William-Adolphe Bouguereau, “Orestes Pursued by the Furies” (1862) oil on canvas, 91 x 109 5/8 (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

MILWAUKEE — Being surrounded by the fin-de-siècle paintings of French academic painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905) is like being in the live butterfly room of a natural history museum. Fluttering cherubs and young peasant girls with creamy skin tones compete for attention, pantomiming seduction. Every sightline, however, poses a mildly disturbing question: Are the children in these paintings simply “cute” or are they provocative? Just as one begins to wonder if Bouguereau spun child pornography into something benign like a greeting card, we are assured by text panels that he loved these young peasants and only wanted to make them dignified.

Today trying to determine how to view Bouguereau’s paintings — at once beautiful like orchids and frivolous like cotton candy — versus seeing them displayed in the walnut-paneled sitting rooms of Victorian robber barons (where they originally were displayed) presents a challenge. One thing is certain: Bouguereau’s crowd-pleasing paintings were so saccharine, silky, and Mannerist that the French intelligentsia finally convulsed in response and gave birth to Modernism. Artist Gustave Courbet and writer Charles Baudelaire declared that in post-revolutionary France, art must do more than feed bon mots to the bourgeoisie. Art must be urban, contingent, and real.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, “Little Beggar” (1880) oil on canvas, 46 x 90 1/8 inches

Unlike his fellow radical artists of the late-19th century, Bouguereau did not change with the times. When he went out of fashion in France, he touted his wares in America. The hordes of newly minted industrialists couldn’t get enough of his perfectly glazed sprites. A new exhibition, co-curated by the Milwaukee Art Museum, Wisconsin, and the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Tennessee, focuses exclusively on Bouguereau’s popularity in the United States. Tracing the provenance of 40 paintings, the exhibition tracks the rise and fall of neoclassical painting and its role in mirroring capitalist values at the turn of the century.

The largest sponsor of the exhibition is the staunchly conservative Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the nation’s foremost funder of conservative thinkers and foundations.  The Bradley Foundation, worth $900 million, supports “nonprofits that are, among other things, hostile to labor unions, skeptical of climate change or critical of the loosening of sexual mores in American culture,” according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The foundation’s art funding has tended to lean toward major institutions rather than cutting edge artists. In this respect you can hardly do better than Bouguereau and the values imbedded in his art — idealism, whiteness, an effete notion of taste. The invention, display, and ownership of perfect, bloodless female bodies also aligns nicely with the foundation’s funding of groups that oppose feminism and policies such as paid sick leave. Bouguereau’s depictions of women assure his paintings’ owners that purely seductive service via the tasteful distance of vague mythological reference can and should be purchased, framed, and admired like a corporate logo.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, “The Broken Pitcher”(1891) oil on canvas, 53 x 33 in.

While this exhibition examines those who purchased Bouguereau’s work in the US to illuminate the intertwining of art, commerce, and social conditions, the contemporary art world is now increasingly asking who is funding our museums to examine the hidden forces of patronage. Should a museum take money from anyone? Does sponsorship affect content? Recent protests at the Whitney Museum challenged the position of Warren B. Kanders, vice chairman of the Whitney’s board of trustees, whose company is responsible for manufacturing the tear gas fired recently at migrants on the US border with Mexico. Last month, the National Portrait Gallery in London turned down a $1.3-million-dollar pledge from the Sackler family because of its links to Purdue Pharma, the maker of the controversial painkiller OxyContin. The Tate group of British art institutions and the Guggenheim followed suit.

In the amplified formal terms of Bouguereau, one cannot escape the vestiges of a conservative political ideology, making the viewer complicit in the paintings’ accompanying values. As we ooh and aah over Bouguereau’s flawless technique we might also recoil in sensing an historic moment when art had so fully bowed down to commerce that what we see are empty skins, the discarded husks of centuries of academic history painting.

Installation view of the exhibition Bouguereau and America at the Milwaukee Museum of Art

The exhibition’s catalog posits that America’s nouveau riche were mostly self-made men who wanted “to know they are getting their money’s worth by buying a Bouguereau.” The simple narratives of the paintings (beggar girl with hand out) as well as the skill in rendering equated with monetary value. While high prices were initially paid for Bouguereau’s work in America between 1860 and 1890, the market plunged in subsequent decades. There have only been two other major Bouguereau shows: one in 1974 at the New York Cultural Center and one in 1984, co-presented by Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the Musée du Petit-Palais, Paris. Today, there are about 110 Bouguereau paintings in American museum collections. The exhibition intriguingly maps the sales histories and shifting locations of each painting on interactive iPads.

