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A Vintage Fine Art Celebration of WOMAN in all her glory!

Updated on November 21, 2009

Devoted to the Artistic Celebration of the many aspects of WOMAN....Maiden, Mother, Crone....

Blessed Virgin...Saint...Goddess...Witch...this lens series will focus on the Artistic Celebration of the many Faces of Woman.

We shall discover The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood including the works of John William Waterhouse, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Lord Frederick Leighton, as well as Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli and other Fine Vintage Artists celebrating WOMAN in all her glory!

William Adolphe-Bouguereau

No artistic celebration of WOMAN can possibly be complete without mention of one of history's greatest artistic geniuses, William Adolphe-Bouguereau, and so the first lens in our series celebrating Woman will feature...(Drum roll please)...William Adolphe-Bouguereau!

William Bouguereau is unquestionably one of history's greatest artistic geniuses. Yet in the past century, his reputation and unparalleled accomplishments have undergone a libelous, dishonest, relentless and systematic assault of immense proportions. His name was stricken from most history texts and when included it was only to blindly, degrade and disparage him and his work. Yet, as we shall see, it was he who single handedly opened the French academies to women, and it was he who was arguably the greatest painter of the human figure in all of art history. His figures come to life like no previous artist has ever before or ever since achieved. He wasn't just the best ever at painting human anatomy, more importantly he captured the tender and subtlest nuances of personality and mood. Bouguereau caught the very souls and spirits of his subjects much like Rembrandt. Rembrandt is said to have captured the soul of age. Bouguereau captured the soul of youth.

Considering his consummate level of skill and craft, and the fact that the great preponderance of his works are life-size, it is one of the largest bodies of work ever produced by any artist. Add to that the fact that fully half of these paintings are great masterpieces, and we have the picture of an artist who belongs like Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Carravaggio, in the top ranks of only a handful of masters in the entire history of western art.

Having died in 1905, we can suppose it best that he was not here to see the successful assault on traditional art that turned the art world inside out and upside down in the decades that followed his death. His fate was to be much like that of Rembrandt, whose work was also ridiculed and banished from museums and official art circles for the hundred years following his death. Rembrandt's reputation wasn't resuscitated until the 1790's (he died in 1669) due to the influence of the founder of the Royal Academy in London, Sir Joshua Reynolds. Even as recently as 1910, Reynolds paintings brought higher prices at auction than Rembrandt. Bouguereau's re-appreciation can rather accurately be traced from about 1979 when his prices at auction quadrupled that year alone, and then was further catapulted by the 1984 retrospective that traveled from the Petite Palais in Paris, to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in Canada and finally to the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford. In 1980 The Metropolitan Museum in New York permanently hung two of his works that been left in storage from early in the century.

Since 1960, his values in the market place have literally exploded, doubling on average every 3.5 years. From works selling for and average $500 to $1500 in 1960, they have accelerated to where in the last three years alone his auction records have been repeatedly broken another 4 times. In 1998 The Heart's Awakening sold for $1,410,000 at Christie's New York. In 1999 Cupid et Psyche, Enfants sold for $1,760,000 also at Christie's to be surpassed the very next day at Sotheby's when Alma Parens owned by Sylvester Stalone sold for $2,650,00. That record only lasted one year until May of 2000, when Charite sold $3,520,000 back at Christie's. Over the last 20 years his paintings all over the world have been taken out of their crates, basements, storage rooms and attics, dusted off, many cleaned and expertly restored, and today over a hundred museums and institutions proudly have his works on permanent exhibit.

Reproductions of his paintings are selling by the millions in poster shops and gift stores world wide, and there is much evidence that they are even outselling the reproductions of paintings by any of the most famous modernists.

"The Motherland" (Alma Parens) painted in 1883

The Motherland (Alma Parens) painted in 1883 by William Bouguereau, is a patriotic masterpiece. The name Alma Parens is Latin for Nurturing Mother, however, it was also adapted from Latin into the more commonly known words 'alma mater' meaning national anthem.

The woman in this image represents Mother France nurturing her children. Her face is filled with resolution and a determined steadfastness to her cause. The nine children surrounding her look poor and in desperate need of her aid. If one looks closely at the mother one can almost see a slight glimpse of worry in her eyes, and a slight uncertainty about her ability to perform her duty, for storm clouds above her forecast rough times ahead.

As Damien Bartoli, world expert on Bougureau, points out: 'The beautiful and impassive young woman forms a truly modern icon, wearing a wreath of ears of corn decorated with flowers in the colors of the French nation: the blue corn-flower, white daisies and red corn poppies. At her feet lie strewn the symbols of agricultural France in the form of wheat and a grapevine, but also of an apple, symbolizing the autumn, the season of fruit and the harvest'.

