Scanning the internet for a quick, more general look at Bouguereau's artwork, I could see why Bouguereau's reputation has suffered since his glory days as one of the most popular painters in France. But still, I was interested--enough to call up what books might be available on him via Inter-library loan.
Bouguereau is the artist of some surprisingly familiar paintings--when my books came, I was not surprised to read this line in one appreciation: "reproductions of Bouguereau's paintings are frequently the best-sellers in their respective museum shops, and the curators, responding like the nineteenth-century critics, despair over the public's taste."
Don't get me wrong--I'm no rabid fan of the Victorian Alma-Tadema school. I like my Impressionist paintings. But there are some pictures by Bouguereau, or a series of pictures, that I find very interesting.
Really? It seems to me... if, as a researcher, your only source for personal details is a man's (or perhaps his wife's) personal letters and perhaps his journal... you are not much of a researcher. You have plucked the low hanging fruit, and moved on. It's sheer laziness. Why not even a catalog, distinguishing the figures appearing in each painting? Perhaps this might be guesswork, but you could acknowledge your guesses, and the work wouldn't be in vain. You'd be laying the groundwork for the next researching generation, giving a place to start, allowing us a better understanding of these paintings.
Who is this girl, aging before Bouguereau's eyes into a young woman? A servant? A paid model? What did she mean to the man, to the painter? What could an investigation of the man's interactions with his subjects reveal about the psychology behind these paintings?
It seems to me the Art Historians who are filling out the written columns that accompany the plate reproductions--they really don't have much feeling for what they are looking at, or for, or even why people continue to like this man's paintings. Okay, Bouguereau's not a Millet, ennobling the dirt and the sweat and the work, in a peasant setting, and he's not an innovator when it comes to the surface and brushwork of a painting. But there's still something interesting here. Why not dig out that story?