for all European and American artists.  This artistic ambition to savour French life and its art was probably delayed by the American Civil War and her dream was not realised until 1864, when she and her former art teacher at the Lasell Seminary, Imogene Robinson, set sail for France.  They got themselves a flat in Paris and that summer obtained licenses as copyists at the Louvre and the Musée du Luxembourg.  For the duration of that summer they fulfilled artistic commissions from America by copying paintings in the collection of the prestigious galleries which they also sold to the locals.  However Elizabeth’s main reason for coming to Paris was to receive further artistic tuition at one of the prestigious art academies and so in the autumn she applied to enter L’École des Beaux-Arts, the foremost art institution.  She was horrified that her application was rejected, not on the grounds of her ability but on the grounds of her sex.  L’École des Beaux-Arts, like many art establishments at the time, had a male-only admissions policy and refused to admit females into their hallowed corridors.  The banning of women from the L’École des Beaux-Arts was not lifted for another thirty-five years, in 1897.

Whether it was her and her American companion Imogene’s need to fulfil their initial aim for coming to France, to receive tuition from an established artist or whether it was the simple fact that the public art galleries were not heated and copying works of art in the cold establishments became less pleasant, the women gave up their commissioning work and in the winter of 1864 they looked for an artist who would provide them with some tuition.   Established artists were happy to nurture and teach aspiring artists provided they could pay.  The more the student was willing to pay the better the class of artist who would become their tutor.  Elizabeth’s companion Imogene was in a much better financial situation than Elizabeth and was able to secure Thomas Couture as her mentor and tutor whereas Elizabeth who was not as well off settled for a lesser-known painter Jean-Baptiste-Ange Tissier, whose students were mostly women.

Portrait of Elizabeth Gardener Bouguereau by her husband William Bouguereau (1895)
Portrait of Elizabeth Gardener Bouguereau by her husband William Bouguereau (1895)

Elizabeth Gardner was a resolute and determined character and was not going to be put off by red tape and sexist bureaucracy of the art academies and so devised a plan on how she would gain admission to one of the Parisian art schools.   Before she had left the shores of America, she had been ill and had lost a lot of weight and had had to have her hair cropped short.  Her figure had taken on a boyish appearance which part facilitated her ingenious plan. She decided to pose as a young lad but for a woman to walk the streets of Paris dressed as a male she had to have permission from the Paris Police Department!  The law was passed on November 17th 1800 when Paris city chiefs had placed the order on the statute books that required women to seek permission from the police if they wanted to “dress like a man.”   The order was issued at the end of the French Revolution when working-class Parisian women were demanding the right to wear pants in their fight for equal rights.  Parisian women activists, during the Revolution, had also requested the right to wear trousers as a political gesture and like their male working-class revolutionaries became known as “sans-culottes” for wearing trousers instead of the silk-knee breeches preferred by the bourgeoisie. It was modified in 1892 and 1909 to allow women to wear trousers if they were “holding a bicycle handlebar or the reins of a horse”.  Such an old fashioned law!  Actually not, for it was only in January 2013 that the French Minister of Women’s Rights, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, said that the ban was incompatible with modern French values and laws and although it had been ignored for many years it was only right that the law was officially repealed and so French officials invalidated the 213-year-old order that forbade women in Paris to dress like men and wear trousers.  The French government had been opposed to women wearing trousers for it was a simple method of preventing women, who dressed as men, from gaining access to certain offices or occupations which were male-only domains.

The rear of the Gobelin Factory (c.1830)
The rear of the Gobelin Factory (c.1830)

Elizabeth’s plan worked, for in 1865, she successfully applied to the drawing school of the prestigious Gobelin Tapestry factory which was best known as a royal factory supplying the court of Louis XIV and later monarchs.  At the beginning she was accepted as a young lad but after a while her fellow students and instructors realised that she was actually a young woman.  Whether it was because of her outstanding drawing ability or her determined personality, one may never know, but despite the discovery of her sex, she was allowed to stay.

In the Académie Julien in Paris by Marie Bashkirtseff (1881)
In the Académie Julien in Paris by Marie Bashkirtseff (1881)

One person, who was also impressed with her ability and strength of mind, was Rodolphe Julian.  He had established the Académie Julian in 1868 as a private studio, a school for art students. The Académie Julian was a kind of feeder school for art students who wanted to later gain admission to the École des Beaux-Arts as well as offering independent training in arts. At that time, women were not allowed to enrol for study at the École des Beaux-Arts, but this new Académie Julian accepted both men and women, albeit they were trained separately, but most importantly, women participated in the same studies as men, which included access to classes which taught the basis of art – drawing and painting of nude models.  The Académie Julian was particularly popular with aspiring American artists for it did not have an admission’s precursor of having to be able to speak French.

