Monday, April 25, 2011

Bouguereau and Sculpture

A painter ought sometimes to consult a sculptor, and vice versa.  ~  Alfred Stevens

As picture teaches the colouring, so sculpture the anatomy of form.  ~  Ralph Waldo Emerson

Many have, at some time, heard Jules Olitski's sardonic observation that "sculpture is the stuff you trip over when you are backing up trying to look at a painting," but if a painter were to actually adopt such disdain for sculpture, he would be ignoring the valuable lessons contained within that difficult art.  Students have certainly benefitted by working from the plaster cast, and those contemporary ateliers which place as much emphasis on drawing from the cast as did the late 19th century Academies, are still producing the best draughtsmen of today.  Painters who also sculpt, even if if is only occasionally, report that the three-dimensional work aids them in understanding and portraying form in their two-dimensional works, and painters who have made a study of sculpture have walked away with a better understanding of composing figures.  With such factors in mind, it is no doubt that when famous Belgian artist Alfred Stevens suggested to other painters that they "ought sometimes to consult a sculptor," that it was not advice lightly given.

The Plaque of the Ergastines, 445-438 BC, Louvre Museum

William Adolphe Bouguereau was one artist who was very fond of sculpture.  His workman-like studio at rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, had little of the exotic decor found in the studios of his contemporaries, but it did house plaster casts from which his students would draw, and several other sculptures he seemed to keep for his own enjoyment.  It was sculpture, after all, which spurred him on to be a better painter.
During that period of my studies - around 1846 - when progress was slow or almost nil, and when no one was willing to provide the explanations my soul craved for, I experienced (it was just after my arrival in Paris) many discouraging weeks.
I was in this state of mind one day when, strolling through the Louvre, I saw the casts of the Parthenon pediment.  How can I describe the emotion I felt?  A veil fell my eyes.  Never had I experienced such a deep and intense joy.  What was it I saw in those wonderful plasters?
I understood that the subtlety of accents, in contrast with large planes, is what makes a drawing great.  This truth, which I have yearned all my life to express and which still drives me on, is the secret of art.  It applies to composition as well as to drawing proper.  It is the principle that must guide both the young beginner and the fully developed artist.¹

Many of Bouguereau's alabaster-skinned figures resemble statues.

American painter Richard Lack may not mention the influence of sculpture on Bougereau, but in his essay on the French painter Lack certainly acknowledges Bouguereau's mastery of tone, which was the result of inspiration from the Parthenon's friezes.
Alongside his mastery of line, Bouguereau utilizes tone relationships with commanding authority.  Harmony of dark and light tones is of first importance in a painting.  It is even more critical than color since tone arrangement must underlie every color scheme.
Color or hue cannot exist without value.  Painters often say that any color scheme will suffice if the values are harmoniously conceived.  Bouguereau's handsome value harmonies are like music of great beauty and subtlety...²

I say that sculpture is eight times as great as any other art based on drawing, because a statue
has eight views and they must all be equally good.  ~  Benvenuto Cellini

Finally, it must also be noted that Bouguereau would, on occasion, rely on the work of sculptors for his models, when his regular models could not suffice.  James Caroll Beckwith, an American artist who studied in Paris from 1873 through 1878, recounted this story:
Entering Bouguereau's studio one morning, before he had come up from breakfast, I was studying with interest a large canvas half completed, representing a group of laughing children with a donkey.  A gaudily attired Italian woman was endeavoring to pacify a curly-headed cherub, the model for the morning, who was ruthlessly rubbing his dirty fingers over some exquisite pencil drawing which lay on the floor at the foot of the easel.  I rescued the drawings, while the mother apologetically explained to me in Neopolitan French that M. Bouguereau spoiled all of her children so that she could do nothing with them at home or elsewhere.  The drawings were beautiful reproductions of the "Laughing Faun" in the sculpture gallery of the Louvre.  As Bouguereau entered the room, he began a series of frolics with the youngest which quite verified the words of the mother.  [When he stopped] at last to set his palette, I asked him when he had made the drawings.  "Oh, you see, that mauvais sujet is so wicked," said he, pointing to the curly-headed urchin turning somersaults on the floor, "that I can use him for nothing but color and was obliged to spend nearly all of yesterday afternoon at the Louvre, making these notes for the form."³

Good painting is the kind that looks like sculpture.  ~  Michelangelo


¹ William Bouguereau, "Allocution de M. Bouguereau" in Distribution des Prix de l'École de dessin au Grand Théâtre, 1899, (Bordeaux, 1899), pp. 17-18.
² Richard Lack, Bouguereau's Legacy to the Student of Painting (Minneapolis:  Atelier Lack, Inc., 1982), p.4.
³ Caroll Beckwith, "Bouguereau" in The Cosmopolitan, January, 1890, Vol. 8, No. 3, p. 264.

