William-Adolphe Bouguereau's Nymphes et Satyre (Nymphs and Satyr) painted in 1873 is one of the illustrious artist's most popular and regularly discussed works. The most prized work in the Clark Art Institute, Massachusetts, Nymphes et Satyre was exhibited the year before the first Impressionist exhibition, and represents the opposite pole of artistic taste in late-nineteenth century France. Throughout his oeuvre Bouguereau blended Realism with his own unique and idiosyncratic form of Classicism, utilising the photo-realism popular at the time, and producing intimate reproductions of the dynamism of Rococo. Nymphes et Satyre is emblematic of the themes, forms, and styles that Bouguereau successfully integrated into his paintings. The astounding illusionism of the playful and seductive nymphs presents figures intwined within nature, at one with the foliage that surrounds them. The mythical male figure also strikes the viewer as seamlessly in the process of transforming from goat to man, in a scene that would have pleased the Surrealists fifty years later.
Nymphes et Satyre intermingles myth, fiction and classicalism painted with a compositional reproduction of the Realist style. Depicting the lustful, fertile creatures frolicking with a Satyr, a goat-like man related to the gods Pan and Dionysus, the subject-matter would have been immediately familiar to a contemporary audience. Although Bouguereau's posthumous reputation and fluctuated wildly, his contemporary reputation was one of unquestioning acclaim. Yet Nymphes et Satyre is a challenging painting for the followers of traditional techniques and artistic values. The nymphs that attempt to playfully drag the satyr into the lake are depicted in sexual poses which would certainly have appeared provocative in their day. Although often reviled by the more avant-garde elements in French society, Bouguereau captures a remarkable sense of motion, joyousness, and dimensional depth, which even the most reactionary elements would have been hard pressed not to praise.
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