Alma Parens, owned by Sylvester Stalone, broke the world record for a Bougureau painting sold at auction in November of 1998 when it sold for $2,650,000, a record which was again broken a year and a half later with the sale of Charity for $3,600,000.

"Charity" painted in 1878

Charity currently holds the world record for a Bouguereau painting sold at auction selling in the summer of 2000 for 3,600,000 US dollars.

The painting depicts a beautiful woman caring and protecting five young children giving them her nurturing, sustenance, and knowledge. The nurturing is represented by her bared breasts indicating her intent to allow the children to nurse from her, and illustrating her willingness to give of herself for their well being.

Under her left foot is an overturned jug with gold and silver coins flowing out of it. This symbol reveals that there is no cost too great for their happiness, and that she is willing to spend what ever money it takes to ensure it, even if it's everything that she has.

By her right foot a boy is leaning on a pile of books, showing her intent to educate them and give them the gift of knowledge.

Charity is a truly exquisite painting using symbolic imagery to portray the true meaning of selflessness and of course charity.

Give the gift of truly fine art with this masterpiece.

"Innocence" (L'Innocence) 1893

Bouguereau's L'Innocence (1893) is one of the most impressive portrayals of tranquility. The virgin, lamb, and child are draped in light, soft toned colors, signifying the purity of body and soul, while around them the glow of their virtue seems to illumine a darkened world. Look closely - there seems to be a halo extending from the child's shoulder to the hem of the lady's robe, casting a glow in front of them.

"The Newborn Lamb" painted in 1873

The Newborn Lamb (L'agneau nouveau-ne)

broadens the parameters of nurture as a sweet-faced shepherdess carrying a lamb, turns to say soft, reassuring things to the ewe that trots apprehensively beside her. She is an icon of tenderness, functioning as a surrogate mother to the lamb as she carries it to the warmth of the barn.

"Young Shepherdess Standing"

"Young Shepherdess Standing" (Jeune Bergère Debout) features a strong, self-possessed young shepherdess, her head titled inquisitively as she stands challenging the viewer, staff in hand. Delicate black curls frame her heart-shaped face, softening the directness of her penetrating gaze. Her reed-like staff, less a functional instrument than a complementary accessory, lightly supports her weight; her slender arms creating almost a balletic gesture. Her mix of innocence and defiance is captivating. Bouguereau's profound ability to convey an entire narrative with a simple painted gesture or expression is especially salient in the present work. From the placement of the facial features, to the anatomically correct toes, Bouguereau's work is characterized by an uncanny skill for depicting the human figure, underscoring the rigorous Academic training the artist underwent in his youth and his strict lifelong adherence to traditional modes of art production. Under the guidance of influential art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, the artist built an illustrious career on such monumental depictions of beautiful peasant girls.

The Age of Enlightenment ushered in a new approach to thinking in both France and America in the years prior to the French Revolution (1789-1799). Philosophers, intellectuals and writers of the movement maintained that truth could be achieved through rational thought and empirical observance of nature, not blind acceptance of past doctrines. The individual became the central focus in this paradigm shift, as humanity was seen as the vehicle toward not only scientific and intellectual achievement, but spiritual and moral achievement as well. This spirit of the Enlightenment is evident in Bouguereau's paintings - his strict adherence to nature exalted the human figure and his choice of humble peasants, portrayed in monumental scale, celebrated the endless capabilities of the individual. In many respects, Bouguereau's paintings exemplify the key components of Enlightenment thinking; in other words, they represent a deep respect for human rights, liberty and the belief in the equality of all men.

Wealthy nineteenth-century American industrialists were deeply attracted to Bouguereau's work, engaged by the artist's celebration of the human form as the ultimate subject. The origins of Enlightenment thinking in the United States can be traced in part to Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), whose writings form our basic concepts of individual rights as they exist today. In mid-nineteenth-century America, these rights not only enabled individuals to protect themselves and their families, but allowed them ownership of their entire reality; enormous fortunes were amassed and legacies established by individuals of profoundly modest means, establishing, as never before, that success was achievable simply through hard work, dedication and perseverance. Bouguereau's paintings reinforce this notion of self-actualization; in Jeune Bergère Debout the viewer is confronted by a portrait of a headstrong young teenage girl, whose look of willfulness seems to suggest that despite her simple background, her potential is limitless.

