Another crowd favorite, Meissonier would become a famous painter of minutely detailed historical scenes, which resounded with a public that at that time read paintings like the news. The painter once said, “Perfection lures one on”—which may explain his practice of travelling to battlefields to scrupulously study the grass, trees, and rocks for his “Napoleonic War” paintings. His hard work paid off. In 1871, the famous English art critic John Ruskin paid 1,000 guineas for one of these paintings, which he sold for nearly six times the amount in 1882. Meissonier sold Cuirassiers, a cavalry scene, for £10,000. It later sold for £11,000, then £16,000. For the 19th century, these prices are extraordinary—but just a century later, both the artist’s reputation and market value had collapsed.
The biggest success story was Bouguereau, who was coveted by the nouveau-riche—especially American millionaires—for his highly finished, often sentimental, and undeniably erotic mythological and allegorical scenes, such as The Birth of Venus
(1879). Inspired by ’s Triumph of Galatea (1512)
, Bouguereau’s sensuous nude figures are idealized versions of Parisian studio models (he would later be criticized for the artifice in his work). A recipient of the Legion of Honor, a president of the Institut de France, and a member of the Academy of Fine Arts, he once claimed that “every minute of mine costs 100 francs.” As one critic remarked, “Whoever gets a picture by Bouguereau gets the full worth of his money, in finished painting, first-rate drawing, and a subject and treatment that no well-bred person can fault.”
From Fame to Obscurity
But their successes would not last. While Bouguereau was exalting in classical forms and the painting of “Beauty and Truth,” as he once said, the avant-garde French painter
derided these highly finished surfaces as “bouguerated,” and Degas’s contemporary
dismissed the academic artist as a painter of “soft, pretty things.” As much as he was revered by the public as the standard of refined taste, he was scorned by the avant-garde as a mere technician. The dislike was mutual: Throughout his lifetime, Bouguereau actively worked to exclude the Impressionists from the Salons.