The above excerpts were all taken from Mark Steven Walker's "Bouguereau at Work," William Bouguereau (The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal, 1984), pp. 73-79.


jeff said...

Very good article. It's interesting to note that Frank Duveneck was one hell of a sculptor. Next time you're in Boston check out the new American wing as they have an amazing tomb he sculpted for his wife. Tragic story really, but what piece of craving!

jeff said...

I made a mistake. Frank Duveneck did not sculpt the memorial for his wife.
He did work very close with a sculptor and the original is in the Allori cemetery in Florence where his wife Elizabeth Boott is buried.

skopas said...

yeah, well thought of article. Bougereau set the par real high on anatomy esp, in the realm of the classical canon. No wonder his figures glide in his pictures just truly touching stuff. I've seen so many peeps nowadays put value and colour ahead of form and their pictures seem to be in a state of wanting or beggary, which is almost hideous to sight. Yet given high rep because it seems realistic. Even Sargent paid respect to the classical line. I suppose the 19th century discipline, is still one of a shadow that lingers over our attempts at getting the balance right.

chambersartstudio said...


Your consistent level of scholarship in writing your blog never ceases to amaze me. In addition, you always share with us fantastic images to illustrate your points. I don't know how much time you give to this work, but I would imagine it is a good amount. Many people have written and thanked you, and commented on the fineness of your work, both in scholarship and in painting. I just want to add my voice to theirs. It never hurts to hear how appreciated we are, especially when providing such a valuable and educational resource. Thank you for being such a fantastic artist, teacher, writer, and all around generous person. If you ever decide to write a book, I will be first in line to buy it.

innisart said...

Thank you, Robert. I do appreciate the appreciation. :)

:::Julia Lundman::: said...

I sculpt once a week as a side hobby and general interest. Since beginning sculpting practice, I have noticed a definite improvement and understanding in my ability to depict 3D form into 2D images on paper, canvas, etc.

My personal theory is that the areas of the brain that require sculpting spacial skills must be near by the spacial area that allows us to interpret images onto a flat plane. Perhaps by sculpting these two areas are strengthened with more connections. Something within me just feels that way. I know it sounds a bit odd, but I'm convinced of it.


m.whynot said...

Did Cellini sculpt the piece with the child lying at the feet of an adult? I don't recognize it. Do you have a link to an image of the total sculpture?

अर्जुन said...


Ugolino and his Sons
Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827–1875)

Ian Dorian said...

Interesting article. The information is clear and concise. Suggestion: Separate the quotes from the images so individuals without our education in sculpture don't think a different artist made a particular piece. As a professor of sculpture design painting drawing and stone carving I agree whole heartily with the concept that sculpture supports drawing and painting. I taught advanced anatomy and advanced techniques for a few years (aside from being an adjunct professor at MICA in Baltimore City, and, U of A in Philadelphia) at the Joe Kubert School for cartoon and Graphic arts. It is a good school. They do not have classes in Sculpture or 3 Dimensional Design as it does not seem (to those who never sculpted)to apply to the 2D arts, however, I had suggested that they offer a sculpture class as It would inform the students to better understand form and design within and around a moving object as well as increase their understanding of the mechanics of the human body. I no longer teach there but enjoyed the experience and have since continued to teach figure sculpture and design. Cheers to this article and those who support 3 dimensional art!-Ian Dorian

innisart said...

@ अर्जुन - Thank you! I took the photo myself at the Met, and for the life of me, couldn't remember the sculptor's name.

@ Ian - I worried about putting the quotes with the photos, but decided to go with it anyway; next time, I won't.

I know a few teachers at Kubert; Joel Tidey and Darren Auck. Darren was one of my inspirations for pursuing art.

Ian Dorian said...

I know Darren. How did you come to know him? I'm glad you are posting this stuff. Keep it up as I'd love to comment. I am in Manhattan often and visit many galleries and Museums. I live in central Jersey so I frequent the parks here. They are excellent for painting and drawing.

innisart said...

@ Ian A new family from Georgia moved into the neighborhood in the mid-70s. Their teen-aged son loved comic books- had closets full of them, including every Avenger from #1 on. He would sit at his desk drawing comic book heroes in ballpoint pen, or converting army men to X-Men with a razor blade, a lighter, and enamel paint. He would build miniature golf courses with 2X4s, felt, and BBs for golf balls. There was always something creative going on at his house, from silly made-up games to the making of stop-action films. I even got to play an elf in one of his live-action films (I was killed off early because I had to go to swim lessons). How could someone like Darren not be a hero and inspiration to a six-year-old? I don't see him much, but he and I live in the same town again now. He was really such a strong reason I became interested in art (his dad even used to provide me with all the paper I used to draw on as a kid!) I either owe him, or have a lot to blame him for!! ;)