One objection commonly made to Victorian academic art is that it’s too “photographic” — that it tried for a kind of photorealism which the camera had made redundant.

I think this objection is misguided on two counts.  The first is that
the “photorealism” of the Victorian academics far exceeded the capacities
of the 19th-Century camera.  The academic painter could achieve color
effects which film stocks wouldn’t be able to record until late in the 20th
Century.  The Victorian academics could also capture motion in ways the
still camera could not until the early 20th-Century, with the advent of
faster film stocks and shutter speeds.  The Victorian realist painter
was in fact developing his aesthetic in precisely those areas where the
cameras of the time were deficient.

More importantly, photorealism is not an aesthetic fault.  Painters
since the Renaissance have often striven for hyper-realistic effects,
and have sometimes used proto-photographic technologies, like the camera obscura, to that end.  The fact that Van Eyck and Vermeer might possibly have used the camera obscura as an aid in draftsmanship is surely not in itself a fault in their methods.  And many artists now seen as post-academic, like Degas, used the camera itself as an aid to composition, and the photorealistic aspect of their work constitutes a strong element of its appeal.

The Victorian academic painter, however, was doing something new in the
wake of the invention and widespread popularity of photography — he
was conducting a conscious dialogue with the camera.  He was
incorporating a new standard of visual authority introduced by the
camera, and doing it on purpose.  He knew that the experience of
viewing photographs had introduced a new relationship to visual reality
in the mind of modern man.  The Victorian realist painter didn’t try to
ape the photograph, and he could exceed its resources in many areas,
but he always paid homage to its authority — and he tried to construct
a new visual aesthetic based on that authority.

His effort in that regard was the basis for the magic of Victorian
academic art, for it popularity at the time and for its enduring
appeal.  Apologists for the Victorian painters often try to downplay
this aspect of the academic style, try to reconnect them to the art
that had gone before them in an unbroken tradition.  But they were
radical — the photograph made them radical.

So Bouguereau wanted to show us nymphs and satyrs, wanted to show us
figures floating in mid air, but wanted us to receive the visions as
having the authority of photographs — and not just the photographs
that an actual camera of the time could make but ideal photographs,
recording the subtlest effects of light, capturing the most fleeting
nuances of gesture.  He wanted to make us feel that we were
looking at an über-photograph.  (Bouguereau’s fantastical work is the best
place to start in a study of the über-photographic aesthetic, because,
unlike much Victorian academic art, it takes as its subjects things
which could not be observed or staged in real life and thus could not
be photographed.  It’s therefore doing something far more complex
than imitating contemporary photographic practice.  If we can
locate the über-photographic aesthetic here, we can isolate it as a
purely conceptual strategy.)

And so one has the utter strangeness of Bouguereau — decidedly
corporeal figures hovering above the ground, mythological figures with
the sex appeal of naughty photographic postcards, because they seem to
represent actual naked men and women with unimpeachable authority.
Some people find Bouguereau’s nudes pornographic, and on one level they
are.  Bouguereau has used his virtuosic technique to portray these
naked men and women as though they were real people recorded by a
camera, not visions transmitted through an artistic sensibility.  They
have that hint of indecency, of violation, that always attaches in some
measure to photographs of naked people.

This is not something to object to — it’s what makes Bouguereau cool,
exciting, new, radical.  It’s why his paintings are still alive for
people today, objects that rivet the attention, whatever judgment the
mind may be passing on them as works of art.  How much more
complicated, courageous, inventive, witty was Bouguereau’s response to
the photograph than that of the modernist rebels who simply walked away from
it, turned to abstraction in defiance of the photograph’s power.

That power has not diminished over time — indeed much of our
conception of the world we live in today is determined, overdetermined,
by the photograph.  Which is why on some level Bouguereau speaks to us
more deeply than the abstractionists do.  Bouguereau draws us
into that same dialogue with the photograph that he himself conducted,
and in transcending its power — by seeming to carry it farther than it
can ever actually go, even in the age of Photoshop — he places it in a truer
perspective than the modernists could ever have conceived.