Whether it was beginners luck or just the fact that she had become a successful and talented artist but in 1868 she had two of her painting accepted by the Salon jury.  To have a painting exhibited at the Salon was a great moment in the life of an aspiring painter.  It was not just in recognition of their talent but it enhanced the value of their future works.  Elizabeth was delighted and wrote home to her parents:

“…when the ex’n opened both of mine were hung in full view among foreign artists and raises the value of what I paint…” 

Elizabeth Gardner’s works were often found in the annual Salon exhibitions and in the exhibition catalogues she, like many other artists whose works were on show, would often name the well know artists who had taught them.   This was an attempt by artists to boost their status and their “artistic bloodline”.  It is by looking at these catalogue entries that we know that Elizabeth received tuition from Hugues Merle, a contemporary and friend of Bouguereau from 1868 to 1874.  The name of the artist, Jules-Joseph Lefebvre was added in catalogues in 1875 as was the name of William Bouguereau from 1877 onwards.

Moses in the Bullrushes by Elizabeth Jane Gardner (1878)
Moses in the Bullrushes by Elizabeth Jane Gardner (1878)

In 1878 Elizabeth Gardner put forward a religious painting for inclusion at that year’s Salon.  It was entitled Moses in the Bulrushes.  She had started the work the previous year and was pleased with its progress.  In December 1877, she wrote about her progress with the work to her brother, John, who was back home in Exeter, New Hampshire:

“… I have advanced my picture of little Moses a good bit this month. The canvas is now covered and now comes what is to me the hardest part. I have always ideas enough for nice subjects but it is so hard to make the reality come up to the dream. I get sometimes quite frantic over it…” 

The work was accepted by the Salon jurists and exhibited in 1878.  The Arts critic of the American Register, a newspaper for expatriate Americans living in Paris wrote in the April 6th edition:

“…‘Miss E. J. Gardner has just completed her picture for the Salon, Moses in the Bulrushes. The subject is taken at the moment when Moses has just been placed amongst them, and his sister has parted the bulrushes to watch the approach of Pharaoh’s daughter, who is seen in the distance. The expression of anguish in the mother’s face is especially well rendered, and the coloring is remarkably fine…” 

The fact that she had put forward a religious painting for inclusion at the Salon was a brave move as history and religious paintings were looked upon as the highest form of art genre.  It was a genre that was also looked upon as being artistically, a male-only domain and female artists were often discouraged from attempting such works.  However as we know, Elizabeth Gardner was a strong-minded person and never shied away from controversy if she believed her course of action was right.  Her submission of this religious work entitled Moses in the Bullrushes, put her in direct competition with her male counterparts.  It was also interesting to note that her take on the event portrayed was from a female perspective.  She had depicted the two women, the mother of the baby and the Pharaoh’s daughter, as courageous women who were saving the life of the baby, Moses.

As the sale of her paintings increased with her popularity, so her financial situation improved.  Things got even better in the late 1870’s when the renowned Paris art dealer Goupil began purchasing her work and in the 1880’s her work was so much in demand that the prestigious Knoedler art dealership of New York, was buying her Salon paintings, sight unseen.  This art dealership had formerly been a subsidiary of the Parisian art dealers, Goupil & Cie.

Elizabeth had reached one of her most sought-after ambitions in 1868 – to have one of her paintings exhibited at the Paris Salon.  However Elizabeth was not one to rest on her laurels and her next ambition was not only to have her work hung at the Salon exhibition but that it was deemed worthy of an award.   She had to wait another nine years for that happening.

One of Elizabeth Gardner’s artistic mentors was William Bouguereau.  Elizabeth and her companion Imogene were living in a flat in rue Nôtre-Dame des Champs in the Montparnasse district of Paris, the same street in which Bouguereau and his family resided.  Elizabeth became known to the family and was on friendly terms with Bouguereau’s wife, Marie-Nelly. William Bouguereau and Elizabeth Gardner must have become quite close during this time as, eight months after the tragic death in childbirth of Bouguereau’s wife in April 1877, the grieving widower proposed marriage to Elizabeth.  Elizabeth was happy to accept but Bouguereau’s mother and daughter Henriette were horrified.  The daughter threatened to leave home and join a convent if a marriage took place but this threat was never tested as Bouguereau’s of the vociferous, sustained and obdurate opposition from his mother to the formalising of the partnership was enough to halt any proposed wedding plans.   However the couple became engaged in 1879 and Elizabeth wrote about Bouguereau, their betrothal and her thoughts about his mother.   In a letter she wrote:

“…And now about my engagement…. I am very fond of Mr Bougereau and he has given me every proof of his devotion to me.   We neither of us wish to be married at present.  I have long been accustomed to my freedom.  I am beginning to attain a part of the success for which I have been struggling so long.   He is ambitious for me as well as I for myself.  As it is I can’t help working very much like him.  I wish to paint by myself a while longer.  He has a fretful mother who is now not young, 78 I think.  She is of a peevish, tyrannical disposition and I know she made his first wife much trouble…” 

Elizabeth and Bouguereau continued to work together and seemed happy or maybe just resigned, to accept a long drawn out courtship.

