3-1 CLASSIC ILLUSION AND PHOTO-REALISM

Here we will examine the notion that good paintings can be made by simply copying photographs. To do this we shall return to the latter half of the last century when photography was all the rage and the great debate of the time was whether photography should confine itself to science or also develop as an art form. The perceived danger to painter's incomes was what spawned the impressionsists who believed representational art was doomed. Meanwhile it gave the academy painters something to think about - rather like the late 1980's when the champions of computer technology predicted the demise of newspapers and books. It seems they too were a little premature as trees seem in more danger now than then. There is little doubt that Monet,Van Gough, Renoir, Cezanne and others were artists of innovation and that the 'academy' painters such as Bouguereau and Gerome, after Ingre departed this mortal coil, were the next masters of the classic western art technique. I call such painters as Bouguereau and Waterhouse the painter's painters as they combine advanced technique with subtelty to the extent you almost forget the painting is merely a two dimensional illusion. In the fervent battle to maintain a presence against photography it was unfortunate the impressionists were pitted against the academy artists for a shrinking art market. While the impressionists mostly turned to landscape the academy artists concentrated even more on developing a more subtle techniques for figurative and portrait painting.
Iian Neil writes:

'Certainly Bouguereau does have a certain Romantic flavour to his works, but by and large he did not work in the style of Delacroix, David-Freidrich, or Gericault, to name a few exponents of that style. When I look at Bouguereau's work, the overwhelming impression I receive is of Classical polish and perfection, its potential severity softened with aspects of Romanticism.

One must understand that by describing Bouguereau's work as Photo-Idealism one risks classing him amongst those who merely copied photgraphs. Most critics probably do not realize that Bouguereau, like many of the great "academic" painters, did not rely very heavily on photographs at all -- Bouguereau, like Pietro Annigoni half a century later, preferred to work from life. The fact that his paintings are so extraordinarily verisimilutudinous is due to his enormous technical ability, and not to a slavish attitude towards representing reality "photgraphically".

   Iian's drawing

After all, why should we declare Bouguereau to be "photographic"? Is it true that the only *real* reality is to be found in photographs? - that is obviously utter nonsense! The only reality to be found is in reality itself. Bouguereau did not set out to imitate photos, although it is possible he may have spurred himself ever onwards out of the sheer delight of pushing his skills to the limit; nevertheless, he wasn't a parasite or a mediocrity -- he painted from REALITY and not from a faded recreation of reality. After all ... can not the eye capture more of the world's beauty than the photo? Can we not perceive the beauty of movement, the subtleties of colour, and so forth, whereas our cameras struggle to be able to even take adequate photos in poorly lit conditions? We humans don't need to spend hours in the developing room just to see what is out there -- Bouguereau did not need to seek the Truth through photos -- the Truth was already out there.

Now, returning to my initial classification of Bouguereau as a "Clasical-Illusionist". It is not my intention to suggest at all that he was an imitator of (or slave to) the camera; I have merely latched on here to the term most familiar to us to describe a representation of reality which is extraordinarily life-like. Bewarned, though - never mistake Bouguereau's supreme illusionistic skill for a barrenness of invention or a servitude to the minutae (which implies the *irrelevancies*) of reality. Bouguereau stands prominently in the long line of Illustionists who made magic out of the mundane, who distilled the Beauty out of Truth, and who feeds our eyes and our souls on a feast of life-affirming verdor.

Emphasizing the "academism" of the non-Impressionist painters is to do them a disservice. These people didn't just execute works for the state, the Second Empire or whatever. To declare that their 'style' marks them as oppressors of the Impressionists or enemies of "true art" is to make a grave error in judging their importance in art history.

Therefore, I object to them being described as "Pompiers" -- I understand that the terms "baroque" and "rococo" also previously had a negative connotation, but if we are try and ressurect the reputations of men like Gerome, Bouguereau and Meissonier, why should we make our task thrice as difficult by referring to them in what we have all acknowledged is a derogatory term? It may be that in the future the term "Pompier art" can be applied with equanimity and fairness by some generation of art historians -- but at the present we would be playing right into their hands by asserting (quite falsely) that Bouguereau and Gerome were merely academics or pedagogues'.

STUDENT ACTIVITY:Use the library or the internet to make a list of 8 impressionist artists of 1890 and a list of 15 academy artists of the same period. Include any Orientalists and the Pre-Rahpaelites in the latter group. Also name a painting by each artist listed. Allow 40min.

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