A distinguished museum director has observed how difficult it is to
hang Bouguereau in a modern museum — discerning a disconnect not only
between Bouguereau and 20th-Century modernism but also between
Bouguereau and the great high-art tradition his work seems to
inhabit.  That is precisely because Bouguereau’s work strove for a
transcendent synthesis of painting and photography — something
no art before him could have done and no institutionally-sanctioned art
after him has chosen to do.  His work is thus profoundly modern, more genuinely modern in some ways than the work of the 20th-Century abstractionists.  It may be, in fact, that Bouguereau is so modern, so radical, that for some time to come he will need a room all to himself.

[I think the concept of the über-photograph is a useful way of distinguishing the style of the early pre-Raphaelites from the mainstream of Victorian academic art that emerged after them. Rossetti had a fundamentally painterly aesthetic with a strong bent towards the stylized and decorative, a bent developed most conspicuously in the work of William Morris.  The academic painters of the second half of the 19th-Century departed from both in adopting a photo-authoritative strategy, however fanciful their subjects.  Burne-Jones was a key transitional figure in this process.  Though he held onto many of the painterly and decorative elements of Rossetti’s style one begins to see in his work a shift towards the photo-realistic — mainly in his strict stereometric modeling of forms and figures, which gave his paintings a sculptural quality.  It was the quality of relief-sculpture, however — he rarely pursued the bold evocations of deep space that so preoccupied Alma-Tadema, Lord Leighton, Tissot and Waterhouse, to take a few examples.  Their strategies with regard to spatial illusion were closely connected to the über-photographic aesthetic.  By the same token, the idea of the über-photograph can be used to distinguish the project of Victorian academic painters from the sterile photo-realism of some modern painters, who are consciously evoking and aping the photograph and not trying to transcend its limitations, not trying for a new visual synthesis.]


  1. While I think your comments in discussing the realistic appearance of Bouguereau's art is on the right track, I think you're fundamentally wrong about describing his art as photorealistic. Its true that people at an untrained glaance tend to see what they're viewing in a Bouguereau as having photographic realism, but if you put a Bouguereau painting and a photograph side by side there's an enormous difference. In fact Bouguereau and other academics in the same tradition, rejected the idea of realism, instead following the tradition of idealizing their subjects. The subject was drawn with harmonized lines, everything adjusted to be more simple and generalized, more ideal, the lines cleaner; and this was the service of conveying the idea behind subject and creating lyricism. This wasn't simply a tendency, it was their idea of what art had to be. Realism was considered anaethema, and inappropriate for art. This is why Ingres drew very realistic portraits, but when he shifted into making a painting, he cut out the realism. Bouguereau was simply more skilled at making the ideal seem real, which is wherein his genius lies. One commentator said that Bouguereau's talent over other artists was capturing what was in the “mind's eye”.
    Its often illustrative to show photographs of him working on a painting:
    Here's a photograph of him painting with the model:
    and an image of the painting alone:
    Another photograph:
    I don't remember the painting title so its hard to look up an image.
    But aside from looking at these photographs of him painting, if you think about it, its obvious that his paintings look completely different from photographs; just look at a few photographs and a few of his paintings and it will sink in.
    In fact Realism as a movement–Courbet,etc–in the 19th century was meant to challenge this “unreal” and ultra-slick idealization of form and texture. They were in part challenging the fact that academic paintings, typically those of Bouguereau, were not truly realistic.
    Now, look at photorealism in the 20th century, and see how much more that's progressed towards looking like a photo.
    I think its very important to understand this, because that people don't is why there's so much misconception of what Bouguereau was doing with his paintings, and so much irrelevant chatter about the idea that photographs made his paintings obsolete. In fact, it becomes very clear that the people who go around saying that people don't understand modern art, don't infact understand what they're looking at when they look at a Bouguereau.
    Even people who are involved in the Art Renewal Center don't stress this enough because Bouguereau's paintings become more connected to art theory, and they like to shy away from any suggestions to art theory.