The Farmer's Daughter by Elizabeth Jane Gardner (1878)
The Farmer’s Daughter by Elizabeth Jane Gardner (1878)

The realisation of Elizabeth’s ambition to be awarded a medal at the Salon came in 1887.   By this time, the popularity of her work had surged and she had been inundated with commissions but her mind was focused on her Salon entries and in December 1886, she wrote to her brother John of her desire to achieve that ultimate success:

“…I must work to get a medal in Paris and not for money a while longer.   All will come right in time I am confident if I work hard and am patient…”

In a letter to her sister Maria in January 1887, she again sounded both resolute and optimistic about her award prospects:

“…I am bound to get a medal some year…”

Finally in 1887 the Salon awarded her a medal (third class) for her work entitled The Farmer’s Daughter.  The idea for the painting came to Elizabeth whilst she was on a painting trip in the countryside.  Whilst out, the weather turned nasty and a downpour ensued.  She took refuge from the rain by sheltering in a farmer’s barn and it was whilst there that she saw the farmer’s daughter feeding the hens and ducks.  So impressed by what she saw, she decided to make a quick sketch of the scene which led to the finished prize-winning work.  The painting is a depiction of unspoiled rural living and must have been seen as a breath of fresh air in comparison to paintings by the up-and-coming Impressionists depicting city scenes and the onset of modernity.  Gardner’s tranquil scene would probably have made many people want to exit the city and sample the peacefulness and serenity of the countryside and was for the owner of such a painting, it was a reminder of how life was in simpler days.

The award she received for her work was the first and only medal that was ever bestowed on an American woman painter at the Paris Salon.  She was ecstatic and on May 30th 1887, she wrote to her brother John back in America:

“…My pictures at this year’s Salon have just received the medal which I have waited for so many years. I hasten to write you by the first mail for I know you will All sympathize with me in my happiness. The jury voted me the honor by a very flattering majority – 30 voices out of 40 ….No American woman has ever received a medal here before. You will perhaps think I attach more importance than is reasonable to so small a thing, but it makes such a difference in my position here, all the difference between that of an officer and a private, and I hope it will be a good thing for the sale of my paintings. I made an extravagant risk in my large one this year. Monsieur Bouguereau is very happy at my success. He is as usual President of the Jury, it is his great impartiality which has so long kept him in office. He has always said that I must succeed through my own merit and not by his influence. I hope to send some photos soon….I have nearly a hundred letters of congratulation and dispatches to acknowledge today. I have begun by the dear ones at home…”

This work by Elizabeth was to receive further awards when it was exhibited in the Gallery of the United States at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1889 where it was awarded a bronze medal.   To understand how great an achievement this was, one has to remember she was up against some of the finest American painters such as Thomas Eakins, William Merritt Chase and John Singer Sargent.

The Imprudent Girl by Elizabeth Jane Gardner (1884)
The Imprudent Girl by Elizabeth Jane Gardner (1884)

The work was exhibited along with another of her works, the somewhat controversial, L’imprudente (The Imprudent Girl).

Elizabeth and William Bouguereau had been courting for seventeen years, unable to marry for fear of crossing Bouguereau’s mother who was adamant that the couple should not marry.  However in 1896 his mother died aged 91 and the couple wasted no time in getting married. The colour of Elizabeth’s bridal gown was black and white because, as she explained, although it was her wedding day, she was still in mourning for Bouguereau’s mother.   The groom was 71, and the bride 59 years of age.  Elizabeth wrote home about their change in circumstances:

“… The old lady died on February 18th at the age of 91.  Her devoted son who had borne with such affectionate patience all her peculiarities was quite afflicted by the change [in her health].  He had so long had the habit of subordinating every detail of his life to her desires, of which the first was to rule without opposition in his house…”

After marrying Bouguereau, Elizabeth almost stopped painting altogether and spent most of her time looking after her husband and his studio.  When asked why she stopped painting she simply replied:

“…He was alone and needed me. I abandoned the brush…” 

She did not resume her painting career until after his death nine years later and it was then that she signed all her works in her married name.

The Shepherd David by Elizabeth Jane Gardner (1895)One other of Elizabeth Gardner’s painting of note was completed just before she married William.  It was another religious painting entitled The Shepherd David and was based on a passage from the Old Testament story (1 Samuel 17:34):

“…And David said unto Saul, “Thy servant kept his father’s sheep, and there came a lion and a bear and took a lamb out of the flock…”

The work depicts David demonstrating his worthiness to fight Goliath when he tells the tale of how he, as a shepherd, battled with wild beasts which were menacing his flock. In the painting Elizabeth has shown the young David kneeling in triumph on a dead lion while at the same time grasping a lamb under his right arm.   He looks upward towards the heavens, with his left arm raised in recognition that God had given him the strength to fight off the wild animals.  Elizabeth was proud of the painting and wrote to her sister Maria in America that she full expected to see her painting receive full-page coverage as one of the best works of art in 1895 in Goupil’s, the esteemed Parisian art dealers, art directory.

