Bouguereau, Heavenly Mediocrity, and Neptune in Capricorn

Welcome to my new website, launched when the Sun was in the first degree of Pisces and moving into a conjunction with ethereal Neptune in the Year of the Snake, 2013.

I’m woefully verbose as a writer, and always have been.  I can’t ever remember, in my perpetual years in school, having turned in a paper which came in under the suggested limit.  Call it the effect of my well-placed Mercury, my chart’s ruler, in literary Libra in the expressive fifth house, trine garrulous Jupiter in Gemini.  To paraphrase a line from one of my favorite comedies, my Mercury is "kind of a big deal."

Bouguereau, "Girl with a Pomegranate"

Bouguereau, "Girl with a Pomegranate"

But since I find my previous blog posts a little exhausting to read for their exhaustive length, my goal for this new site blog is brevity.  Yet I have the sinking feeling that I’ve already violated this condition quite before I’ve even properly begun.

I’m dedicating this first blog post to the French painter, William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905), whose oeuvre I mined for images to enhance the description of my “Psyche’s Gift” series of readings.  I’m a bit ashamed to say I’d never heard of Bouguereau prior to trolling the internet for depictions of Psyche.  But there’s actually a pretty good reason for this: Bouguereau was on the wrong side of Impressionism, post-Impressionism, and other late nineteenth century modern art movements.  Though he was enormously successful and popular, boasting a career which spanned over fifty years, his otherworldly skill and classical (read: conventional) themes were sacrificed to our lust for neat historical narratives.  In other words, he was criticized by the avant-garde and thus functionally erased for posterity.  Read more about the suppression of the legacy of this prolific painter here.

The planet I want to highlight from Bouguereau’s natal chart is that striking Neptune in Capricorn.  This single placement can tell us so much about the lush, ecstatic feel of Bouguereau’s paintings and his subsequent damning by history. 

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, born Novemver 30, 1825, in La Rochelle, France, at 4pm.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, born Novemver 30, 1825, in La Rochelle, France, at 4pm.

I’ll start off by sharing my own reaction to Bouguereau’s collection of over eight hundred paintings, many available to view here.

When I look at his work I feel enchanted and exalted, the sort of state one expects to enter upon being confronted with Great Art.  No mere mortal painted this, I think.  Truly the photographic realism he applies to his divine and angelic subjects is a god-given talent.  Liz Greene unfolds Neptune’s rulership over this redemptive and religious quality of art in her massive tome, The Astrological Neptune:

Art and magic are closely allied.  The power to make something out of nothing, to create worlds from the elusive stuff of the imagination, is an act which – even to those who regularly engage upon it – partakes of a numinous element.  The artist has always held a special and ambiguous role in myth and legend – as prophet, outlaw, mouthpiece for the gods, tool of daimonic forces, and victim of both human and divine retribution.  The mystery of creative power is increased by the taint of theft, for the artist’s ability to make something out of nothing  transforms him or her into a god, thus encroaching upon the jealously guarded preserve of heaven.  Prometheus’ terrible fate is as fundamental to the myth of the artist as is his ennoblement as divine culture-bringer.      

I also find Bouguereau’s paintings quite erotic, and there is precious little on this feature of his work for the armchair internet historian to gather.  I think the closest I came to finding a discussion of the erotic quality of his work is a comment by that arch-villain in censorship, Anthony Comstock, who claimed absurdly that Bouguereau’s "Nymphs and Satyr" was edifying to him personally, but hanging in a bar in New York the painting promoted lewd and lascivious behavior!

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Well let’s take a look at this painting.  For twenty years it hung in a New York night spot (the blurb above is taken from King’s Handbook of New York City of 1893).  The nymph in the foreground is showing us her posterior in a strong light and is partially bent over.  The nymph behind her has her breasts pressed against the satyr’s resisting arm, and the space between their naked nether parts is filled by what I can only assume is a particularly long and bushy tail for a goat.  I’ll give my husband credit for noticing that the third nymph has a pretty robust grip on the satyr’s horn, and her arms are thrown back in a state of wild abandon, elevating the breasts.

