In the second half of the nineteenth century, the Paris Salon and the Academic system were the most powerful artistic institutions in the Western world. Visited by hundreds of thousands of viewers annually, engaging and training artists from around the world, vaulting careers and extinguishing others, the Salon’s influence on the art world was decisive. While the avant-garde railed against it through the Salon des Refusés and the Salon d’Automne, William Bouguereau held powerful positions in the Academic network and was firmly ensconced as one of the most prominent members of the French art world.
In the early 1880s, Bouguereau was at the height of his professional career. His increasing popularity, both in Europe and America, resulted in a demanding exhibition schedule as well as several prestigious academic and administrative appointments. In 1879, he exhibited at the International Art Exposition in Munich, where he received a first-class medal. In 1880, his paintings could be seen at the Triennial Exhibition of Fine Arts in Ghent; he was appointed a Knight of the Order of Leopold by the King of Belgium a short time later. The following year, in 1881, Bouguereau was elected President of the "Section Peinture" at the annual Salon, regularly taught at the Académie Julian, and was elected President of the Society of Painters, Sculptors, Architects and Engravers in 1883.
Between 1878 and 1884, Bouguereau produced approximately fifty paintings, including fourteen works over three meters high which were exhibited at the Salon. He also executed fragments of two important mural commissions, the first for the Cathedral at La Rochelle, and the second for the Église St. Vincent de Paul in Paris. It was during this six year period of unprecedented activity that Bouguereau started to paint La Jeunesse de Bacchus, the most ambitious, demanding and challenging work of his long and prodigious career.
After more than two years in the studio, La Jeunesse de Bacchus was completed in December 1883, and dated 1884 in anticipation of its presentation at the Salon that year. Its massive panoramic format, roughly the same proportion as two adjoining squares, had been the standard size for tapestry cartoons; these dimensions were used to great effect by Gustave Courbet with his Enterrement à Ornans (A Burial at Ornans) of 1849.
La Jeunesse de Bacchus illustrates the youth of the revel-inducing Bacchus. As Elizabeth Milleker, former curator of Greek and Roman Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, has said:
The ancient Greeks called him Dionysos—son of Zeus—or Bacchus, synonymous with the name of his followers—the Bacchae. He embodied the relentless energy that drives natural growth and transformation. He was a god of epiphanies, arriving unannounced to overturn the bounds of daily life. He brought man the gift of wine, with its release from cares. But his greatest gift was to open a path whereby men and women could abandon their everyday selves in a manic state that led to a sense of oneness with the god himself. This state of ritual madness was a mass phenomenon of groups fired by wine, dance and the music of pipes and drums. The Greeks called it ekstasis and it was the prerequisite for enthousiasmos—possession by the god.
From the ancient reliefs of sarcophagi and Attic vase painting to oils by Renaissance masters to contemporary art in the twenty-first century, the subject of Bacchus and the erotic charge of his orgiastic rituals have inspired artists for thousands of years. Representing growth and transformation, excess and consumption, his symbolism is almost universally understood. Michelangelo’s marble sculpture Bacchus of 1496-97 in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence shows an inebriated god, teetering with rolling eyes. The Italian Baroque painter, Caravaggio, used the image of Bacchus to produce iconic, autobiographical paintings, first through Young Sick Bacchus of 1593-94, Young Boy with Basket of Fruit of 1593, both in the collection of the Borghese Gallery and Museum, Rome, and Bacchus (see fig. 1). Cindy Sherman employed the image of Young Sick Bacchus for her work Untitled #224 (see fig. 2). The reveling dancers in the celebrated composition Dance (I) by Bouguereau's student Henri Matisse invites comparison through its association with Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (for whom Matisse later designed sets and costumes), and the rituals of rebirth closely associated with the god (see fig. 3). Pablo Picasso, with his Bacchanal (paraphrase after Poussin's Triumph of Pan) (see fig. 4), Cy Twombly and Jeff Koons with his Antiquity [Ariadne Titian Bacchus Popcorn] (see fig. 5) have also borrowed his likeness to their own conceptual ends, along with countless others.
Bouguereau's monumental contribution to this lineage of interpretations of the Bacchus myth represents the epitome of nineteenth century French Academicism. On his vast canvas are eleven life-size female and male figures, set against a wooded landscape. In the shadow on the left, two satyrs attempt to support Silenus, who teeters precariously atop a donkey. In the shadow on the right, two centaurs dance to the sound of an aulos or double flute. Their animated movements provide a distant echo of the spirited group in the center of the composition, where reveling dancers form a circle around a man who carries the child Bacchus on his shoulders. Each of these elements were honed through years of careful study and meticulous preparation, drawn from sources, both ancient and modern, which the artist encountered decades prior.
