Young Girl Defending Herself Against Cupid, William A. Bouguereau
Young Girl Defending herself against Cupid, painted in 1880 by William-Adolphe Bouguereau is an effective and articulate imagining of an encounter between the mythological God of love and a nude woman in the thrall of youth. With dainty yet tense muscles, the young girl shoves Cupid, as he attempts to put her under his spell with the pierce of an arrow. This playful struggle between man and immortal is brimming with the cheek and tender mischief that defined the work of Bouguereau, whose luscious Academic canvases charmed the opposite end of the art spectrum to the Impressionist group in the late-nineteenth century.
Despite appearing to contemporary audiences as a tad quaint, Bouguereau was, in fact, the most commercially successful artists of his day, achieving a popular appeal unrivaled in the late nineteenth century and with few parallels in the present day. Under Napoleon III’s Second Empire, an era of triumphant capitalism, the enrichment of the bourgeoisie and of Haussmann’s colossal building projects, Bouguereau’s talent bloomed and his sales skyrocketed. Following the Paris Commune of 1871, wherein the proletarian masses of Paris were brutally defeated, massacred, and coerced, the upper classes shunned reflections of social reality in favor of conjured visions of the classical past or tableaux featuring the gods and nymphs of the mythological tradition at play. Bouguereau’s oeuvre is a perfect reflection of the tastes of his time, almost to the point of caricature. A shrewd businessman, and a fine creative mind, the artist would certainly have known his canvases were bombastic at best.
Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the canons of painting were implicitly classified into subjects of preference amongst the art-collecting classes, from the most ordinary to the sublime. At the top of the scale were subjects taken from the Bible or ancient mythological allegories, as in Young Girl Defending herself against Cupid. Bouguereau emphatically felt himself to be at the top of this scale, the purveyor of a talent inherited from the ancients. Yet the artificiality of his works, despite their appeal, became the encapsulation of all that the avant-garde felt should be dismissed from the sphere of art. In Young Girl Defending herself against Cupid, with its anatomical precision, marvelous scene of mise-en-scene, and pre-Cinematic lighting, one can see the anathema to the Impressionists, the reaction point from which their art was struck. A stunning intermingling of decadent wealth, classicalism, and nineteenth-century refinement, Bouguereau’s canvas is a strangely divisive work of brevity and life.