Bouguereau used a play on words when naming this painting, for the shepherdess is not only standing up, but also standing her ground, made evident by her bold and confident look. When the title is read in its original French form, it reads Jeune Bergere Debout. The use of 'debout' adds an additional play on words to the meaning, as it is very similar to the word 'debut', meaning a first prominent public appearance. In the late 1800's the word was commonly associated with the debut of a debutant. Bouguereau is saying that the shepherdess is just as good as any debutant, and is once again elevating the lower class to that of the aristocracy.

"At the edge of the brook" painted in 1875

This painting is one of the most sensitive single figures ever painted. Hauntingly enigmatic, but kind and beautiful, this young peasant girl's childhood innocence blends seamlessly with the emerging woman who rivets your eyes to hers. She stares directly at you with a serene kindness imbued with goodness and trust. Inherent is the moral imperative not to betray that trust. This is a prime example of Bouguereau's unique ability to capture ever subtle nuances of personality and mood. Symbolically she sits by "The Edge of the River of Life". She sits at perhaps the greatest crossroads in life. Her hands and legs are crossed to accentuate that symbolism as are the trunks of the trees behind and to the viewer's right. She wears a humanistic halo of vibrant red flowers alluding to the spirituality inherent in youth.

"The Birth of Venus" painted in 1879

The Birth of Venus (La Naissance de Vénus) is one of the most famous paintings by 19th century painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau. It depicts not the actual birth of Venus from the sea, but the transportation of Venus in a shell (a visual metaphor for the vulva) from the sea to Paphos in Cyprus. For Bouguereau, it was truly a tour de force. The canvas stands at just over 9'10" (3m) high, and 7'2" (2.2m) wide.

Venus, known as the bringer of joy, Roman goddess of love and beauty stands on a shell in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by admirers. Two mermen use conch shells to trumpet her arrival as the angels that came to witness her birth ascend to heaven. Birth of Venus contains 22 fully worked out figures all of which come together to form an amazing composition. Bouguereau uses the goddess, Venus, as an exemplar of the Beauty in our lives. Bouguereau's Birth of Venus holds a strong resemblance to Botticelli's Birth of Venus, which also depicts Venus with long flowing hair standing on a similar shell.

Cupid with a Butterfly (L'Amour au Papillon) 1888

The celebration of Woman is not complete without the inclusion of Cupid, son of Venus.

In this wonderful painting Cupid sits to rest on the edge of a fountain with his arrows laid beside him. He is tenderly and carefully removing a butterfly from his arm, symbolizing the tenderness and care needed to keep relationships strong. The flowing water behind him might represent the flow of time and how each moment must be treasured, especially during one's childhood. Since Cupid is depicted as a child in this work, the painting is also making the statement that Mankind must nurture and take care with the wings of its children with tenderness, just as Cupid takes great care with the wings of this butterfly.

Often ridiculed for his paintings of Cupid, Bouguereau's detractors fail to see the celebration of life and humanity which is the focus in so many of his works.

This work is truly a celebration of childhood and beauty. Cupid takes great care not to damage the wings of his butterfly. Implicit to the 19th century audience was the quite progressive message for that day and age, that it's the duty of parents and society to nurture and care for the wings of our children so that they too may fly freely undamaged.

It was the artists and writers of the day that carried the liberal message of righting the wrongs of prior eras, and codifying cultural advances like child labor laws and charity and welfare for the poor and downtrodden as seen in so many of the social realists of the day. Bouguereau took the positive side of that goal, and elevated the lowest of the low in society, the gypsies and peasants, to the heavens, painting them both real and ideal at the same time. So too was his similar goals with his mythological works like this cupid who is presented to us as a real but incredibly beautiful child.

Cupid & Psyche as children (L'Amour et Psyché, enfants) 1890

"L'Amour et Psyché, enfants" (translated: Cupid & Psyche as Children) 1890, the most famous painting of William-Adolphe Bouguereau portrays Cupid & Psyche as beautiful winged babies sharing a first kiss. It is incorrectly known as Le Premier Baiser (The First Kiss, 1873).

The legend of Cupid and Psyche

The goddess Venus(Greek Aphrodite), envious and jealous of the beauty of a mortal woman named Psyche, asks her son, Cupid (the Greek Eros, "Love"), to use his golden arrows to cause Psyche to fall in love with the vilest creature on earth. Cupid agrees but then falls in love with Psyche on his own, when he leans over from a distance to view her, causing one of his own arrows to fall forward piercing him.

