The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts acquires a William Bouguereau


1. William Bouguereau (1825-1905)
The Battle of the Centaurs and Lapithae, 1853
Oil on canvas - 124.5 x 174.3 cm
Richmond, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Photo : Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

4/6/09 – Acquisition – Richmond, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts – William Bouguereau is one of the best known and appreciated French “academic” painters in the United States. He also draws some of the sharpest criticism from partisans of a strictly modernist view of art history.

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond acquired one of the artist’s most remarkable canvases [1] (ill. 1), late last year, from the cabinet Bréton-Blondeau. This is an early painting, sent from the Villa Medicis where Bouguereau was staying after winning the Prix de Rome in 1850. It is well known that the students were supposed to produce a work every year which was then exhibited in Paris and judged by the Académie des Beaux-Arts. The choice of subject was up to the painter but fell within certain parameters. In 1853, Bouguereau presented two works, a rather unusual precedent. He had of course only won the second Grand Prix (the first winner was Paul Baudry) and his stay in Rome was thus to last only three years instead of five. These two canvases were a copy [2] of Raphael’s Galatea (a work which he will also keep in mind when painting the Birth of Venus in 1879, Musée d’Orsay) and this Battle of Centaurs and Lapithae, bought by the American museum.

2. William Bouguereau (1825-1905)
Dante and Virgil in Hell, 1850
Oil on canvas - 281 x 225 cm
Private collection
Photo : Wikimedia Commons

Although Bouguereau is mostly familiar for his overly sentimental scenes, at times even affectedly so as found in several museums in the United States, thus explaining his reputation among critics as mentioned above, his other manner should not be overlooked, a Romantic and somber one which he illustrated in many paintings throughout his career. Starting in 1848 with Equality where an angel covers a dead man’s body with a sheet, an allegory of the revolutionary events which had just taken place, then in 1850 with Dante and Virgil in Hell (ill. 2) admired by Théophile Gautier, the artist revealed his penchant for subjects which were miles away from the Broken Pitcher, The Knitting Girl and Temptation. Orestes Pursued by the Furies (Norkfolk, Chrysler Museum) in 1862 and First Mourning in 1888 (Buenos Aires, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes) show that he never really abandoned this vein.
This Battle of Centaurs and Lapithae reveals an attentive anatomical study, notably the figure in the foreground, which can also be found in most of the paintings quoted (for example the angel in Equality shows the same muscular development, a rare phenomenon in a supposedly a-sexual creature). The atmosphere of stormy weather and the almost Baroque animation of this work evokes parallels with the late Romanticism found in such artists as François Chifflart and Gustave Doré.

Version française


Didier Rykner, jeudi 4 juin 2009


Notes

[1] We had published this news item in January but the purchase had not been completed ; the museum had announced it prematurely. We had thus chosen to withdraw the item. Theoretically this took place in the fourth year.

[2] William Bougereau, Petit Palais, Paris, 1984, pp. 140-141. Today it is held by the artist’s heirs, as is Dante and Virgil in Hell. The Battle of the Centaurs and Lapithae came up for auctin at Sotheby’s in 1998 and was shown for the last time at the exhibition Maestà di Roma (see article in French), cat. 183, pp. 401-402, entry by Pierre Sérié.



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