William-Adolphe Bouguereau ‘Return from the Harvest’ at Cummer Museum

Would you believe the painter of this artwork, William-Adolphe Bouguereau (French, 1825-1905), was once one of the most controversial figures in the art world? Beloved by a certain set of art collectors, derided by another set of artists?

What could possibly be contentious about this massive – it’s about 10 feet tall – deftly-rendered, sweet depiction of an idealized child riding a donkey playing the role of Roman god Bacchus, surrounded by joyful peasants, in this celebration of age-old harvest festivals?

Bouguereau’s Return from the Harvest (1878; oil on canvas) at the Cummer Museum allows me to share one of the most unusual stories I’ve come across in my time as an arts writer.

Bouguereau was a painting superstar during the late 1800s through the early 20th century. He was laureled by the French artistic establishment. His popularity extended to America where collections–public and private–featuring his work were instantly stamped “bona fide” for elegance, taste and worldly sophistication.

His idealized, polished images—chastely sensual, classical maidens, Raphaelesque Madonnas, impossibly pristine peasant children—embodied the tastes of the American Victorian age and his Gilded Age patrons which including the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and Carnegies.

But he had his detractors as well. Detractors whose influence would far surpass his own. Detractors who “won” art history, leaving Bouguereau forgotten–or ridiculed–as a hopeless anachronism. Detractors with names like Degas, Cézanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin.

Bouguereau’s exquisitely refined, restrained, traditionally academic style of painting was in stark contrast to the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists who wanted to free painting from its confining history. They wanted to express themselves, their feelings and their emotions on the canvas. They wanted to paint ordinary people, warts and all. They wanted to experiment with color and perspective. They wanted to show their brushstrokes.

Their innovations, eventually, took hold, birthing Modern art and the countless even more radical experimentations which followed. Experimentations which made Bouguereau’s work appear ever stodgier.

On top of that, the pin-up pretty, lily-white, demure, submissive nude women occupying domestic or pastoral settings which fill his paintings don’t age well at all. Interestingly, the wall text beside this artwork at the Cummer explains that when it was commissioned by wealthy American department store owner Alexander T. Stewart, he stipulated it not be a nude.

Important to note about Bouguereau is that while his artwork was in line with 19th century mores in terms of objectifying women, he held progressive views on their place in the art world. As a faculty member at Paris’ Academie Julian, Bouguereau championed the right of women to join classes and paint alongside men. At this time, women were not allowed to enroll at the larger, more prestigious École des Beaux-Arts.

If it’s only Bouguereau’s paintings which offend Modern sensibilities, is that a crime worthy of banishment from the art world? Are Bouguereau ’s paintings “worse” for women than Gauguin’s pedophilia or Picasso’s notoriously abhorrent mistreatment of his numerous lovers? Gauguin and Picasso continue to be museum exhibit darlings drawing huge crowds, why not Bouguereau?

Bouguereau, the French salon system and Neo-classicism “lost” art history to the Modernists. Return from the Harvest allows you to ponder for yourself the verdict and its legacy.

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