When all continue to admire and praise Psyche's beauty but none desire her as a wife, Psyche's parents consult an oracle, which tells them to leave Psyche on the nearest mountain, for her beauty is so great that she is not meant for man. Terrified, they have no choice but to follow the oracle's instructions. But then Zephyrus, the west wind, carries Psyche away to a fair valley and a magnificent palace where she is attended by invisible servants until night falls and in the darkness of night the promised bridegroom arrives and the marriage is consummated. Cupid visits her every night to make love to her, but demands that she never light any lamps, since he does not want her to know who he is.

Cupid even allows Zephyrus to take Psyche back to her sisters and bring all three down to the palace during the day, but warning that Psyche should not listen to any argument that she should not try to discover his true form. The two jealous sisters tell Psyche, then pregnant with Cupid's child, that rumor is that she had married a great and terrible serpent who would devour her and her unborn child when the time came for it to be fed. They urge Psyche to conceal a knife and oil lamp in the bedchamber, to wait till her husband was asleep, and then to light the lamp and slay him at once if it is as they said. Psyche sadly follows their advice. In the light of the lamp Psyche recognizes the fair form on the bed as the god Cupid himself. However, she accidentally pricks herself with an arrow, and is consumed with desire for her husband. She begins to kiss him, but as she does, a drop of oil falls from her lamp onto Cupid's chest and wakes him. He flies away, and she falls from the window to the ground, sick at heart.

Psyche then finds herself in the city where one of her jealous elder sisters lives. She tells her what had happened, then tricks her sister into believing that Cupid has chosen her as a wife instead. She later meets her other sister and deceives her likewise. Each returns to the top of the peak and jumped down eagerly, but Zephyrus does not bear them and they fall to their deaths at the base of the mountain.

Psyche searches far and wide for her lover, finally stumbling into a temple to Ceres(Greek Demeter) where all is in slovenly disarray. As Psyche is sorting and clearing, Ceres appears, but refuses any help but advice, saying Psyche must call directly on Venus, the jealous shrew that caused all the problems in the first place. Psyche next calls on Juno(Greek Hera) in her temple, but Juno, superior as always, says the same. So Psyche finds a temple to Venus and enters it. Venus orders Psyche to separate all the grains in a large basket of mixed kinds before nightfall. An ant takes pity on Psyche and with its ant companions separates the grains for her.

Venus is outraged at her success and tells her to go to a field where golden sheep graze and get some golden wool. A river-god tells Psyche that the sheep are vicious and strong and will kill her, but if she waits until noontime, the sheep will go to the shade on the other side of the field and sleep; she can pick the wool that sticks to the branches and bark of the trees. Venus next asks for water from the Styx and Cocytus flowing from a cleft that is impossible for a mortal to attain and is also guarded by great serpents. This time an eagle performs the task for Psyche. Venus, outraged at Psyche's survival, claims that the stress of caring for her son, made depressed and ill as a result of Psyche's lack of faith, has caused her to lose some of her beauty. Psyche is to go to the Underworld and ask Persephone, the queen of the Underworld, for a bit of her beauty in a box that Venus gave to Psyche. Psyche decides that the quickest way to the Underworld is to throw herself off some high place and die and so she climbs to the top of a tower. But the tower itself speaks to her and tells her the route through Tanaerum that will allow her to enter the Underworld alive and return again, as well as telling her how to get by Cerberus by throwing him a cracker and Charon by paying him a golden coin, how to avoid other dangers on the way there and back, and most importantly to eat of no food whatsoever; for otherwise she will dwell forever in the Underworld. Psyche follows the orders explicitly and eats nothing while beneath the earth.

However when Psyche has left the Underworld, she decides to open the box and take a little bit of the beauty for herself. Inside, she can see no beauty; instead an infernal sleep arises from the box and overcomes her. Cupid (Eros), who had forgiven Psyche, flies to her, wipes the sleep from her face, puts it back in the box, and sends her back on her way. Then Cupid flies to Mount Olympus and begs Jupiter(Greek Zeus), to aid them. Jupiter (Zeus) calls a full and formal council of the gods and declares that it is his will that Cupid might marry Psyche. Jupiter then has Psyche fetched to Mount Olympus, and gives her a drink made from Ambrosia, granting her immortality. Begrudgingly, Venus and Psyche forgive each other.

Psyche and Cupid's daughter was Voluptas, the goddess of "sensual pleasures," whose Latin name means "pleasure" or "bliss".

In Greek and Roman mythology, Psyche was the personification of the passion of love. She was the youngest daughter of the king and queen of Sicily. She was the most beautiful person on the island and suitors flocked to ask for her hand. In the end she boasted that she was more beautiful than Aphrodite (Venus) herself, and Aphrodite sent Eros to transfix her with an arrow of desire and make her fall in love with the nearest person or thing available. But even Eros (Cupid) fell in love with her and took her to a secret place and eventually married her and had her made a goddess by Zeus (Jupiter).