Bouguereau’s decision to paint a bacchanal—a subject that was often used as a pretext for the depiction of the liberated female nude—set the artist on a path that came with its own set of conventions, expectations, and rules. Bouguereau imparts a rhythm and cadence to the composition as a whole, energizing it in broad as well as specific terms. Indeed, the importance of draftsmanship in La Jeunesse de Bacchus, the fluidity of composition and palette, the tones harmoniously balanced, situate it firmly within the Neoclassical and decorative worlds rather than in strictly classical bacchanalian traditions. Yet, it is precisely in these departures and differences that the remarkable originality of the painting—and the artist himself—is most clearly understood.
From the earliest years of his artistic training, Bouguereau expressed an interest in fantastic subjects, drawn from literary or mythological sources. In 1850, Bouguereau submitted his monumental and dramatic Dante et Virgile aux enfers (see fig. 6) to the Paris Salon, impressing audiences and securing the artist’s reputation for representing dynamism in the figure. As the critic and poet Théophile Gautier described the damned souls: "Gianni Schicchi throws himself at Capocchio, his rival, with a strange fury, and Monsieur Bouguereau depicts magnificently through muscles, nerves, tendons and teeth, the struggle between the two combatants. There is bitterness and strength in this canvas—strength, a rare quality!" (reproduced in Vendryès, op. cit., 1885, p. 6). That same year, Bouguereau won the prestigious Prix de Rome competition, allowing him to travel to the Villa Medici in Rome in December 1850, beginning three years of study in Italy at the expense of the state. In May 1851 he began a long journey through Italy, viewing what he had only known through reproductions supplied to students at the École des Beaux-Arts. Instead of Tuscany, Emilia, or the Veneto, the homelands of Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Correggio and Titian, artists he admired and had copied at the Louvre, Bouguereau was drawn to the south where he embarked on a personalized pilgrimage of approximately six months. Returning to the same sites again and again, Bouguereau studied the murals at Pompeii and Herculaneum, as well as bas-reliefs, ancient sarcophagi, and the statues and antique vases at the Archaeological Museum of Naples. Hundreds of drawings from this period, all precisely dated with the sites carefully identified, testify to his impassioned attempt to understand the genius of the many anonymous creators he encountered and whose works established the basic assumptions of Western civilization from the Classical period through the Renaissance to the nineteenth century.
Le Combat des Centaures et des Lapithes in the collection of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, painted in Rome in 1852, was the first of Bouguereau’s important paintings to demonstrate the profound effect of his Italian study. Throughout his career, he frequently returned to the monumentality of ancient and mythological sources, in paintings such as Départ de Tobie (1860), Les Remords d’Oreste (see fig. 7) and later, Nymphes et Satyre (see fig. 8) and Homère et son Guide (1874).
The genesis of La Jeunesse de Bacchus can be traced back to April 1854, when Bouguereau returned to France and was commissioned to paint the Four Seasons across four vaulted architectural devices in his cousin’s private residence. On one of the arches, in quintessential classical style, a group of young men and women dance in a circle to the sounds of a tambourine and a double flute, in an allegory of Spring. This motif was almost certainly inspired by the seventeenth century French artist Nicolas Poussin, whom Bouguereau had admired at the Louvre: see his Bacchanal before a Statue of Pan (see fig. 9) and A Dance to the Music of Time (see fig. 10). These compositions can be seen as the main influence which led to the present work, Bouguereau further developed it into a large-scale, multi-figural composition, evidenced by an undated preparatory work arranged as a shallow frieze-like plane (see fig. 11). The focus of this cortège, or formal procession, is a chariot pulled by two panthers, likely Bacchus and his wife Ariadne. Other preparatory drawings contain additional elements that would be more fully developed in La Jeunesse de Bacchus, among them the Silenus riding a donkey, a cymbal player, and a bacchante, collapsed on the ground in the forefront to the left.
It is not known how much time passed between Bouguereau’s first rendition of a bacchanal and La Jeunesse de Bacchus. Nevertheless, it is clear that through a series of preparatory studies for the 1884 painting, the processional aspect of the composition disappeared and groups of men and women are formulated. The neutral background of the first version gives way in the later work to an abundant and verdant grove, an environment much more conducive to the festive ritual. Names and addresses on preparatory drawings identify the Italian models, Michel Massotti and Lucia Marentola. They were asked to pose nearly thirty times during the course of the painting’s creation, an unusually rigorous schedule for even the most demanding of Academic artists. In addition to these professional models, Bouguereau included a very personal detail, the image of his grandson William. Born in June 1880, the first child of Bouguereau's daughter Henriette, with William's charming blond hair and curls he would become the child-god Bacchus, the undoubted hero of Bouguereau’s fête.
