My sister Sarah has been harassing me for days asking to help. Truly, every morning I get a text asking, “How may I help you today?” Her persistence and annoying texts paid off and today was her big day. She got the bid to take me to MD Anderson for my echocardiogram and chemo using Rose for the first time. (The echocardiogram is a baseline from which we can determine if my heart is getting damaged from the chemo cocktail – which they say it won’t.)
Sarah and I have “Ferris Bueller Day Off” days, where we skip life, sip wine and scour the town for art with which we can pose. We tend to get ourselves in trouble having too much wine while having too much fun. Today, our beverage was Diet Coke and I took Taxol. We sat in a private cube with a curtain, read People magazines, overheard others’ unsettling health ailments and just enjoyed being together. She’s my best friend.
Although I told the nurse that Sarah was my much older sister, I am five and a half years the elder, making The Elder Sister, by William-Adolph Bouguereau (Boo-goo-row), a solid reenactment choice. This piece is the perennial favorite of visitors to the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. Bouguereau painted with such perfection (especially hands and feet) that one of my professors claimed he was responsible for starting the Impressionist movement because no artist felt they could improve upon Bouguereau. I’m not a huge fan because his paintings seem so sweet – unrealistically so. However, if you look closely, the perfection and photo-realism of his paintings are undeniable.
When I saw The Nut Gatherers at the Detroit Institute of Art, I immediately knew the artist. Not because I’m so good at identifying artists (I’m not) but because it looked so similar to The Elder Sister. I mean come on, the same girl is wearing the same outfit.
I would love to recreate this one with Sarah as I, the elder, cast my all-knowing “Do you really think that was the best decision?” look; I would particularly enjoy that because it would be the first time to use that look on her. The narrative scene is so balanced in tone, volume, space. I would write more, but this blog post on it captures the sentiment beautifully. The intimacy here, the safe space between a listener and one sharing a burden, is beautiful and especially resonates with me today, with Sarah.
A little more on the artist:
He was born in 1825 and his family members were wine and olive oil merchants. An uncle/Catholic priest recognized young William’s intellect and is credited with sending him to high school; which led to classes at the famed École des Beaux-Arts; which led to a year-long fellowship at Villa Medici in Rome. There, Bouguereau took classes, studied classical art and literature and perfected painting the human body. As judge and exhibitioner at the annual Salon in Paris, he rejected work by Monét and Renoir in favor of more representational work. His talent won him commissions from wealthy patrons, as well as the distinction of Grand Officer in France’s Legion of Honor. This is a thorough article on his work and its antagonism against more modern art.
A defining characteristic of his style is a reference to classicism, a label for art and literature informed by the Greeks and Romans. Another word for this genre is academicism, which promotes Classical ideals of beauty and artistic perfection in portraits and landscapes.
Due to changing tastes and artists’ penchant to knock off his work, Bouguereau fell out of favor and died penniless. In 1984, The New York Times labeled him “bland and boring” and the Christian Science Monitor debased his oeuvre as “purchased by rich, under-educated Americans.” But his work, and classical-inspired art in general, has seen a comeback recently. In 2000, Bouguereau’s Charity sold for $3.5 million, the most ever paid for one of his paintings.
I still think I’d pass up a Bouguereau if I saw one at the St. John’s Guild Shop, but I must say his idealized view of life and the human body is appealing. I wonder how he would paint those of us wandering around MD Anderson? We’d probably wear peaceful, accepting smiles of understanding and warmth. That’s how every staff member appears anyway, except Tessie the Too Cheery Nurse whom I’ve already decried on this site. Winding this up, biographers Damien Bartoli and Frederick C. Ross extol Bouguereau, saying:
“William Bouguereau is unquestionably one of history’s greatest artistic geniuses. Yet in the past century, his reputation and unparalleled accomplishments have undergone a libelous, dishonest, relentless and systematic assault of immense proportions. His name was stricken from most history texts and when included it was only to blindly, degrade and disparage him and his work. … it was he who single handedly opened the French academies to women, and it was he who was arguably the greatest painter of the human figure in all of art history. His figures come to life like no previous artist has ever before or ever since achieved. He wasn’t just the best ever at painting human anatomy, more importantly he captured the tender and subtlest nuances of personality and mood. Bouguereau caught the very souls and spirits of his subjects much like Rembrandt. Rembrandt is said to have captured the soul of age. Bouguereau captured the soul of youth.”
Enjoy this slideshow of William-Adolph Bouguereau’s work set to sappy “Memories” from Cats, and afterwards, some photos of my memories with Sarah hunting for art around Houston. You can see Sarah’s own artwork at sarahcatonwynne.com.