The Greek word "PSYCHE literally means "SPIRIT" or "SOUL".

Apuleius's narrative of Cupid and Psyche has frequently been analyzed as an allegory of Platonism:

" The tripartite division of the soul, the desire of the soul to be united with the divine, the fall of the winged soul to the earth because of its evil burden, and the distinction between the heavenly and the vulgar types of love are Platonic ideas, which, according to some scholars, resemble specific events in the tale of Psyche; thus Psyche's name, the portrayal of her character in relation to her two sisters, her futile attempt to seize Cupid and fly with him to the sky, and the ambiguous role the goddess Venus and her son Cupid play in the heroine's life are themes that seem to transform Apuleius' literary fairytale into a philosophical allegory.[1] "

At the conclusion of Comus (1634), the poet John Milton alluded to the story of Cupid and Psyche.

"Celestial Cupid, her famed son, advanced,

Holds his dear Psyche sweet entranced,

After her wandering labours long,

Till free consent the gods among

Make her his eternal bride;

And from her fair unspotted side

Two blissful twins are to be born,

Youth and Joy; so Jove hath sworn."

The poet T. K. Harvey wrote:

"They wove bright fables in the days of old,

When reason borrowed fancy's painted wings;

When truth's clear river flowed o'er sands of gold,

And told in song its high and mystic things!

And such the sweet and solemn tale of her

The pilgrim heart, to whom a dream was given,

That led her through the world,- Love's worshiper,-

To seek on earth for him whose home was heaven!

"In the full city,- by the haunted fount,-

Through the dim grotto's tracery of spars,-

'Mid the pine temples, on the moonlit mount,

Where silence sits to listen to the stars;

In the deep glade where dwells the brooding dove,

The painted valley, and the scented air,

She heard far echoes of the voice of Love,

And found his footsteps' traces everywhere.

"But nevermore they met! since doubts and fears,

Those phantom shapes that haunt and blight the earth,

Had come 'twixt her, a child of sin and tears,

And that bright spirit of immortal birth;

Until her pining soul and weeping eyes

Had learned to seek him only in the skies;

Till wings unto the weary heart were given,

And she became Love's angel bride in heaven!"

The Rapture of Psyche (Le Ravissement de Psyche) 1895

This is one of Bouguereau's most romantic pieces. With Psyche finally in the arms of her love, Cupid, the two ascend to heaven. The subtle use of color is truly astonishing. The light and dark purples of the cloth surrounding Cupid and Psyche play beautifully against the purple grey clouds and mountains. The myth of Cupid and Psyche dates all the way back to Apuleius in the 2nd century AD. In the myth, Psyche is a beautiful princess of whom the goddess Venus is jealous. In her rage she orders her son cupid to make Psyche fall in love with a monster, but Cupid falls in love with her himself. After several trials Cupid and Psyche make their plea to the gods who turn Psyche into an immortal and allow them to be married in heaven.

"Nymphs and Satyr" 1873

In Bouguereau's famous painting, Nymphs & Satyr (Nymphes et Satyre) four nymphs tease and play with a satyr by trying to pull him into a lake. One nymph waves behind to three other nymphs in the distance, perhaps beckoning them to come and play with the satyr as well. The satyr halfheartedly tries to resist the nymph's wiles, entranced by their beauty. Nymphs are from Greek mythology. They are considered to be minor female deities, and have a duty to protect different elements of nature such as streams, mountains and meadows (pantheon). The male counterpart for a nymph is a satyr. A satyr is a creature also from Greek mythology having the torso and face of a man, ears and tail of a horse, and feet of a goat. They are known for being lustful and fertile creatures. Bouguereau captures an incredible sense of motion in this piece. One can feel the struggle for the satyr to keep his ground, and the nymph's joyous struggle to pull him in. The three dimensional rendering of form and movement is reminiscent of some of Bernini's most famous works at the Palace Borghesi in Rome, such as Pluto and Prosperpine, and Apollo and Daphne.

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    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Lovely lens...beautiful and informative! Thank you!

      It's stunning!

    • lovemybob profile image


      10 years ago

      Beautifully rendered lens, a bit long, but nevertheless an eye-ful! Welcome to the Painting Group!

    • Nathanville profile image

      Arthur Russ 

      10 years ago from England

      Fantastically detailed and informative site, and very well done.


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