Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Additional commentary

about the oil painting excerpted from Fronia Wissman's book, Bouguereau.

Comparing Bouguereau's shepherdess with a similar scene by Millet (Newborn Lamb), while in a different medium-pastel-and on a wholly different scale, shows how Bouguereau has citified, or, at the least, taken the country out of his version. Millet's peasant does not pose; she has work to do and walks sturdily along. She does, however, take the time to look back at the ewe, a relatively scrawny creature, who follows her baby. In Millet's pastel the lamb is truly tiny-almost pathetic in its yearning for its mother-not the larger animal, old enough to resemble a big, fuzzy stuffed animal, cradled by Bouguereau's girl. Millet's shepherdess is stocky, rounded, and wears nondescript clothes. A telling difference, apart from the fact that Millet locates his figure in the specific context of the Norman countryside, evinced by the swinging gate in the hedgerow, is the girls' feet. Bouguereau's shepherdesses and mothers are almost always barefoot; Millet's wear sabots, the wooden shoes of the peasants. Bare feet can mean many things-poverty, a carefree life in a warm climate, humility. The bare feet of Bouguereau's figures underscore the fact that they are not real peasants, as Millet's were seen to be, so the urban viewer need in no way feel responsible for the peasants' hard lives. Bouguereau would have denied such an interpretation, insisting that he painted the human figure because it was the most beautiful subject to paint. Painting the figure well, meaning according to classical precepts, was the goal of the academic tradition of which he was a proud part. Thus, well-drawn and well-painted feet, notoriously difficult to render convincingly, can be seen as a mark of a highly skilled academic painter. Not interested in limning contemporary social concerns, Bouguereau focused all his attention on what he was good at-conveying sentiment in perfectly drawn figures.


  1. I've been meaning forever to comment and tell you how much I enjoyed this bit of painting analysis. I never thought of it outright before, but of course, it's quite true about Millet's emphasis as opposed to Bouguereau's. And I am in total agreement that Bouguereau *was* a master of feet! But after the changes Millet, art was never fully academic again.

  2. Hi Laura....glad you enjoyed the additional commentary. While my mother owns the book (paperback), I noticed that the hardback is selling at Amazon for $145!!!

    I am not as familiar with nuances in the painting world, so appreciate insight like this. My mothers says she learned to paint feet (and flesh coloring) by copying Bouguereau.

    More on the shepherd theme though is Randy Alcorn's short essay in my Advent Reader. Here's the link.

    Not only does he suggest that the Biblical writers may have idealised the role, but also reminds us that by using them as *witnesses*, their status is elevated. Love it!

    Merry Christmas!