Francine and Sterling Clark, whose art museum in Williamstown, Massachusetts, the Clark Art Institute, is one of the cultural gems of New England, had a strong commitment to building a collection of top works of European and American paintings and sculpture, principally of the nineteenth century. There are numerous paintings by the French artists of and around the Barbizon school (Corot, Daubigny, Millet), the Impressionists (Caillebotte, Cassatt, Degas, Manet, Monet, Morisot, Pissarro, Renoir, Sisley), and Post-Impressionists (Bonnard, Gauguin, van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec), as well as important American-born artists of the same period (Chase, Homer, Inness, Remington, Sargent, Whistler) and even European artists of earlier periods (Dürer, Rembrandt, Rubens, Tiepolo, Watteau). Their interest in the twentieth century in general, and Modernism in particular, was minimal. Almost all the artworks on display reveal an unerring eye for the right works by the right artists.

But even the best collectors are guilty of the occasional lapse in taste and, with the Clarks, that weakness was late-nineteenth-century Victorian neoclassical art. The principal culprits in the collection are Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912), a Dutch painter once highly sought-after in England for his technically accomplished portrayals of barely dressed women lounging about in cleaned-up ancient Greek and Roman settings, and the French artist William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905), whose similarly scantily clad women in classical settings provided Victorian viewers with plenty of titillation.

One of Alma-Tadema’s best-known works, The Women of Amphissa (1887), among the fourteen paintings and designs by the artist in the Clark collection, ostensibly depicts Plutarch’s story of a group of wives on the Greek island of Amphissa protecting a group of women from being assaulted by their menfolk. As Plutarch tells it, these maidens had wandered in a drunken state from revels on their native island of Phocis (with which the men of Amphissa were then at war), and were thus sleeping it off in the town square. The painting appeals to those with a range of sensibilities, from viewers with a scholarly acquaintance with Plutarch (how elevated!) to the baser among us who might turn a salacious eye towards these barely conscious or unconscious women, all lightly dressed.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, The Women of Amphissa, 1887, Oil on canvas. Clark Art Institute.

One of the largest works (eight by six feet) in the museum is Bouguereau’s Nymphs and Satyr (1873), which, similarly to The Women of Amphissa, appears to ask the male viewer, “how do you want her?” The women themselves are barely differentiated in terms of face and body type. In the painting, a spying satyr is caught by four naked bathers, who, giggling, drag the voyeur against his will into a pond—a fitting punishment, as satyrs are reputedly unable to swim. These two paintings seem to feed a desire to stare at women’s bodies and daydream, wrapped up in elevating mythological or historical settings that guard against accusations of smut.

In their own day, these artists—Bouguereau especially, as he was the more popular of the two—were revered by the academic artists scorned by the Impressionists and the Realists of their time and after. Nymphs and Satyr and The Women of Amphissa both evince the exactingly tight academism that won them fame, with smooth surfaces that do nothing to distract the viewer with indications that an artist with a paintbrush was involved. American realist painter Robert Henri, who studied with Bouguereau for a time in Paris, mocked the French artist in his lectures to students at the Art Students League, calling his work “tame and unlifelike.” (He was certainly correct about Bouguereau’s style being tame, and right about the unlifelike part as well—in that women only appear this way in one’s fantasies.) Some defenders have claimed that Bouguereau created sympathetic portraits of the poor, but these young girls (mostly) always looked healthy and nubile, no threat to tug at the heartstrings of wealthy patrons. And those patrons might just have enjoyed seeing girls and women looking naked and vulnerable. Bouguereau’s Battle of the Centaurs and the Lapiths (1852), Dawn (1881), and Night (1883)—all of which are part of the touring exhibition of thirty-nine works entitled “Bouguereau & America”—feature young women, all with bare breasts and crotches discretely draped, in states of fear or ecstasy. This exhibition premiered in June 2019 at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art in Tennessee before moving on to the San Diego Museum of Art last fall, where it was closed along with the entire institution as a result of the pandemic.

Is Bouguereau redeemable for our day and age? Obviously, exhibitions would not be created and toured if everyone thought there was nothing worth seeing in them, and collectors continue to purchase the artist’s work when it comes up at auction. An 1889 oil Chansons de Printemps fetched $3,615,000 at a sale at Christie’s last October, and other works by the artist have sold in the $2–3 million range in recent years.

Perhaps Bouguereau and Alma-Tadema (and others following their lead in the late nineteenth century) represent the bad conscience of well-heeled Peeping Toms for whom art offered an opportunity to contemplate what society otherwise scorns—“I can be that centaur dragging off that buxom maiden.” Picasso, especially in his late period, engaged in similar fantasies. Renoir created countless images of plump women bathing, to the point that one almost wants to tap the artist on the shoulder and tell him that maybe he should find something else to paint and let the poor woman clean herself in peace. At least these nudes of Renoir and Picasso are balanced out by other artistic ambitions, such as Picasso’s efforts to capture his fears of declining powers and death and Renoir’s goal of capturing flickers of light and color.

I’m not convinced that our own age is any more enlightened when it comes to the essential naughtiness into which Alma-Tadema and Bouguereau were tapping. We simply are more ironic, more aware of our interest in gawking at female flesh and then commenting on what we are doing. The distorted female torsos in the works of John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage, just to name two contemporary painters, permit us to feel clever because we know this is how women have been seen in patriarchal societies. The photorealist painter John Kacere, who died in 1999, is perhaps the closest heir to Alma-Tadema with his depictions of women’s midriffs in semi-transparent underpants: this is how the advertising industry has compartmentalized the female body. And then of course there’s the Bouguereau of our day, Jeff Koons, with his ceramic women and photorealistic porno-paintings, whose works regularly sell for millions and millions and millions.

To a certain degree, staring at the naked body and wrapping our thoughts with something more ennobling is the history of art. Art gives viewers permission to stare, which in other contexts is seen as rude. The art historian Kenneth Clark sought to place the nude at the pinnacle of artistic creation, a celebration of humanistic values and the expression of emotional states as seen in the poses and musculature of the figure. More recent feminist art scholars have blurred Clark’s distinction between nude and naked, viewing all unclad bodies as opportunities to exalt the male and salivate over the female, in what is called the “male gaze.” Clothing represents a different sort of challenge for artists. Garments reveal the status of the subject and offer an opportunity for the artist to show how skillful he (or she) is at rendering the look and feel of various textures. Clothing also adds to titillation, with plunging necklines or tears offering hints at pleasures that await, regardless of what actually is taking place in the painted image. Delacroix’s, Liberty Leading the People (1830), commemorating the July Revolution of that year in France, presents us with a woman holding a torn tricolor flag and exhorting her followers to join battle, all the while showing no particular awareness that her top has slipped down to reveal a breast.