The Nymphaeumc. 1878 by
Bouguereau, William-Adolphe 1825-1905
According to a writer for the Chicago Evening Post in the 1920s, Bouguereau's reputation in America was built upon his paintings of nudes. When Bouguereau's 1884 painting The Bathers (Chicago Art Institute) came up for bid at a sale of 1886, it received applause and was promptly bought for a New York saloon for eighteen thousand dollars. Critics may have quibbed over whether his nudes were erotic or chaste, but clearly the public adored them.

The Nymphaeum was created as an exhibition piece, like many of the artist's most important works. Displayed at the 1878 Universal Exposition in Paris, its complex composition, with no fewer than fifteen figures, was meant to prove Bouguereau's superiority as an established master. By exhibiting it alongside his religious, allegorical, genre, and portrait paintings (twelve in all), he demonstrated his versatility and won a medal of honor.

The subject of thirteen stark-naked nymphs cavorting in a secret woodland grotto, with a satyr and Greek youth peeping through the bushes, is, of course, pure fantasy, meant to transport the viewer from the day-to-day cares and boredom of modern urban life into a serene daydream of classical Arcadia, where there swell not flesh-and-blood women, but visions of perfection. Their impossibly smooth skins, their harmoniously proportioned bodies, their liquid movements, establish a kinship with classical sculpture and the paintings of Titian and Poussin.

While such paintings usually are considered to be out of the mainstream of modern art, Bouguereau's classical fantasies evoke interesting connections with the poetry of the Parnassian Heredia and the Symbolist Mallarme. The lines of the latter's famous "Afternoon of a Faun" (1876, 1877) closely parallel The Nymphaeum:

These nymphs, I would make them endure.
Their delicate flesh-tint so clear,
it hovers yet upon the air
heavy with foliage of sleep.

For both painter and poet, nymphs represent impossible objects of desire, as inaccessible as the Ideal itself, which both nevertheless sought in preference to mundane reality. This, it is perfectly understandable that Bouguereau's women are clones of the same vision. The artist's refusal to be true to life irked critics and artists of the naturalist cause as much as did his perfectionist technique, which to them implied that finish was the painter's sole objective. Yet this is surely not the case, for expression and formal arrangement were equally important to Bouguereau. He distrusted the spontaneity of the Impressionists, preferring the tried-and-true methods of the old masters. After making thumbnail sketches, in which he formulated the great lines that control his compositions with graceful and logical transitions, he worked out the pattern of light and dark and the color harmonies in oil studies. Then he posed a live model in order to make figure drawings and oil sketches of heads and hands. Next came a full-scale cartoon in which he adjusted his composition and the arrangement of lights and darks. As last, ready to begin the final painting on canvas, so carefully thought out in advance, he proceeded rather rapidly. In The Nymphaeum his brush seems to caress the nudes, following contours, giving volume through subtle modelings. This painting abounds in demonstrations of the artist's virtuosity. Bouguereau's skill in painting hands and feet, troublesome details for some artists, was widely recognized and is evident here. He does not gloss over their complex structures and, moreover, varies positions. Each nude is posed differently-several are tributes to artists he admired, Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian, Ingres- displaying front, side, and back in a variety of foreshortened views. In lighting, too, Bouguereau was a master of his craft. Figures emerge from and sink into shadows, giving both depth and variety. The rippling contour of the arm and back of the foremost nymph in the rope swing stands out forcefully, yet not sharply, against the deep shadows of the grotto, while her companion is delicately modeled by halftones. The stretching nymph on the left is backlit so that the edges of her long hair glow like a halo.

Critics denounced Bouguereau's artifice, yet this is precisely what forges a link between the grand manner of the past and the formalism of the twentieth century. Erase the shadows, delineate the sweeping arabesques, intensify the colors, and The Nymphaeum could almost become the counterpart of similar nude idylls by Bouguereau's rebellious student Henri Matisse (1869-1954). Both artists found in surface pattern the secret of compositional harmony, which is seen here in the graceful arrangement of figures, which leads the eye from one to another. The attention to contours and grand lines creates voids with shapes nearly as interesting as solids, another connecting point between Bouguereau and Matisse.

If Bouguereau is not now usually regarded in this way, it is perhaps because his women evoke memories of silent-film starlets and because of Impressionism's rough, impastoed surfaces soon made his careful shadings and finish seem insincere. But now that it is being judged according to a standard of preference rather than truth, Bouguereau's work is again appreciated for its unique qualities.

Size (inches): 57 x 82 1/2
Medium: Oil on Canvas
Location: Haggin Room
Victory Park - Stockton
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