  2. Also, I just simply -disagree- that Bouguereau's nudes appear indecent or pornographic. I doubt -anyone- with good mental health actually gets aroused or an erection looking at a Bouguereau painting. Now compare the way his nudes are treated to the way nudes are treated sexually in fashion or pornography, and its completely different. As much as there has been a condemnation of some sort of indecency in Bouguereau, there's been a criticism that his nudes are “too chaste”. Bouguereau in his time was considered to have good taste by critics, and only criticized for indecency a few times by more puritanical people outside of art circles. And people in the art world were not so liberal, they considered Manet's nudes to be filthy.
    The idea that any nude portrayal is sexual in itself is wrong, and any sensual rendering of a human body is sexual is also wrong. Not everyone who sees a naked person automatically sees sexuality or is aroused.
    Again, there's a difference between a sexual nude and a non-sexual nude.
    I'm simply objecting because I don't agree with you, not because I necessarily think this would make his art bad.

  3. I was trying to suggest that, while Bouguereau's paintings are very different from photographs, they strive for a photo-authoritative quality — that they are idealized photographs. They certainly don't resemble any photographs of their time, but they do resemble the photographic images in certain films, with carefully composed lighting and carefully selected “actors” and carefully designed environments. He was trying to present an idealized world in images that seem to have been recorded scientifically. His project was conceptually complex.

  4. Well I agree somewhat but I don't think any relation to photography was really conscious. All of the conceptions of art that served as a foundation for Bouguereau did really exist without reference to photography. Some of it was just a conception of how images related to reality, notions that developed from competing interpretations of art as reflecting nature, born from the Enlightenment; some of it was just learning the medium better. But I think that developments like this in history are somewhat synchronous, because they reflect the focus of the culture. Academic artists did admire some of the qualities in photographs, crisp clear lines for instance. But in the same way impressionism even though today its seen as turning art away from photographic appearances, kind of has some of the same foundation as well. Like a photograph, its an impression of the instant, and like a photograph, its more about recording reality than creating an image. Films and photography that existed generally tried to copy the goals of academic art (called Pictorialism), and thats why it ended up looking so similar. In the same way I agree to the abstract of David Hockney's argument. But the reason that paintings started to reflect optical knowledge wasn't necessarily because one thing caused the other, but because of the focus of intellecuals–who wanted to develop an abstract representation of natural things.
    My main criticism is that when people affirm flawed conceptions of academic art, even if they have a point to them, it doesn't do anything to help looking at the art for what it is. Including the idea that academic art was sexual. Under one psychological interpretation it may be, but I think that reflects more on viewers than whats represented in the painting. In other words, I think people have to recognize what the difference is between a consciously sexual painting and an academic nude. While the analysis can be important in other ways, I think one thing people don't do enough today is respecting art for what it is on the surface, and not the unconscious aspects of it. I think its necessary for respecting what was accomplished in general, and in part because way art is created and appreciated is more based on a conscious understanding than its taken to be.

  5. Its also important to recognize the differences between a carefully choreographed photographic image and a choreographed academic painting, because they can't quite accomplish the same things; in part, because they're doing different things. One might also argue doing this is also more natural to painting than to photography.

  6. Your points are well taken and I appreciate the feedback! I'm really not trying to get at subconscious motives, just trying to describe what I see, and I see a kind of strict “optical integrity” in much academic art, producing a photo-authoritative impression, which I can't help but think had something to do with the way the photograph was altering perceptions of the world. I agree with you that the Impressionists were also incorprating a kind of optical integrity but trying to counteract it by bringing the surface texture of the canvas into more dynamic prominence — sort of like using a heavy filter in front of a camera lens. When carried too far the strategy can easily become formulaic.
    I also think that Bourguereau was trying to create sexy images with his nudes, just as Watteau was — not out of any particular erotic program but simply because they saw women as sexy (as opposed to just formally beautiful.) “Nymphs and Satyr” is more about erotic play than about mythology or anatomy.

