Across the mammoth canvas coy cherubs dance behind flute-playing satyrs. Dark gods, in descending degrees of drunkenness, join in the pictorial bacchanal. Only the nymphs, lyric figures with decorously placed drapery, add a languor to the fray. A life-size extravaganza of human forms, The Education of Bacchus (1884) was French artist William Adolphe Bouguereau’s self-proclaimed masterpiece. And, indeed, the opulent work is an appropriate focal point to the lavish and controversial retrospective exhibition of his painting now on display at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA). Like the other 140 pieces Bacchus represents the height of 19th-century French academic painting: grand in intent, pleasing to the eye, skilfully executed but, ultimately, puerile. William Bouguereau, while undeniably a crowd pleaser, is also proving to be one of the most controversial resurrections of a forgotten artist in years.
Like other recent exhibits, William Bouguereau is part of a major trend toward re-examining the traditional artists of the 19th century, including Henri Fantin-Latour and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. Ever since freelance curator Louise d’Argencourt, now under contract to the MMFA, first unveiled the show in Paris last February, it has
aroused critical debate on two continents. The Paris newspaper Le Matin described the works as “frankly disgusting, dirty, foul, repugnant, contemptible, atrocious and nauseating.” But the prestigious British art publication The Burlington Magazine declared that the retrospective was a “coup.” And North American critics have been equally inconsistent in judging an artist whom history had consigned to relative obscurity before he died in 1905.
While he lived to see his popularity wane, Bouguereau was for many years one of the most sought-after artists of his age. A professor at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and a leading exhibitor at the Salon, the annual academic art exhibition at the Louvre, he openly acknowl-
edged painting “to please the public.” At a time when Matisse, Cézanne and Manet were exploring the frontiers of art, Bouguereau was enjoying financial success by returning to the classical and picturesque past, both for subject matter and technique. American millionaire collectors, in particular, eagerly bought his paintings of innocent peasant girls, Greek goddesses and limpid madonnas.
But his fame was relatively short-lived. As the Montreal exhibition proves, changing times and tastes deservedly shunted Bouguereau into the backwaters. Taken as a whole, his sentimental art leaves the viewer with the uncomfortable feeling of having devoured a whole box of chocolates. In Admiration (1897) five young women with beatific expressions gaze upon a winged cupid. Intended as an allegory of devotion, the work is instead an artful depiction of coy sexuality. The child figure, in both expression and pose, is lewd. Bouguereau’s devotion to artifice is also evident in A Soul Brought to Heaven. Death has become a fairy tale, as two angels transport a bare-bosomed young woman through the clouds. To underline the bathos, rose petals cascade earthward from her arms.
The MMFA has audaciously proclaimed William Bouguereau to be “the art sensation of the century.” But d’Argencourt herself has more accurately described the show as “an archeological study.” She added, “People should come to see Bouguereau the same way they would a dinosaur.” In its entirety the retrospective establishes the artist as a master of his craft. But nowhere is there an indication of artistic greatness or creativity. History did well to leave Bouguereau behind.«^?
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