Many of these paintings spent a century crisscrossing the country, from one drawing room to another.

As Bouguereau was plying his trade in luxury wares, an experimental tirade of art movements unfurled. Realism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism all churned in response to industrialization and the birth of republics. Bouguereau’s idylls left those social ripples behind. Visual pleasure has always played a role in the art world (17th-century Dutch still lifes for example), and yet it is difficult to fully fall into Bouguereau’s sublime. Pre-pubescent girls appear too “come hither,” the Venuses and Cupids too contemporary — even the babies pose seductively. These paintings are about desire. They are Belle Epoque emblems suggesting that anything can be bought as a balm against the harsh conditions and human expense required to build America.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, “Nymphs and Satyr” (1873) oil on canvas, 102 1/2 x 75 inches

The exhibition is organized by subject categories: portraiture, mythology, religion, genre paintings, and sensuous subjects. The tremendous “Nymphs and Satyr,” (1873), presents eight and one-half feet of whirling drama. Four pale female nudes cajole and pull a hoofed bearded satyr into a pond where he will drown. Bouguereau was influenced by the Italian Renaissance painter Raphael but many of his compositions feel Mannerist (Veronese, Parmigianino, Bronzino) with armatures of ascending, interlocking lattices of arms and hands. At this time, 170,000 miles of railroad were being constructed across America, in the harshest work conditions. This painting rested in the hotel bar of the Hoffman House in New York. Owner Edward Stiles Stokes owned an oil refinery and had been imprisoned after murdering his business partner, partially provoked by a love triangle. Like many of Bouguereau’s works, the painting entered broader commercial channels via prints and products such as reproductions on cigar boxes.

An earlier, similar theme of women taunting a man, “Orestes Pursued by the Furies,” (1862), posits three Furies and the dead body of Orestes’s mother violently enveloping the insane protagonist. First shown at the 1863 salon in Paris, one reviewer called it an “outmoded phantasmagoria.” It later found its way into the collection of Walter P. Chrysler Jr., after the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts deaccessioned it. This is certainly Bouguereau at his best and worst: theatrical drama; a densely interconnected, taut composition; unnatural lighting; seamless paint handling; overwrought expressions; and pale elegance.

Bouguereau’s genre paintings did particularly well in America, especially his portraits of children. In a catalog essay, Martha Hoppin attempts to explain the subject’s appeal to American buyers. The “graceful pathos” of these pretty beggar girls, she says, may have offered reassurance to a public “fearful that the increasing numbers of poor immigrant children working at street trades posed a threat to societal stability.” She later posits that the attractive Italian peasant children put forth the ideal of Christian charity. Part of the appeal in a work such as “Little Beggar,” (1880), is the sensual beauty of the girls. The little beggar, with long dark tresses, sits on a stone step against a mountain scape. Barefoot, with one hand extended in need, she looks directly at the viewer in dire, unsullied waif-ness. Perhaps the combination of her availability and vulnerability was appealing to wealthy American males.

The peasant girls age into early adolescence with “The Young Shepherdess,” (1885), barefoot in a farm field, turning coquettishly toward the viewer. By 1891, the message becomes clearer. “The Broken Pitcher,” shows a pretty peasant girl seated by a well with a broken water pitcher beside her, historically a symbol of the loss of virginity.

Installation view of the exhibition Bouguereau and America at the Milwaukee Museum of Art

Bouguereau had amassed more than six million francs by the time he died in 1905. He had become an industry, churning out easel paintings that found their way to magazines, product labels and a mass public via lithographs. During his time, he was considered the antithesis of progressive art movements. His work still refuses to settle into a comfortable category, remaining a gelatinous melange of kitsch, academic virtuosity, and unsavory sensuality. Bouguereau’s work is a strangely vapid American cultural artifact that represents a new world hunger for the trappings of refinement, once it is sanitized of meaning or content. When art endures, it is because it refracts enduring human conditions. One can say that Bouguereau’s work has ridden the jet stream of a very enduring universal trait called greed.

Bouguereau and America continues at the Milwaukee Art Museum (700 N. Art Museum Drive Milwaukee, WI) through May 12, and at the Memphis Brooks Art Museum (1934 Poplar Avenue, Memphis, TN) from June 22 to September 22. It was curated by Stanton Thomas and Tanya Paul.

Debra Brehmer is a writer and art historian who runs a contemporary gallery called Portrait Society in Milwaukee, WI. She is especially interested in how portraits convey meaning.