Elizabeth and William worked happily together from their studio in rue Nôtre Dame des Champs and, even at the age of 78, Bouguereau took his new wife to Italy a country he hadn’t visited since 1850 when he had won the Prix de Rome prize and the stay at the Villa Medici.  The couple would spend their summers away from the claustrophobic atmosphere of the French capital and return to the calming ambience of his birthplace, La Rochelle.  It was here that William Bouguereau died of a heart attack on August 19th 1905, three months short of his eightieth birthday.  His body was transported back to Paris and he was buried in the Cimetière de Montparnasse.

Art critics of the time often disapproved of Elizabeth’s painting style, saying that it copied too closely the style of her husband.  However Elizabeth was unrepentant and was very proud of her work and in a 1910 interview stated:

“I know I am censured for not more boldly asserting my individuality, but I would rather be known as the best imitator of Bouguereau than be nobody!”

The similarity in style between works painted by her and her husband was probably a financially astute decision as she was well aware that this genre of art, the sentimental secular works, was very popular with the public both in France and even more so in America where clients could not get enough of her and her husband’s art.

Elizabeth Jane Gardner Bouguereau, a native of New Hampshire will be remembered as the feisty young woman who challenged the French art establishment.  She was proud to be different and by so doing, signposted the way for many other women to challenge the stranglehold that males had on the world of art.   Elizabeth died at her summer residence in St. Cloud, a western suburb of Paris in January 1922 aged 84 and was buried, like her husband William, in the Cimetière de Montparnasse in Paris.

If you are interested in the life and work of Bouguereau and Elizabeth Gardner I do suggest you buy the excellent book,  Bouguereau  by Fronia E. Wissman, an author who has written or contributed to a number of books about French artists.

Adolphe-William Bouguerau. Part 3. A change of genre

Rest in Harvest by William Bouguereau (1865)
Rest in Harvest by William Bouguereau (1865)

This is my third and final look at the life and works of the Classical French artist, Adolphe-William Bouguereau.  In Part 1, I looked at his History painting Dante and Virgil and in Part 2 looked at one of his many religious works, The Flagellation of Christ. Today I want to look at a completely different type of work he began to paint at the start of the 1850’s.  Why, if his classical History paintings were so successful, did he want a change of artistic genre?  The simple answer has to be money.  The commissions he once received from the church for his monumental religious works and the private commissions for his large History paintings had dwindled and he had a growing family to support.  He needed to increase his income.

In my last blog I looked at Bougereau’s early life.  I had reached the stage when through the financial backing of his aunt and money he had accrued by painting small portraits of the parishioners, who attended his curate uncle, Eugène’s church, he could head to the art capital of the world, Paris, and continue his studies.  The year was 1846 and Bouguereau was almost twenty-one years of age.  Through the recommendation of his former tutor at L’École Municipale de Dessin et de Peinture in Bordeaux, Jean-Paul Alaux, he was accepted into the studio of François-Edouard Picot at Paris’ École des Beaux Arts.  Picot’s reputation had been built on his mythological, religious and historical paintings and so was the ideal mentor to Bouguereau who had always admired the academic History works of art. His enrolment at the prestigious art school was a dream come true for Bouguereau as such an acceptance into this celebrated art establishment was the ultimate goal of all aspiring artists and it was the beginning of becoming accepted by the official artistic fraternity.

His artistic training at L’École des Beaux Arts was the standard academic type with its rigid tenets regarding the importance of draughtsmanship, life drawing, technical proficiency and ultimately the training to become a classic History painter and Academic portraitist.  Many artists found the strict regimentation of the tuition too authoritarian and suffocating but Bouguereau was a true believer in the academic training and remained so all his life.  In 1850, at his third attempt, Bouguereau was awarded one of the two Premier Grand Prix de Rome for the best Historical painting.  It was entitled Zénobie Retrouvée par les Bergers sur les Bords de l’Araxe  (Zenobia Discovered by Shepherds on the Bank of the River Araxes).  His prize was a three year stay at the Villa Medici, the French Academy in Rome, during which time he also had the opportunity to travel around Italy and its countryside and studied and made copies of the works of the great Renaissance masters.

