William Adolphe Bouguereau (French, 1825–1905),
Return of Spring (Le Printemps)
oil on canvas, 84½ x 50 in., 201.3 x 117.8 cm
Gift of Francis T. B. Martin, 1951.889
Few artists embody the ideals of French Academic painting as perfectly as does Bouguereau. This industrious artist covered a variety of themes in his work, ranging from sober Biblical stories to wild bacchanals, peasant girls, and portraits, all depicted in a smooth, seamless style. His impeccable craft and ability to combine realism with idealized form won him many admirers and a long list of honors. As a teacher at the Académie Julian and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Bouguereau was a revered taskmaster and leader of establishment forces against the innovations of modernism.
In Return of Spring, all the qualities that won Bouguereau acclaim are fully apparent. Plainly referring to Raphael’s famous Galatea, the waking nymph is clearly drawn and modeled to a porcelain-like finish. The three trios of cupids that whirl around her in a garland of flying flesh are exercises in anatomical virtuosity, showing essentially the same figure in a variety of poses. Bouguereau pronounced himself “really thrilled with this . . . painting; the attitude and expression of the young woman are, I think, exactly right.” Not everyone shared this view, and some critics accused the painter of “academic formalism, empty of blood and emotion” when the painting was first exhibited in 1886. It has aroused stronger emotions than that on two separate occasions in Omaha. In 1890 and again in 1976 it was attacked by individuals who clearly found the nudity altogether too realistic.