Intention, interpretation and reception: The aestheticization of poverty in william Bouguereau’s indigent family

Gal Ventura*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


When William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) exhibited the painting Indigent Family (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery) at the 1865 French Salon, Paris was undergoing an extensive rebuilding program. The Indigent Family, however, instead of focusing on the renovated city of modernity, fashion and consumerism, revealed the backstage of Paris, and focused on the new forms of social misery and alienation that lay behind the urban improvements. Utilizing Howard S. Becker’s (1982) definition of the art world as consisting of all the people whose coordinated activities produce works that are defined as art, this article examines the relationship between Bouguereau’s oeuvre and its social environment. Through an examination of the artist’s aims, his dealer’s strategies and the critics’ reception, it analyzes the difference between the French buyers’ lack of interest in the painting and the British collectors’ enthusiastic response. The article uses the assimilation-contrast theory in order to claim that embellished poverty, which was rejected by critics on account of commercialization, attracted the bourgeoisie because it could be assimilated into its own range of experiences. Combined with theories of empathy, which decrypt the benefits of self-interest that lie at the heart of empathic feelings, the article asserts that Bouguereau’s idealized beggar generated public empathy because its embellishment produced compassion through the process of assimilation and shared identity. By purchasing an image of an idealized beggar that fell within their range of acceptance, the article claims that the clients not only verified their imagery-imaginary benevolence, but also generated genuine generosity.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)204-233
Number of pages30
JournalVisual Resources
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - 2 Oct 2017

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.


  • Art Criticism
  • Bruno Latour (b. 1947)
  • Consumerism
  • Howard S. Becker (b. 1928)
  • Poverty
  • William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905)


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