Fraternal Love by Bouguereau (1851)
Fraternal Love by Bouguereau (1851)

One of Bouguereau’s first paintings which saw a change in his style was completed in 1851 and was entitled Fraternal Love which can be found in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  What immediately comes to mind when you look at the scene before you?   Is it a religious or secular work?   We know that Bouguereau was a very religious man and had painted many religious works so is this simply another one?  Is this the Virgin Mary with the blonde-haired Christ Child and maybe St John?  And yet the title is a secular one with no reference to members of the Holy Family.  So let us just contemplate what we are looking at.  We see a mother and her two boys.  The younger child, who sits on his mother’s lap, holds his elder brother’s face between his chubby hands and kisses him.  The mother looks down lovingly at this demonstrative display of filial love.  She is wearing a blue dress which of course makes us immediately think of the colour blue which we see in most portrayals of the Virgin Mary.

The painting was purchased by the Boston merchant and avid art collector, Thomas Wigglesworth and at the time when he purchased the painting it was known as Madonna and Child with John the Baptist but one must remember that Bouguereau’s gave the painting the secular title of Fraternal Love and by doing so transformed the painting from a religious one into a secular genre scene and by doing so enhanced its selling prospect as there were now far more buyers who would purchase a secularized Virgin Mary than the very religious portrayal of her in Christmas Nativity scenes.

Madonna and Child with St John the Baptist by William Bouguereau (1882)
Madonna and Child with St John the Baptist by William Bouguereau (1882)

However Bouguereau did paint religious works featuring the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child and it is interesting to compare the secular painting, Fraternal Love, with the one he painted thirty years later, in 1882, entitled Madonna and Child with St John the Baptist, which is housed in the Herbert F Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.  The Christ Child in this religious work still has the curly blonde hair and John the Baptist the curly dark hair which we saw in the Fraternal Love painting.  Once again we see the close connection between the two children.  The setting for this painting, in comparison with his secular work, has a more formal setting.  It is an inside setting unlike the outside scene of Fraternal Love.  In this work the Virgin Mary is seated on a white marble throne which almost takes up the full width of the work.  Behind the throne is beautiful ornate tapestry.  The inclusion of such details adds a sense of traditional art of the great Masters which he must have witnessed during his time in Italy.  The painting is a depiction of tenderness between mother and child.  Look at the pose of the Christ child as he looks down at his friend, John the Baptist.  Even at this early age, one recognises a close bond of friendship between the two.  It has to be more than just a mere coincidence that Bouguereau has depicted the Christ child with his arms fully extended outwards in a fashion that reminds us of the crucifixion that will come in the future.

In 1854 Bouguereau returned to Paris.  Two years later, in 1856, aged 31, he married Marie-Nelly Monchablon.  The couple went on to have three sons, Georges, Adolphe-Paul and William-Maurice and two daughters, Henriette and Jeanne-Léontine.   Sadly his younger daughter, Jeanne-Léontine, died in 1866 when she was just five years old, Georges died in July 1875,  aged sixteen, but the saddest of all was that his forty-year old wife Nelly died giving birth to their fifth child, William-Maurice, in 1877 and he died a seven months later.

Pieta by Bouguereau (1876)
Pieta by Bouguereau (1876)

Two of Bouguereau’s greatest works derived from the sorrow he suffered at the death of family members.  In both works he has utilised religious themes to present to the world his grief and feeling of loss.  His 1876 work entitled Pietà was thought to be based upon the Virgin and Christ of Michelangelo’s marble Pietà. Bouguereau completed the painting shortly after the death of his son Georges.

Vierge Consolatrice - The Virgin of Consolation by William Bouguereau (1875)
Vierge Consolatrice – The Virgin of Consolation by William Bouguereau (1875)

In 1877 Bouguereau dedicated a painting to his late wife Nelly who died in childbirth and his youngest William-Maurice who was seven months old when he too passed away.  It was entitled Vierge Consolatrice (Virgin of Consolation).  In the work we see the black-clad Virgin of Consolation, once again sitting on a white marble throne behind which is a large colourful tapestry.  Lying across her lap is a young woman who grieves utterly inconsolable at the death of her child, the body of whom we see lying naked at the Virgin’s feet.  The Virgin has raised her hands in prayer.   She is the intermediary between the mother and heaven.  At first glance one would be forgiven if we looked upon this work as being merely an over-sentimental painting but understanding the circumstances surrounding it, one becomes more understanding and less cynical.  It is thought that Bouguereau, who was a staunch Catholic, gained some solace from this work after the death of his wife and baby.

The Elder Sister by William Bouguereau (1869)
The Elder Sister by William Bouguereau (1869)

In 1869, before the tragic and untimely deaths of his wife and three children, Bouguereau painted a portrait of two children and used his twelve-year old daughter Henriette and her newly born brother Adolphe-Paul as models.   The work was entitled La soeur aînée (The Elder Sister) and hangs in the permanent collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.  According to the museum, this is one of the highlights of their collection and was an anonymous gift from a lady in memory of her father.  We see Henriette sitting, perched on a rock, cradling a sleeping infant on her lap.  The capped head of the baby lolls slightly in sleep.  Henriette looks directly out at us and smiles.  She, although bare-footed, wears clean clothes.  Her skin is without a single blemish.   Even at such an early age, one knows that she will grow up to become an exquisite beauty.  The painting has a tranquil countryside setting.  Everything is “just perfect” in the depiction of the children and the background.  This portrayal strays from realism.  It is more an idealised depiction.  Bouguereau has cleverly used a various mix of colours and merged them in such a way to create an image which has a softness to it.  There is an earthiness about the work.  The colour of Henriette’s frock/tunic clothes is the brown of the ground.  It seems to almost merge in with the colour of the foreground.

