Published: April 24, 2019
MILWAUKEE, WIS. — The work of French academic painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau (French, 1825–1905), who enjoyed remarkable popularity throughout America’s Gilded Age, is the focus of a new exhibition co-organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. “Bouguereau & America” is the first major exhibition of the artist’s work in nearly 30 years.
“Bouguereau is a defining figure in the history of French art and an extraordinary painter whose masterful canvases evoke delight and wonder. In addition to that, however, Bouguereau’s work can teach us much more,” said Tanya Paul, Isabel and Alfred Bader curator of European art, Milwaukee Art Museum and co-curator of the exhibition. “The story of Bouguereau is the story of the way art rises and falls in popularity; the role dealers, collectors and patrons play in shaping art and taste; and, in many ways, the way art was collected as members of a new American merchant class tried to define themselves and their role in the world through culture.”
Opening first at the Milwaukee Art Museum, “Bouguereau & America” will include more than 45 canvases by the French artist, whose renown peaked in America between the late 1860s and the early 1900s, and whose works form the backbone of many museum collections. Pulling together large-scale canvases from museums and private collections in the United States and Mexico, the exhibition presents not just the paintings, but also their provenance in order to examine their popularity and cultural relevance in America.
During the Gilded Age, owning a painting by Bouguereau was considered essential for any American who aspired to be a serious art collector. The artist’s grand representational canvases, with their self-conscious references to acknowledged masters like Raphael, brought a sense of sophistication to newly formed collections. “Bouguereau & America” takes a comprehensive and contemporary look at the artist’s reputation — once revered by Gilded Age collectors and later reviled by critics — and offers an opportunity to examine how society’s perspectives on art and subject matter can shift over time.
“The elegance, technical perfection and flawless surfaces of Bouguereau’s canvases have beguiled American collectors from the beginning,” said Emily Ballew Neff, executive director, Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. “A milestone in the history of art collecting, this exhibition reveals why so many Gilded Age patrons keenly desired a Bouguereau for their art collections, and how so many of the artist’s enthusiastic patrons — and their Bouguereaus — were instrumental in the formation of art museums in the United States.”
By reexamining Bouguereau’s collectors, the exhibition sheds light on how the history of collecting mirrors the religious beliefs, sexual mores and social problems of the period, as well as how the artist’s popularity influenced his subject matter.
“Bouguereau & America” will be on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum through May 12. The exhibition will then travel to the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, where it will be on view June 22 to September 22. It will close at the San Diego Museum of Art, where it will be on view from November 9 to March 15, 2020.
The Milwaukee Art Museum is at 700 North Art Museum Drive. For more information, 414-224-3200 or www.mam.org.
The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art at 1934 Poplar Avenue. For more information about the Brooks, 901-544-6200 or www.brooksmuseum.org.
The San Diego Museum of Art is at 1450 El Prado. For more information about the San Diego Museum, 619-232-7931 or www.sdmart.org.
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