Wharton, Bouguereau, and Courbet

One of the questions that I asked in today’s lecture was what we should make of this passage from the third chapter of Edith Wharton’s novel The Age of Innocence (1920):

Wandering on to the bouton d’or drawing-room (where Beaufort had had the audacity to hang “Love Victorious,” the much-discussed nude of Bouguereau) Archer found Mrs. Welland and her daughter standing near the ball-room door. Couples were already gliding over the floor beyond: the light of the wax candles fell on revolving tulle skirts, on girlish heads wreathed with modest blossoms, on the dashing aigrettes and ornaments of the young married women’s coiffures, and on the glitter of highly glazed shirt-fronts and fresh glace gloves.

The notes to the Penguin edition that we’re using (edited by Cynthia Griffin Wolff and available for Kindle) tell us that “Adolphe-William Bouguereau (1825-1905), a French painter who won the Prix de Rome in 1850, was well known for us nudes.” What they don’t tell us is what I learned from T. J. Clark many years ago in an art history class: that Bouguereau was an “Academic” painter, a traditionalist who was popular in his day and consistently exhibit in the annual Paris Salon during his career.

Bouguereau never painted a painting called Love Victorious, but it’s thought that Wharton may have had this one in mind, Le Printemps (The Return of Spring), painted in 1886 and currently on display at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska:

Martin Scorsese used this picture to depict “Love Victorious” in his film adaptation of The Age of Innocence. Like many of Bouguereau’s nudes, it aspires to what we would think of now as photo-realism — except for the, er, putti. I talk about this painting in class as part of a larger discussion of the novel’s relation to the idea of realism: how can a novel compete (in terms of “realism”) with forms like visual forms like painting, photography, and film?

I then compare this painting with a painting by Gustave Courbet (a “Realist” with a capital R), entitled L’Origine du Monde (The Origin of the World), painted in 1866 and currently hanging in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Courbet once said, “I cannot paint an angel, because I have never seen one,” a remark that seems to be a deliberate swipe at Academic painters like Bouguereau. Here’s Courbet’s rendition of the origin of the world:

Bouguereau’s approach is idealized, mythological, allegorical; Courbet’s is amusingly literal.

So what should we make of Wharton’s use of Bouguereau? What does the reference signify? Is it a subtle way of indicating that Newland Archer’s Old New York, which thinks of itself as so cosmopolitan and worldly, is in fact quite provincial. Bouguereau may be scandalous in New York, but in Paris — well, he’s an Academic, not a provocateur like Courbet.

Or does the novel really “believe” that Bouguereau is scandalous? Is it unaware of the way in which Courbet and other Realists are upping the ante when it comes to nudes? Is the novel just as provincial as the New York it depicts?

I tend to think not, but the question I pose to the class is: What kind of evidence would you need to make an argument either way?

This invocation of Bouguereau is what I would call an exemplary moment in the text. But what does it exemplify? Let me suggest that the two questions I’ve just posed only scratch the surface of the complexity of this moment.