For Bouguereau, the 1870’s were a very sad time in his life with the deaths of his wife and three of his children.  The only high point for him during that decade was his election to the Académie des Beaux-Arts de l’Institut de France.  Throughout his life Bouguereau was a staunch defender of the Academy and all that it stood for and the honour of being elected to become a member of the institute was one he cherished.  He wrote:

“…To become a member of the Institut…is the only public distinction I ever really wanted…” 

The Bohemian by William Bouguereau (1890)
The Bohemian by William Bouguereau (1890)

In 1890, Bouguerau completed  a work entitled The Bohemian which is sometimes referred to as Consuelo.   The young girl depicted in the painting almost fills the whole canvas.   She is a young gypsy girl and we see her seated on a stone bench on the Quai de Tournelle, which lies on the left Bank of the Seine.  In the background, across the river, we see Notre Dame cathedral and in the mid-ground we can just make out the Pont de l’Archevêché which straddles the Seine and links up the Left Bank with the Île de la Cité.  The girl looks out at us with a somewhat forlorn expression.  One cannot help but be moved by her dejected appearance.  Her clothes are shabby but the thickness of the fabric serves the purpose of keeping her warm.  Her dress is a dull grey but her multi-coloured shawl lightens up her appearance.   Her feet are uncovered which leads us to believe she is a beggar.  This assertion is further enforced as we see on her lap a violin which is the tool of her trade – begging for money.  This is not simply a painting about poverty.  In this work Bouguereau not only condemns the humiliation brought about by poverty but lauds those who strive to free themselves from destitution by virtues of their own endeavours.

One interesting aspect of this work is that we know it was changed by the artist.  How do we know that?  There is a photograph of this painting when it was “initially completed” by Bouguereau in 1889.  Bouguereau had decided to employ the photographers, Braun & Clement to photograph his complete collection of unsold works.  The photograph of The Bohemian showed a wall of bare stone behind the girl, which completely cut off any view of the River Seine or the bridge spanning it to the Île de la Cité.   It is thought that having not sold the painting that year a prospective buyer in 1890 asked for a “better” background to be added to the scene.   Bouguereau complied with the request and repainted part of the work.  There is also sign that the “8” and the “9” had been altered and over-painted with the numerals “9” and “0”, changing the completion date from 1889 to 1890.

The Young Shepherdess by Bouguereau (1885(Bouguereau painted many works featuring peasant girls.  This was an extremely popular subject in 19th century paintings.  For French artists of the time, including William Bouguereau the country peasant was somebody who lived a simple and honest life and got by through their laudable work ethic.  For the city dwellers who had not rubbed shoulders with a peasant they formed their visual understanding of who peasants were from the shepherds and shepherdesses with their multi-coloured clothes whom they saw depicted in Italian opera and theatre.  Bouguereau’s depiction of peasants was almost all of women and girls.  The setting for his portrayals of them and what they wore was often the same –  simple white blouses, overdresses of muted colours and thick material, set off by multi-coloured and multi-patterned shawls.  The female peasant was depicted bare-footed and  standing, seated or lying in some country scene such as a field or wood.  Bouguereau tended to steer clear of any other countryside indicators such as farming equipment or farm animals such as grazing sheep or cows.

Bouguereau, like all artists, needed to sell his work.  His clients were often middle and upper-middle class Parisians and the one thing the buyers did not want to be reminded of was the inequalities of life.  They did not want to be made to feel guilty about the social realities of their life and those of the peasant classes.   Unlike some of his contemporaries who were social realist painters and wanted to “accuse” through the depiction of the lower classes in their paintings highlighting how they suffered under an unjust economic system, Bouguereau’s depiction of peasant girls was all about their beauty, and little to do with any resentment or  condemnation of the class system.  His depiction of the peasant class was often very moving if, on occasions, heart-rending, but the peasants were never depicted as being threatening.   An artist and contemporary of Bouguereau, René Ménard,  wrote of Bouguereau’s depiction of the female peasants:

“… Rusticity is not with this painter and instinctive sentiment, and he paints a patched petticoat he yet suggests an exquisitely clean figure:  the naked feet he gives peasant-women seem to be made rather for elegant boots than for rude sabots; and, in a word, it is as if the princesses transformed into rustics by the magic wand in fairy tales had come to be models for his pictures, rather than the fat-cheeked lasses whose skin is scorched by the sun and whose shoulders are accustomed to heavy burdens…” 

