William Bouguereau: The Nymphaeum
According to a writer for the Chicago Evening Post in the 1920s, Bouguereau's reputation in America was built upon his paintings of nudes. When Bouguereau's 1884 painting The Bathers came up for bid at a sale of 1886, it received applause and was promptly bought for a New York saloon for eighteen thousand dollars. Critics may have quibbed over whether his nudes were erotic or chaste, but clearly the public adored them.
The Nymphaeum was created as an exhibition piece, like many of the artist's most important works. Displayed at the 1878 Universal Exposition in Paris, its complex composition, with no fewer than fifteen figures, was meant to prove Bouguereau's superiority as an established master. By exhibiting it alongside his religious, allegorical, genre, and portrait paintings (twelve in all), he demonstrated his versatility and won a medal of honor.
The subject of thirteen stark-naked nymphs cavorting in a secret woodland grotto, with a satyr and Greek youth peeping through the bushes, is, of course, pure fantasy, meant to transport the viewer from the day-to-day cares and boredom of modern urban life into a serene daydream of classical Arcadia, where there swell not flesh-and-blood women, but visions of perfection. Their impossibly smooth skins, their harmoniously proportioned bodies, their liquid movements, establish a kinship with classical sculpture and the paintings of Titian and Poussin.
While such paintings usually are considered to be out of the mainstream of modern art, Bouguereau's classical fantasies evoke interesting connections with the poetry of the Parnassian Heredia and the Symbolist Mallarme. The lines of the latter's famous "Afternoon of a Faun" (1876, 1877) closely parallel The Nymphaeum:
These nymphs, I would make them endure.
Their delicate flesh-tint so clear,
it hovers yet upon the air
heavy with foliage of sleep.
[The Haggin Museum]