One of my Christmas gifts this year was a book of Monsieur William A. Bouguereau’s paintings: William Bouguereau: The Essential Works (note: this is an affiliate link to Bookshops.org, supporting local bookshops).
It’s especially interesting since it also contains a brief biography and some background information on the various categories of paintings that M. Bouguereau practiced in.
From what I understand, many people criticize Mr. Bouguereau’s work as ‘pedestrian’ and lacking in emotion. This, I think, is a textbook example of following a narrative rather than actually making a critical assessment of a piece, since M. Bouguereau’s paintings are often electric with emotion.
Looking through the book last night, I actually found myself almost choking up with one or two of the paintings. In particular this one:
This is a painting of M. Bouguereau’s first wife, Nelly, which he painted shortly after her death in 1877. Something I hadn’t known before reading this book is that the two of them actually were not married for the first thirty years of their relationship: they lived together and had children together, but were not married until much later. Apparently, this was partly a money / social issue (she was poor and he was living on an artist’s salary. Plus, though he was a devout Catholic, he was also an artist and a French one at that, so…), but in any case he did stay by her for all that time and they eventually formalized their relationship.
Now, what struck me about this painting is the expression on her face. M. Bouguereau was a master of subtle expressions of face and pose, especially the hands. Look at the tilt of her head, the small smile on her mouth and the tone of her eyes. And she’s framed in darkness, the darkness of her clothes almost blending into the background. We almost can’t see anything about her except her face and hands.
Note the touch of sadness to her expression as well, like he is watching her pass on, and she’s looking back at him as she fades into the darkness.
Looking at this painting last night, I realized something: beyond any doubt whatsoever, I know that he loved her. It feels as though I am able to see through the man’s eyes for a moment and understand some small piece of his interior life.
That’s a rare experience.
Here’s some more of M. Bouguereau’s art for your pleasure (wish I had better quality images for these, but oh well):