After the death of his wife Nelly in 1877, Bouguereau lived in his house in Paris with his mother and two surviving children, Henriette and Adolphe-Paul and had taken up a post as professor at the Académie Julian in Paris.   This was a more liberal art establishment which allowed women to attend classes.  He was well thought of by his students, especially the women who idolised him.   The female artists were very appreciative of his training method and the skill he used when working with them in a lead-up to them establishing professional artistic careers.   Many of his female students were Americans and one in particular, Elizabeth Jane Gardner, fell under his spell.  She, as well as being a student of Bouguereau, was also friendly with his late wife.   Elizabeth was twelve years younger than Bouguereau.  Between teacher and student, there developed a mutual admiration which turned to love.  He told his mother and daughter Henriette that he intended to marry Gardner.  The only rock blocking this path of true love was Bouguereau’s mother.  She was a very religious person who had never been happy with the way her son had depicted so many nude figures in his classical works.  When it came to Bouguereau falling for another woman after his wife’s death, she was vociferous in her opposition to Bouguereau and Gardner marrying or living under the same roof as her and his children and so the pair’s courtship had to become more discreet and lasted almost twenty years until Bouguereau’s mother died.  Shortly after her death, in 1896, the couple married.  He was 71 and she was 59.

His daughter Henriette also married around that time, and Bouguereau was happy with her choice of husband.  However in 1900, tragedy was to strike again with his son Adolphe-Paul, who was a lawyer,  suddenly dying.  He was just thirty years old.  Bouguereau was devastated and it precipitated a deterioration of his health.  Despite this, he continued to paint and exhibit his works at the Salon.  He contracted a heart disease which although he fought hard to survive, he died a few months short of his eightieth birthday, in August 1905 at his home in rue Verdière in La Rochelle, the town where he was born.

Near the end of his life he described his love of his art:

“…Each day I go to my studio full of joy; in the evening when obliged to stop because of darkness I can scarcely wait for the next morning to come if I cannot give myself to my dear painting I am miserable…” 

Bouguereau was a workaholic.  He once sent a letter to his first wife in which he wrote:

“…When I cannot work, I am unhappy…”

And in a diary entry he wrote:

“…I rise every day at seven and breakfast then paint all day, with a light lunch at three which doesn’t interrupt my work…” 

He was always a firm believer in Academic art and Academic teaching.  He never wavered and he was often ridiculed for this view of how art should be.  La peinture bouguereauté was the derisory term given to French Salon artists and to students who painted badly!

During his lifetime he painted eight hundred and twenty-six paintings. To many people, Bouguereau was one of the greatest classical painters of his time, and some even compared him to Raphael.   However along with his admirers he had his fair share of detractors who criticized him. One such group of artists were the Impressionists who were hell-bent to rid themselves of  the shackles of traditional schools of painting. To them artists like Bouguereau were a regressive influence and hindered their move towards a new style of art.  To many people Bouguereau’s art was overburdened with sentimentality and that it was over-romanticizing.  To some, however, his art is full of beauty, compassion and piety.  I will leave you to decide which view you subscribe to.

As usual I have collated lots of information from the internet and reference books but most of the information was gleaned from an excellent book I treated myself to and which is yet another addition to my collection.  If you are interested in Bouguereau and his work I do suggest you buy it.  It is not expensive but is a true gem.  The title is Bouguereau and is by Fronia E. Wissman, an author who has written or contributed to a number of books about French artists.

Adolphe-William Bouguereau. Part 2 – The painter of Religious Scenes and his painting The Flagellation of Christ

Photograph of William Bouguereau (c.1870)
Photograph of William Bouguereau (c.1870)

My blog today looks at another of Bouguereau’s great history paintings.  This is one of his religious works and has all the ferocity of his painting Dante and Virgil, which I featured in my last blog.  Whether you are a lover of religious historic paintings or not, I defy you to be unmoved by the beauty of this work.  Bouguereau was a devout catholic and looked upon his religious paintings as a form of his worship of both God and mankind.  Bouguereau’s religious belief can be plainly seen in his religious works.  The painting I am featuring today is entitled The Flagellation of Christ, which he completed in 1880. Before I discuss the painting let me tell you a little about his life.

