William-Adolphe Bouguereau is a 19th-century French academic painter whose works included – but are not limited to – historical, religious, and genre scenes. During the Gilded Age in America, Bouguereau’s paintings were in high demand; causing many of Bouguereau’s paintings to reflect America's taste and preferences during the Gilded Age.
The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art showcases a major exhibit called “Bouguereau and America”, which is currently on view up through September the 22nd. The new Associate Curator of European and Decorative Arts at the Brooks, Dr. Rosamund Garrett, joins Kacky Walton for Checking on the Arts to discuss the Brooks Museums newest exhibit.
Kacky Walton: Where were you before you made the leap over the pond?
Dr. Rosamund Garrett: I was working in central London at the Courtauld Gallery, which is an art institute that is famous for teaching art historians, conservators, and curators.
Walton: What enticed you to come to the Brooks?
Garrett: I saw the job advertised and I thought Memphis could be a really fun city. Then I started to look into the collection at the Brooks. I realized that the collection there was really something special. I didn’t think it has had the international attention there that it deserved.
Then, I found out that the museum was moving downtown. It’s not very often that you get to build a museum from scratch.
Walton: The current “Bouguereau and America” exhibit was co-organized with the Milwaukee Art Museum and took ten years to come together.
Garrett: It began a long time before I arrived here in Memphis, which was about seven months ago. It is a project that I inherited from my predecessor, Dr. Stanton Thomas.
Here we’ve got 39 of the pictures. In Milwaukee they had 41 because two of the pictures we could not get into our building because they were too big. This exhibit really stretched the museum to the limits. The largest picture that we have is “The Return from the Harvest,” which is from the Cummer Museum in Florida. It’s nearly eight feet tall and five and a half foot wide. If you look at it on the wall you will see that it is pretty much the same size as the wall.
Walton: In a Commerical Appeal article you talked about people not thinking about that goes into making an exhibit like this
Garrett: No, I don’t think so. There is a lot that happens behind the scenes that people don’t necessarily realize goes into an exhibition. I inherited site curating this project, which means that it is not my responsibility to do the interpretation that as done by my predecessor Stanton and also Tanya in Milwaukee.
It is my responsibility to design the exhibition. So, what it looks like here in Memphis. That might mean the flow of the exhibition; where do people come in; where do they leave and where do we have the different sections of the exhibition.
We have five different sections. You begin with portraiture – the portraits of the patrons, so the people who were buying his works. This means that we are getting a look at the kinds of people who really loved his work during Gilded Age America.
You move from portraiture into historical paintings. These are some of the biggest paintings that we have in the exhibition. These are sort of very restrained, classical ideas.
Then you move into the next room and you will find genre scenes, and what that means is that these are images of daily life. You are looking at pastoral scenes or women sewing. I often explain Bouguereau as the type of artist that you really get sucked into the beauty of his canvases. But then once you step away, you start to think about these things. You have these complicated feelings afterward.
After you go through the genre scene you are into the religious subjects. There you can see that Bouguereau is thinking about the virtue of faith. He was a Catholic himself and you can see his influences.
After that, you have our final subject, which is sensuous subjects. That is when you get some contradictions, I think, in Gilded Age America because we have many nude women in this part of the section.
Walton: Is this the Victorian Age?
Garrett: Yeah, this is the Victorian Age.
Walton: The exhibit is “Bouguereau and America”. Do you think if the market for Bouguereau was not here, in America, he would have attained the level of popularity that he did?
Garrett: I think that it is America that really made him. I often explain to people that this is more than an exhibition about a French academic painter. This is an exhibition about American taste; it is different in the Gilded Age and with this section of the one percent, of the one percent – the really, extraordinarily wealthy – the people who are building the railways, the people who have invented condensed milk, these people who became exceptionally wealthy; it’s their taste.
Bouguereau became a millionaire in his lifetime, which is something quite extraordinary for an artist then and now. It was mostly the Americans who were funding him, by buying his pictures. I say that it is about their taste it's because their tastes molded the works that he was making. He started off painting these big history paintings. Some of them were very heroic. Some of them a little violent. Some of them very frenzy. Some of them had some horrific elements in them. Some of them had sand that was in the paint, but the Americans did not like it. So, he stopped painting those kinds of things. You are not just seeing an overview of his work, but you also get this window into Gilded Age America and the taste of the elite in that particular period.
Walton: What is an academic painter?
Garrett: That means that he went through very vagarious training. Not like art college today here today. You would start off by copying prints by other artists in order to learn about tone and light and contrast. Only by the time that you had mastered those particular things could you move on to drawing sculptures. Then you would spend another year on drawing sculptures. Then someone would say that you got that now, let’s move onto the next thing. Then you’d be allowed to draw from life and the nude body.
It’s four years of this exceptionally tough, very rigorous training, learning from the old masters – from the best of the best essentially. There was not a huge amount for freedom in that. It was very, very formal. It is only after that that you can start to play a little bit with the formality of the training.
Walton: The sales of Bouguereau’s works had something to do with the establishment of formal art museums in America. Correct?
Garrett: Yes, it did. People were buying them for their own private collections but then the interest in Bouguereau fluctuate in America but never faulted. That is key. There has always been this love affair with America and Bouguereau. It’s sort of a match made in heaven.
When the private collection started to fill up, these things came to be museums. There are still some in private collections today. Out of the 39 that we have, 30 of them are from institutions and the others are from private lenders.
To learn more about this exhibit and other upcoming Brooks Museum events visit www.brooksmuseum.org or call (901) 554-6200