art | Sabin Howard

To Bouguereau or not to Bouguereau?


I got my ass kicked by Jacob Collins and Jim Cooper last week in a debate about Bouguereau.

This pleasant drubbing occurred at the Newington-Cropsey Foundation’s annual award dinner. This year painter and teacher Martha Erlebacher was honored.

It was an amazing evening. I was seated at a table with Martha Erlebacher, painter Philip Pearlstein, sculptor Sabin Howard, painter Jacob Collins, author Ann Brashares, and critic Jim Cooper. I was in the company of my artistic betters and was glad to be included. It was a treat to just listen to the conversations going on around me, let alone participate.

Of course, being me, with plenty of brash and engaged opinions, I had to contribute. Before dinner, I walked into a discussion Jacob Collins, one of the pre-eminent realist painters, was having with Jim Cooper, an art critic who runs Newington-Cropsey foundation. They were talking about the French Academicians.

Now, what is it with the French Academicians? Candy-assed painters, all surface sweetness and no structure, the lot of them. Look at Bouguereau. It’s like fluffy pink cotton candy. You might go into a diabetic coma. If I see one more painting of a shepherdess, I might barf. Why settle for sugary trifle when, with, say, Raphael or Fra Angelico, you get lamb chops with a side of asparagus and a hunk of chewy bread?

But no, Jacob and Jim said. I have a problem of taste. Jacob pointed out that we in the 21st century view Bouguereau through the lens of the myriad second-rate copyists who come after him. We can’t judge Bouguereau on his own terms because a thousand imitators followed him, and they did not have his immense talent.

This was a point well-taken, and has given me much to contemplate. Collins is no idiot. He certainly knows his way around a figure on canvas.

Jim, whom I adore, took me to task rather mercilessly. No one does hands like Bouguereau, he pointed out. Then he lectured me about Corot, with whom I have a love-hate relationship. I find Corot lazy and self-indulgent. He lacks the spiritual might of, say, Turner, while playing with light in similar fashion. But I do love to look at Corot’s paintings, despite him being one of those second rate French Academicians. But no, Corot is not an academician. Jim contends that Corot is the first of the great modernists.

It’s true, I have been brainwashed into revering the Renaissance by my Michelangelo-esque husband Sabin Howard, who, I might add, has also scolded me for dismissing Bouguereau. Et tu, Brute! This when I have to sneak off in secret to the MOMA to see the Edvard Munch exhibit, feeling as much shame as if I’d been meeting an adulterous lover! Before I come back into our apartment, I have to check myself and make sure I have no MOMA tickets or brochures sticking to my person, lest I draw the wrath of Sabin.

So, Bouguereau? Or not?

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