I’m sure Anthony Comstock found this life-size, roughly eight-by-six-feet painting edifying in the extreme.  I still find it erotic.  As some of you may know, Capricorn is an earth sign, ruled over by stern and commanding Saturn whose symbol is the goat.  But the goat’s long-time association with sex, satyrs, and Satan himself gives us some indication of the other side of Saturn, as does the Roman holiday “Saturnalia” which was celebrated with total sexual license.  Both sides of Capricorn appear in Bouguereau’s artistic vision – the rigid champion of convention and the impish and sensual satyr.

Bouguereau, "Nymphs and Satyr"

Bouguereau, "Nymphs and Satyr"

The planet Neptune rules over religious and mystical experience, and the mysterious propensity art has to waft us up to these exalted realms may be counted as one of its domains.  In the goatish and eminently methodical sign of Capricorn, however, Neptune’s store of grace and unbounded vision is said to be unhappy, and unable to really flourish within Capricorn’s need for order and usefulness.  Some writers would even call Capricorn the sign of Neptune’s Fall.

Yet Bouguereau’s oeuvre represents a perfect marriage of Capricorn values with Neptunian experience.  Bouguereau is known as one of the most talented painters to ever limn the human form.  Capricorn is the architect, the builder of the zodiac, and Saturn has general rulership over form and structure.  In medical astrology, Saturn’s domain is skin and bones – the building blocks of the human form.  Bouguereau’s divine ability (Neptune) to execute the human form (Capricorn) gives his paintings a magical quality which is both sensuous and numinous.  The eroticism of his paintings is a direct result of this; his themes are Romantic, i.e. Neptunian, but their depiction is accurate enough to class Bouguereau as a Realist, where many critics in fact place him.  I can’t help but think of Neptune’s twentieth century passage through Capricorn, from 1984-1998, when the pornographic film industry exploded.  Neptune rules over film, and all mediums which promote escapism and release, and when it passed through earthy Capricorn there was a visible trend toward crass commercialization of the flesh in the film industry.

The most Capricorn aspect of Bouguereau’s style appears in his classification as an Academic painter.  Neither an early nineteenth century Romantic nor a late nineteenth century Realist, Bouguereau’s style borrows from both these movements, producing a synthesis known as Academic painting.  “Academic” is a very Capricornian word, suggesting prestige, tradition, convention, training, and the domination of the status quo.  As Fred Ross notes in the ARC link above,

[Bouguereau] won the Grand Prix de Rome in 1851 at the age of twenty-six, and after winning nearly every accolade and award imaginable for an artist of his time, ultimately become the President of the Academy, Head of the Salon, President of the Legion of Honor. He was in fact, considered the greatest French artist of his time, and Paris was the center of art world.

Bouguereau was no starving artist, no malcontent shivering in a garret, no iconoclast with a theoretical ax to grind.  He rose up through the ranks of the French Academy (Capricorn), until he achieved the ultimate Capricorn goal of arriving at the summit of the mountain and being the top in his chosen field.  He worked in conventional, classical themes and in a style that was generally acceptable to the public.  He didn’t push the envelope. 

And because he was a symbol of tradition and conservatism, Bouguereau came under the attack of late nineteenth century modern artists, who tarred him with the brush of "mediocrity."  There’s something to this – ever tried to penetrate to the top of your field by being an iconoclast and pressing your pet agenda?  Typically you’ll never arrive until you learn the value of tact, formality, and respect for the middle way - and so "mediocrity," derived from the Latin for "middle," is a Capricorn word too.  It's the quickest way up the mountain of public acceptance.

Neptune rules over Christ-figures and martyrdom in general, and later generations of artists and art critics crucified Bouguereau for the very technical excellence (Capricorn) and academic synthesis (Capricorn) which made him such a giant of the nineteenth century art world.  His reputation has been redeemed (another Neptune word) in recent years, though much of his rightful place in art history has been sacrificed (Neptune) to the more compelling emergence of modern art within the same historical period.

So much for writing a short blog!