  7. My main issue with your last point is that the concept of 'sexy' is modern and particular. Its important to know that the Victorian concept of what was attractive was very closely linked to what was formally beautiful. (Victorian, in a use not specific to England but the culture) People who were attracted to people who were not formally beautiful were considered, by some, to have degraded tastes. So as such, artists really were basing their programs on what was formally beautiful, though aware to themselves, that what was formally beautiful was also attractive sexually.
    I think this is significant, because every Victorian artists who painted male figures in a way that appeared sensual come under the suspect of being homosexual. Bouguereau, because he painted children in a sensual way, comes under the suspect of being a pedophile. The truth is, Victorians painted everything with a degree of sensuality. In fact this was a core aspect of what they were doing, conceptually, and why, at the same time, it gives it an optical integrity, because it tries to represent a sensual truth to nature.
    I think that there's a great case that this is also connected to an “unconscious culture” in the Victorian era, that focused on women primarily, and used sensual depictions, because it was so concerned with representing materially with what today would be considered “the Other”, a material representation of the sublime.
    Nymphs and satire is equally about erotic play as about mythology and anatomy, which is part of the point, and part of the whole conceptual project, as you refer to it. Satyrs and nymphs in Greek mythology were highly sexual. The whole story in that is that Satyrs are afraid of water, and in most paintings, Satyrs would hide in the bushes watching nymphs bathing, and here the situation is reversed. But the mythological context is important to creating the content behind the picture.
    Academics understood mythology as a way to represent ideas. A lot of commentators have suggested that when Cabanel painted his Birth of Venus, it was just an excuse to paint a naked woman. But when academics went about their art, part of the project was seeing psychological representation in material representation, seeing meaning in the pose and stature of figures. Venus is representative of Beauty, so, yes, in a sense, he wanted to capture the beauty he saw in the naked woman. But he also wanted to portray Beauty as a symbol, and though some commentators believe the waves and the putti are irrelevant to the picture, they're what make the picture work on a content and compositional level. If it were just a woman lying on the ground, the composition would seem awkward and everything odd and out of place. Venus, waking up in her bed of waves, is heralded to waking life by the triumphant play of putti. That is what makes the picture, in its entirety.
    Seeing this as an excuse to paint a sexy woman is a shallow reading. Critics who believe that also can't fail to comment on how her skin is marzipan, and how something that seems like its trying to be sexual is also dead and chaste. This paradox is because they aren't looking at it for what it is. Its supposed to represent the thing that is used as a vehicle for desire, Beauty, and not a desired thing itself. There is no other way to do this than the way Cabanel did it, so directly, and so much more forcefully than anyone before.
    Words like 'sexy', 'hot', etc, are modern in that they refer to a concept of attraction that isn't based on formal qualities, but biological and cultural ones. They simply feel and sound anachronistic. I argued the same thing to someone who tried to translate dialogue that was happening in feudal Japan. “fetching” is much more appropriate in that context than “sexy”.

  8. Well, I think “sexy” is “sexy”, across time, though I agree that the Victorians had a more nuanced and profound view of what was sexy than modern culture does. I also think that they, in company with most artists throughout history before the modern era, appreciated a wider range of female beauty than our contemporary culture does. Every culture has somewhat different standards of beauty, but ours has become excessively homogenized, and only women who strike the eye instantly as “beautiful” excite much interest, whereas the Victorians found beauty in figures and faces that our culture would see as ordinary or imperfect. We tend to celebrate a kind of beauty that registers immediately, that yields itself up to the briefest glance, whizzing by on TV or in the pages of a fashion magazine. It's all part of the commodification of the female.

Comments are closed.