At the Brooks, Old French Portraits Hang in New Political Landscapes

Aug 1, 2019

Brooks Museum patrons are taking a new look at the lush paintings of Bouguereau.
Credit Christopher Blank/WKNO

"Well-licked" is an apt, if slightly pejorative description for the luscious nubiles in the works of William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905). His rivals in the French art world compared his flawlessly smooth technique to the polished effect of tongue upon ice cream. Professional jealousy, maybe? Bouguereau was among the best-known and most successful painters of the Gilded Age. 

His critics, the Impressionists mainly, got the last laugh. The value of their works have skyrocketed. Bouguereau's works would, for much of the 20th Century, fade into relative obscurity, though that has been changing thanks to new champions such as Jeff Koons.

Through September 22, the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art is featuring a major exhibition of Bouguereau's work at a time when society is posing new and poignant questions about agency.

The 40 works comprising "Bouguereau & America" were assembled by co-curators Stanton Thomas, now curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Fl., and Tanya Paul at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

"One of the things that always surprises me about this exhibition is how many parallels this has with our own time and how often it serves as kind of a distant mirror to what's happening in our own society," Thomas says. 

In one famous painting, a pair of child beggars with perfect skin and innocent faces represents the kind of romanticized poverty the richest one-percent could stomach hanging over their dinner tables. 

"These are the kind of poor people you'd want," Thomas says. "They're imploring, they don't have any power, they are respectful and they're clean, you could approach them, you could offer your largess, and then they are going to wander off, so it kind of reinforces social order."

The collection includes a number of nudes that would hardly cause a batted eyelid in conservative drawing rooms, save for the luminous quality of the paint. "Pornography for Puritans," is how Thomas describes the somewhat chilly and porcelain quality of Bouguereau's subjects. Yet, in the era of #MeToo, when society is recalibrating the male gaze, these dazzling pinups for the elite could prompt a cultural double take. 

One painting, called Dawn, famously inspired a rich American mining tycoon to find and marry a girl who resembled Bouguereau's model. He was in his 50s, she was a teenager. The painting's backstory is either romantic or, as billionaire sexual predators such as Jeffrey Epstein continue to make headlines, a little creepy. 

Whitney Hardy, an organizer with Young Arts Patrons, a group that introduces people to art collecting, said Bouguereau's work speaks loudest to his intended market -- rich, white, American men with luxurious if somewhat pedestrian tastes.

"You can tell he's painting to make the collectors and the buyers feel good," Hardy said. "And not so much the audience that's (depicted in the painting)."