Adolphe-William Bouguereau was born in the French Atlantic coastal town of La Rochelle in November 1825.  His father was Theodore Bouguereau, a seller of wine and olive oil.  His father struggled to make much money from his business and because of the financial hardship and family tensions William was sent to live with his uncle Eugène Bouguereau, who was curate in the town of Montagne, some twenty kilometres from Bordeaux.   This enforced move to his uncles was to prove highly fortuitous for the young boy as it was his uncle who introduced him to the world of Roman and Greek mythology and had him read the stories from the Old and New Testaments.  At the age of thirteen, William’s uncle arranged for him to attend the high school at Pons where he attended his first drawing classes under the guidance of Louis Sage, a young classical painter who had once studied under Ingres.   He remained at the school for three years.  In 1841, he eventually moved to Bordeaux where his father had set up his business and once again William was with his family.  William joined in his father’s business but at the same time, in 1842, he was allowed to enrol on a two-year part-time course at the city’s École Municipale de Dessin et de Peinture.  Here he studied under  Jean-Paul Alaux, the French landscape painter and lithographer.  He could not attend full-time because of his promise to help his father during the day, and so, he only attended art classes in the early morning and in the late evening.  Despite being a part-time student he excelled in what he did and in 1844 he won first prize for the best History painting with his depiction of Saint Roch.     Following this award William Bouguerau realised that his future was indelibly tied to art.  To earn some money for himself he designed lithographic labels for jars of jams and other preserves.

Bouguereau realised that to progress with his art he needed to be in Paris which was, at that time, considered the capital of the art world.   However to live in the French capital required money, a commodity he lacked.  His father’s business was not successful enough for him to give his son the money but fortunately for William, his uncle Eugène, the curate, once again proved to be his salvation.  He arranged for William to paint portraits of his parishioners for a fixed fee and after months of portraiture he had amassed nine hundred francs.  A similar sum was given to him by his aunt and he was all set to head to Paris.

The Flagellation of Christ by William Bouguereau (1880)
The Flagellation of Christ by William Bouguereau (1880)

In my third and final blog about Bouguereau I will finish his life story but for today I want to focus on another of his great History paintings, his religious work entitled The Flagellation of Christ.   He exhibited this work at the 1880 Paris Salon.  It is a monumental work measuring 390 x 210 cms (almost 13ft high and 7ft wide).  One can easily imagine how it stood out from all the other works on show at the exhibition. This is acknowledged as being one of Bouguereau’s greatest religious works.  In this painting, Bouguereau has depicted Christ, tied to a column.  Christ’s body hangs down almost lifelessly with his feet dragging on the ground.  His head droops backwards.  His eyes are blank and unfocused. He is utterly powerless.  He can do little to stop the ferocious onslaught.  Unlike Bouguereau’s painting Dante and Virgil which I featured in the last blog, he has made no attempt to exaggerate the musculature in his portrayal of Christ’s body.  The body of Christ is that of a normal human being.  It is just like ours and in doing this Bouguereau has allowed us more easily to empathise with Christ’s suffering and pain.

A look of concern
A look of concern

We see Christ’s tormentors, two men, who stand on either side of him, arms raised in mid swing with their knotted rope whips airborne.  In the right foreground we see a third man kneeling.  He is in the process of tying up birch branches which will be used later to flagellate their prisoner.  Look at his facial expression.  It is one of concern.  It appears that maybe he is not convinced that what he sees before him is justified.  It is if he is beginning to question his part in the flogging.    In the background an inquisitive crowd gather to witness the flogging.  This is not a leering and jeering crowd we have seen in many of the crowd scenes in Northern Renaissance works.  This group of people cannot be likened to the snarling mob we have seen in earlier Passion of Christ depictions.

A child looks on
A child looks on

An old man in the crowd, maybe the father, lifts a baby aloft for him or her to get a better view.  There is little sign of compassion on the faces of the crowd.  Maybe they have accepted the charges that have been laid against Christ and feel that he needed to be punished.  However there is one exception.

Look closely at the far left of the background.  We see a young boy in a long green tunic who has turned away in horror of what is happening and has burrowed his head in the clothing of the woman who has wrapped her arm around him in a comforting gesture.  Maybe it is his mother.  Maybe she is horrified by what her young son has witnessed and is trying belatedly to protect him.  In the mid-background, there is a man wearing a white vest and grey headband.  He grips a sheath of birch branches and is readying himself to take part in the flogging.  There are a number of examples where the artist has decided to insert his own image into a work and Bouguereau has done the same in this painting.

The artist looks on
The artist looks on

Look at the face in the background to the right of the man wearing the white top and head band.  There, gazing between the spectators is a man with red hair and a red beard.  His brow is furrowed signifying his unease of what he sees before him.  This is believed to be the face of the artist himself.  He, like us, looks on at the terrible scene.

The size of the work almost certainly precluded the sale of it to a private individual and in 1881 Bouguereau gave it to the Society of Friends of the Arts in his home town of La Rochelle.  This majestic work can now be found at the Baptistery of La Rochelle Cathedral, France. 

Bouguereau never lost his love of Greek and Roman mythology which he had been brought up on from early age by his uncle Eugène.   As I said earlier, Bouguereau was a very religious man and religious imagery was a persistent theme in his paintings.   Often his religious works focused on sad and moving events and it is believed they mirrored the anguish and suffering he endured with the loss of loved ones in his own life, which I will talk about  next time.