The final composition of La Jeunesse de Bacchus extends horizontally, with its central axis located in the figure of the child Bacchus. The man supporting Bacchus atop his shoulders is derived from the artist’s own drawing from 1847, titled Faune portant un chevreau, based on a second century Roman copy of a Hellenistic statue now at the Prado. To draw attention to this important area, Bouguereau employs a range of compositional devices to create a pivot around which the bacchantes turn counterclockwise. They occupy the painting’s foreground, whereas the other elements of the composition—Silenus on the donkey at left, the two centaurs on the right—are relegated to a shaded wood. The composition suggests a triptych, and the deliberate avoidance of strict symmetry creates dynamism, inviting the spectator to read the painting from left to right, engaging with the narrative as it unfolds.
In its ability to engage the viewer, Bouguereau’s painting had a distinguished precedent: Botticelli’s Primavera (see fig. 12). Though the spirit of the picture is, at first glance, very different from that of La Jeunesse de Bacchus, its life-size female figures bear noteworthy resemblances to those in the present work. Draped in a cascade of transparent white veils, the women dance before an idyllic wood, threatening to spill from the canvas' edge. Details such as the man gathering fruit at the far left of the composition, and the striking effect produced by the dark tree trunks against the light sky, suggest that Bouguereau had a storehouse of favored mental images as he conceived his painting, knowing Botticelli’s work since his first trip to Florence in the summer of 1852. While Primavera surely made an impression then, Botticelli enjoyed a revival of interest throughout Europe between 1865 and 1910. In England, it was John Ruskin and Walter Pater who first led the charge. Their aesthetic ideals were best represented by the works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and other members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Indeed, the processional composition and drapery of the figures recalls some of Frederic Lord Leighton’s most celebrated compositions, in particular his monumental Daphnephoria (see fig. 13).
The profound impact of La Jeunesse de Bacchus on viewers, be they amateur enthusiasts or dedicated art professionals, cannot be explained only by references to ancient art, the Italian masters, classical seventeenth century French paintings and sculptures or the works of Bouguereau’s contemporaries. There is more to its enduring appeal. When the painting was exhibited publicly in 1984 as the centerpiece of the artist’s touring retrospective, the renowned art critic for Le Monde, André Fermigier, concluded his review with the following evocative words: "The beautiful naked bodies of La Jeunesse de Bacchus, a painting that should be at the Musée d’Orsay, may speak to the end of a world, but it is a world that has had its greatness and has disappeared without being disavowed" (Fermigier, op. cit., n.p.).
Curators assumed that the painting’s grand dimensions would overwhelm audiences, causing them to remain at a distance in order to better appreciate the composition and its inventiveness as a whole, yet they discovered that the opposite was true: visitors came closer to the canvas, first to admire the artist’s technique, which gave the painting an impressive materiality and, next, because they identified so strongly with the life-size subjects within this massive work. An immediate connection, it seems, was made between the observer and those who were a part of Bouguereau’s fictional world. The man carrying Bacchus, for example, stands 5’7’’, the same height as Bouguereau’s model; the figure of the fallen bacchante in the foreground is so close to the edge of the canvas that she seems to be exiting the space within the frame and entering that of the spectator, collapsing the division between art and life.
La Jeunesse de Bacchus was indisputably the single most important and masterly example of academic painting anywhere in the world at the time of its Salon debut. However, this acknowledged masterpiece of nineteenth-century painting remained in the artist’s studio for nearly 135 years, essentially withheld from the market and the public alike. In 1884, an unidentified buyer offered Bouguereau’s dealers, Boussod, Valadon & Cie, 70,000 francs for the masterpiece. Bouguereau, however, refused to part with it at that price, explaining to Léon Boussod that "For the moment, I want this painting to bring me in honor what it has failed to bring me in money, and to be able to make it available for important exhibitions in France or abroad" (William Bouguereau, Letter to L. Boussod, August 14, 1884, quoted in William Bouguereau (exhibition catalogue), 1984-85, p. 225).
Indeed, Bouguereau believed his monumental painting, La Jeunesse de Bacchus, should hang in the company of Titian, Correggio, Poussin, Rubens, Rembrandt and Delacroix, artists whose greatness he aspired to. Today, he is offered among the titans of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, representing an ever-expanding spectrum of creative achievement. Throughout his career there were those who tried to define his style, but Bouguereau refused to be confined to any single category. He believed that the highest expression of art must ultimately be separate from time and place, and that his artistic lineage must be drawn in terms as broad and sweeping as the surface of his greatest work, La Jeunesse de Bacchus.
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