A Classic Comeback

By McCain, Robert Stacy | Insight on the News, December 11, 2000 | Go to article overview

A Classic Comeback


McCain, Robert Stacy, Insight on the News


Modernism ruled during the 20th century, but traditional art could reign in the next.

Art in the 21st century will draw its inspiration from traditions that largely were neglected during modernism's 20th-century heyday, say artists, critics and collectors who advocate a return of classical ideals. "I look at modern art as very much like what happened with communism -- it was an idea that was a house of cards and couldn't work," says Allan Banks, president of the American Society of Classical Realism and vice chairman of the American Society of Portrait Artists. "A lot of the rubbish that we've been handed [in the 20th century] has pretty much played itself out," Banks says. "I think you're finding generations of artists who are really interested in getting back to discipline and tradition."

While American artists are enjoying this return to tradition -- Banks says leading portrait painters now report being "booked two and three years in advance" -- public tastes likewise have turned toward the traditional. There is renewed interest in 19th-century artists such as the Pre-Raphaelites -- a movement begun in England in 1848 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and others -- as well as later Victorian painters such as John William Waterhouse and neoclassicalists such as Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

"Those Victorian painters were swept under the rug; we didn't learn about them in art school," says Canadian artist Jonathon Bowser, who specializes in landscapes and fantasy paintings in a style he calls "mythic naturalism" (www.jonathonart.com; for other Websites, see sidebar below). He is a firm believer in art addressing the universal human condition. "Modernism, by definition, cannot be universal, because if you're not conversant with the lexicon, you're not invited to the debate."

Nothing exemplifies art's turn toward tradition as much as the revived interest in Adolphe-William Bouguereau, the 19th-century master of the Ecole de Beaux Arts in Paris. Bouguereau's carefully finished mythological scenes and romantic genre paintings were attacked as "sentimental" by admirers of the Impressionists, and critics later relegated him to the role of a villain in the story of modern art's triumph. Modern critics are unreserved in their scorn for Bouguereau. The New York Times denounced him as "bland and boring" when his paintings were exhibited in Hartford, Conn., in 1984. Six years ago, the Christian Science Monitor sneered at Bouguereau's work as "official art" mostly "purchased by rich, undereducated Americans."

But the value of his work has risen sharply. Bouguereau's painting At the Fountain, displayed for years in an Evanston, Ill., library, was auctioned last year by Sotheby's for $900,000 -- nearly 10 times its appraised value in 1992. In May, Bouguereau's Charity sold for $3,528,000 -- the most ever paid for one of his paintings.

Among Bouguereau's most enthusiastic admirers is collector and critic Fred Ross. Bouguereau is "the greatest painter in the history of the world," says Ross, a New Jersey businessman who has founded the Art Renewal Center, dedicated to encouraging artists in what he calls the "humanist" tradition. …

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