Adolphe-William Bouguereau 1825-1905 BACK

A W Bouguereau
oil on canvas 165x88cm
Berkshire Museum

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Comparing Bouguereau's shepherdess with a similar scene by Millet (Newborn Lamb), while in a different medium-pastel-and on a wholly different scale, shows how Bouguereau has citified, or, at the least, taken the country out of his version. Millet's peasant does not pose; she has work to do and walks sturdily along. She does, however, take the time to look back at the ewe, a relatively scrawny creature, who follows her baby. In Millet's pastel the lamb is truly tiny-almost pathetic in its yearning for its mother-not the larger animal, old enough to resemble a big, fuzzy stuffed animal, cradled by Bouguereau's girl. Millet's shepherdess is stocky, rounded, and wears nondescript clothes. A telling difference, apart from the fact that Millet locates his figure in the specific context of the Norman countryside, evinced by the swinging gate in the hedgerow, is the girls' feet. Bouguereau's shepherdesses and mothers are almost always barefoot; Millet's wear sabots, the wooden shoes of the peasants. Bare feet can mean many things-poverty, a carefree life in a warm climate, humility. The bare feet of Bouguereau's figures underscore the fact that they are not real peasants, as Millet's were seen to be, so the urban viewer need in no way feel responsible for the peasants' hard lives. Bouguereau would have denied such an interpretation, insisting that he painted the human figure because it was the most beautiful subject to paint. Painting the figure well, meaning according to classical precepts, was the goal of the academic tradition of which he was a proud part. Thus, well-drawn and well-painted feet, notoriously difficult to render convincingly, can be seen as a mark of a highly skilled academic painter. Not interested in limning contemporary social concerns, Bouguereau focused all his attention on what he was good at-conveying sentiment in perfectly drawn figures.

excerpt from: Bouguereau by Fronia Wissman

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