Before the Impressionists, These Artists Dominated the Parisian Art World
In around the year 1890, a group of French artists gathered for dinner at the house of a Parisian art dealer and pondered the following question: “Who, in 100 years, will be thought to have been the greatest painter of the second half of the 19th century?” As described in Lorenz Eitner’s An Outline of 19th Century European Painting, they came to an agreement on two names: William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier.
More than a century later, we know that this guess was way off the mark; the two academic classicists are far lesser-known than their Impressionist and Post-Impressionist counterparts. But the dinner party hypothesis was not unfounded at the time. In the late 19th century, Bouguereau and Meissonier were the superstars of the art world, then centered in Paris. As their fame spread around Europe and across the Atlantic, they sold their work for high prices and graced the collections of wealthy buyers around the world.
Where these artists are mentioned in art history books today, however, it’s often as lofty establishmentarians at odds with the radical inventions of the avant-garde, from Courbet and the Realists to Monet and his fellow plein-air Impressionists. Though artistic styles have gone in and out of vogue throughout history—a continuous ebb and flow—the extent to which 19th-century icons like Bouguereau and Meissonier quickly fell out of favor was particularly pronounced. Who were these artists and why did they go out of fashion?
The French Painting Tradition
If an artist’s success today is determined in large part by the market, in 19th-century France it was dictated by institutions—namely the Académie des Beaux-Arts, a body consisting of 40 elected life members, including 14 painters, 8 sculptors, 8 architects, 4 engravers, and 6 musical composers. Conservative and exclusive, the academy only accepted new candidates for membership upon the death of an incumbent.
Many members of the Academy ran private studios to train students hoping to be admitted to the prestigious École des Beaux Arts, the official art school. There, students followed a rigorous curriculum that emphasized drawing—first after prints and casts, then live models—and included the mastery of composition, perspective, and expression. As the fine arts section of the Institut de France, the national academic establishment, the Academy was also politically motivated, guiding the state on matters of policy, patronage, and purchasing related to art. Most significantly, they chose what hung on the walls of the Salon, the annual exhibitions reviewed by the Parisian journals and attended by the public.
It was this tradition that Bouguereau and Meissonier—and others like Paul Delaroche, Alexandre Cabanel, and Lawrence Alma-Tadema—grew out of, and like most successful painters at the time, it was the Salon audience that they had in mind when choosing their subjects. They painted for the middle class, who wanted their art, like literature and theater, to provide a moral lesson or an emotional experience.
Painting for a Salon Audience
Considered one of the best history painters of his day, Delaroche had a knack of condensing key events in English history—a subject that was then in vogue—into dramatic scenes, such as The Children of Edward (The Princes in the Tower) (1831) and Cromwell Contemplating the Corpse of Charles I (1831). Exhibited in 1834, his painting Execution of Lady Jane Grey (1833) caused a sensation with its dramatic depiction of the blindfolded 16-year-old English queen at the threshold of death after only nine days on the throne. Delaroche is thought to have achieved wider fame in the mid-19th century than Ingres and Delacroix, who are both now glorified in the art-historical canon.
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 Raphael’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 Degas derided these highly finished surfaces as “bouguerated,” and Degas’s contemporary van Gogh 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.
The avant-gardists would eventually have their way. The Academy’s rejection of the paintings of Cézanne, Whistler, Manet, and Pissarro prompted the 1863 Salon des Refusés (“exhibition of rejects”), which paved the way for the legitimization of the groundbreaking movements those artists represented and, in turn, the decline of the Academy. In the last two decades of the 19th century, various conservative and reactionary salons emerged as the official Salon was gradually brought to its feet.
By the end of World War I, the contempt the avant-garde felt toward academic artists was matched by the public’s taste. While the Impressionists enjoyed innumerable museum exhibitions and auction house sales throughout the 20th century, the works of Bouguereau and Meissonier fell into relative obscurity in the basements of major art museums. In scholarship, too, they were largely neglected.
Why Are They Still Relevant?
The rise of the avant-garde and the decline of academic artists points to the evolving notion of what constituted “art.” Whereas Impressionism and other movements sought to push the boundaries of painting, continuously experimenting with the medium, Bouguereau, Delaroche, and Meissonier worked within a system of traditional formulas, giving the public what they wanted. Yet as demonstrated by their rigorous processes—from the laborious research taken to hone minute details of a painting to the meticulous preparation of numerous drawings—the academic painters believed in the mastery of a skill. Bouguereau was not only opposed to what he saw as the slapdash methods of modernity; he was also a devout proponent of rigor in art education. Ultimately, the innovators, not the conformists, are remembered.
But in addition to the exquisite beauty of their work, the Salon painters offer us a time capsule, reflecting the values of the society they came from—one that yearned for sentimental allegories and grand narratives. They also open our eyes to how museum exhibitions, scholarship, and criticism, as well as shifts in society, shape the narratives of art history—and how these factors slowly but surely determine who is remembered, and who is forgotten. Today, van Gogh might be considered the “greatest painter of the second half of the 19th century,” judging by the countless blockbuster exhibitions and catalogue raisonnés in his name.
In the 21st century, we might ask the same question of the scores of artists seeking recognition in an overflooded contemporary art scene. Who will be remembered? Who will be considered the greatest artist of our era? Yet if we consider the case of Bouguereau, Meissonier, and Delaroche, the answer is that we simply don’t know.