I came to an awareness of Bouguereau in the San Antonio museum of art. In the 1990’s they had one of Bouguereau’s most famous works on display upstairs in an alcove at the head of the stairway. I walked up the stairs and this painting, called Admiration hit me right between the eyes.
He was a master of figure painting in the late 1800’s. He worked in oils from live models, and may-or-may-not have used optical mirrors to transfer images onto canvas, although that sort of cheating does not account for his mastery of color, shape, composition, and form. In my humble opinion, having tried to do what he has done, he is as great a painter as Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, and Donatello. His figures are alive. Their skin looks absolutely real. Even the facial expressions suggest that the character is about to speak.
Of course, he creates nudes at a level that might get him labelled a pornographer. In fact, you have to realize that he comes from a time when salon painters were the only creators of erotic art, using biblical or mythological themes to cover the fact that they were creating nude female figures (and sometimes male nudes) to appeal to the automatic sensual response common to all living humans (well, most humans… I can’t speak to how prudery and religion can kill desire). Other painters of his day were definitely little more than the equivalent of Playboy Magazine. Still, he was able to produce images both nude and clothed that appear ready to step off the canvas and talk to you.
He lost a lot of his popularity at the beginning of the 20th Century because Renoir, Monet, and the Impressionists actively criticized his worked and divorced the perceptions of good art from the pursuit of realism. The invention of photography also took away some of the need for photo-realistic art. Still, in my studies of this particular painter, I believe I have discovered one of the greatest masters of oil of all time.