Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Art History: Contemporary: Bouguereau vs. Freud

William Bouguereau’s Tight Brushwork Meets Lucian Freud’s Tormented Reality in the Form of a Self Portrait.

William Adolf Bouguereau and Lucian Freud were and are both artists of the human figure. Although they focused on the same subject, their works are dramatically different. Bouguereau’s fine brush work and technical mastery of the human anatomy combined to create an idealized view of rural life. Bouguereau’s works focus on beauty, innocence and youth. Freud, on the other hand, focuses his portrait work on inner turmoil, sexuality and personal pain. He often works on multiple planes which gives his works a skewed appearance though it is obvious that he too has a strong grasp of the human figure. Though very different, these two artists are undoubtedly both masters of the human figure.

Bouguereau’s Self Portrait, which he completed in 1879, demonstrates his fine brush control in a close-up portrait style. Unlike most of his work, which includes full-body representation, his Self Portrait is one of the few pieces with a primary focus on portraiture. Also uncommon to Bouguereau's normal formula, it depicts a single adult figure. This presents a strong contrast to Lucian Freud’s self portrait. The piece is oil on canvas and measures 46 x 38cm; it was completed when Bouguereau was 54 year old.

Lucian Freud’s Man’s Head (self-portrait) presents a unique angle untypical to portraiture, and is a great example of the candid expressions so common in Lucian's work. While it is not as repulsive as some of his other works, it still holds a quality that is definitively Freud. Freud’s ability to paint emotion and to contort his subject without flattening the picture plane is worthy of further study. The piece is also oil on canvas and measures 53.3 x 50.8cm; it was completed when Freud was 41 years old.

These two works are dramatic in their differences for all that they are both self portraits. Bouguereau was a purest, an advocate of the Old Masters and it shows in his composition (Ross 2). His portrait is a straight view, formal and picturesque. Freud’s, alternately, takes the viewpoint from an untraditional angle and is a close-up of the head only. Freud focuses on creating an image that is real as opposed to realistic. The difference is that Bouguereau creates images that look like people while Freud creates images that look like how a person feels (Johnson 17).

Bouguereau was a French Academy painter who worked in at a time that the art world was undergoing some big changes. The artists that preceded him had focused on the religious and mythological scenes that had dominated the art world for so long and were a particular focus of the Academy itself. The artists that followed Bouguereau were the Impressionists and Modernists who vehemently opposed this academic type of work. Bouguereau’s art shows the transitional aspects of the changing art world (Ross 3). Half of his work is in the old style, depicting nymphs and angels, while the other half focuses on children in candid scenes of rural life. (Ross 1).

Lucian Freud was born in 1922 and entered art school at age seventeen where he quickly gained a reputation as a prodigy (Penny 7). Sigmund Freud, his grandfather, had a profound impact on his adult work. Sigmund Freud believed that in order to treat a patient you must first "strip him emotionally naked". Lucian's works depict his models stripped of their "power of censorship," meaning they are un-self conscious or, more specifically, wallowing in self-suffering. While his sketch work shows this fly-on-the-wall view of his models, his painting is where the true genius comes through. Ironically it wasn’t until much later in his career that he began painting and although his primary emphasis was in drawing he never draws in preparation for a painting (Penny 9).

While Lucian Freud's work stands out as being unique and emotional, Bouguereau shows such mind blowing skill that it would be difficult to say who had more talent. The beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Bouguereau's mastery cannot be challenged but many find his work uninspired. Freud has both talent and inspiration but many may find his imagery upsetting or repulsive. It is like comparing apples and oranges, they may both be fruit but the similarities end there.


Hughes, Robert. Lucian Freud Paintings. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1987.

Penny, Nicholas., and Johnson, Robert Flynn., comps. Lucian Freud Works on Paper. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1988.

William Bouguereau 1825-1905. Fred Ross. 2002. Art Renewal Center. 1 Oct 2006. http://www.artrenewal.org/museum/b/Bouguereau_William/bio1.asp.

Bouguereau and the Real 19th Century. Fred Ross. 4 Jan 2002. Art Renewal Center. 1 Oct 2006. http://www.artrenewal.org/articles/2002/NYSOPA_speech/bouguereau1.asp.

The Great Bouguereau Debate. Yoder, Shapiro, Junge, and Elliot. 6 Jun 2006. Art Renewal Center. 1 Oct 2006. http://www.artrenewal.org/articles/2006/Bouguereau_Debate/bouguereaudebate1.asp.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Nice Blog . I don't really know a lot about Human Anatomy study or art, but that's just my 2 cents. Really great job though, Krudman! Keep up the good work!