If you are, like me, a fanatical admirer of the much mocked and despised 19th-Century academic painter William Bouguereau, you will want to save your pennies for an extraordinary new work devoted to his art, the Catalog Raisonné On William Bouguereau. It's a massive, and very expensive, two-volume biography and catalog raisonné listing and reproducing all his known paintings. Beautifully printed and bound, with hundreds and hundreds of mostly excellent color reproductions, it will take your breath away.
Devoting this much attention to Bouguereau is almost an act of defiance — a way of asserting his importance in the face of decades of scholarly scorn. His popularity has never needed defending, despite the unwillingness of museums to show his work throughout most of the 20th Century. People have always loved his images. Now, prices for his paintings are escalating at an astonishing rate, and the Musée d'Orsay has recently acquired five new works by him, including L'Assault, pictured above, and Compassion, pictured below, which will hang on permanent display with the two the museum already owned.
I pre-ordered a copy of the Catalog ages ago, at a greatly reduced price, and waited patiently as its deadline for publication was constantly pushed back. I confess there were times when I wondered if the project was all a fantasy. But the set arrived a couple of days ago, and it was worth the wait.
Today, post-publication, the set will cost you $350 — from the Art Renewal Center, which co-sponsored the project — and many months of your time to browse and read. (If the price is too daunting, the Art Renewal Center plans to donate copies to libraries, so you'll be able to get your hands on one for free eventually.) The Catalog may spark a reappraisal of Bouguereau's work in the art world, or not — that hardly matters. It will certainly expose many new people to the work, and promote a consequent suspicion of the judgments of the art world.
Bouguereau's visions are meticulously conceived and executed, and often quite mad. They are endlessly astonishing and entertaining, and sometimes moving. They have a regard for sentiment and a connection to popular taste that most painting lost in the 20th Century, but will reclaim someday. Bouguereau is not about the past — he's about the future. Get to know his work and you'll see why. Virtuosity combined with pleasure and surprise never goes out of style, at least not for too long.