New Bouguereau exhibition reexamines artist's popularity in Gilded Age America
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New Bouguereau exhibition reexamines artist's popularity in Gilded Age America
Dr. Rosamund Garrett, Associate Curator of European and Decorative Arts at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, and site curator for the exhibition Bouguereau & America, poses with Bouguereau’s 1886 painting A pied de la falaise (At the Foot of the Cliff), which is in the museum’s permanent collection.

MEMPHIS, TN.- The work of French academic painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau (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 & America includes 39 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.

“Bouguereau delights and confounds us. It’s hard not to be seduced by his exquisite technique and the shameless beauty of his modest nymphs, woebegone children, and polished peasants,” said Stanton Thomas, PhD, former Curator of European and Decorative Arts, Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, now Curator of Collections and Exhibitions, Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Florida, and co-curator of the exhibition. “But the question of meaning in these grand confections, which we are taught to expect from great art, often eludes us. This exhibition is a brilliant chance to revel in Bouguereau’s paintings—which are very nearly tableaux-vivants—and to look a little more carefully at those luscious and perennially popular works.”

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 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, PhD, 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.”

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, PhD, 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 US.”

A full-color exhibition catalogue, published by Yale University Press with essays by the Bouguereau & America co-curators as well as a group of distinguished scholars of the subject, has been published to accompany the exhibition. Copies of the catalogue, which received a multipage review in the May 9 New York Review of Books, are available for purchase in the Brooks’ Museum Store.

“With this exhibition, we are inviting visitors to look at these paintings not only as historically significant works but also as products of their time, allowing us to contemplate our values today,” said Marcelle Polednik, PhD, Donna and Donald Baumgartner Director, Milwaukee Art Museum. “By looking at Bouguereau and his role in the development of the American art collector, we are seeking to spark important conversations about the history and future of art and collecting.”

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