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Saturday, October 5, 2013

Vlaho Bukovac

Gundulic's Dream, 1894, Vlaho Bukovac, French Academicism with a Croatian twist.

Self-portrait with Captain's Hat,
1902, Vlaho Bukovac
This past summer, my wife and I spent a day in Dubrovnik, Croatia. There I had a close encounter with that country's most important artist, the sculptor, Ivan Mestrovic in visiting his former home now turned into a museum. I was rather dismayed to discover neither the museum nor local book sellers had any books on this artist's work. Being a painter, I also inquired as to Croatian painters. None were mentioned, even though Vlaho Bukovac, arguably the most important Croatian painter in recent history was born just nine miles south of Dubrovnik in the small coastal village of Cavtat (1855). As with Mestrovic, you can even tour his former home in nearby Konavle. Though Mestrovic was a generation younger than Bukovac, he seems to have far overshadowed his countryman, which is somewhat unusual in that painters usually trump sculptors in any popularity contest.

Turkish Women in Harem, c. 1877, Vlaho
Bukovac, given as a gift to his mentor,
Archbishop Joseph Strossmayer. It would
seem a rather erotic gift for a priest.
Vlaho Bukovac was born in poverty, the son of an Italian innkeeper. As many such artists have found, exceptional talent is often a ticket from such hardship and obscurity. The passport, is simply hard work. At the age of eleven, an uncle took Vlaho to the United States where he learned English, as they both struggled in the post-Civil War period. When his uncle died around 1871, the sixteen-year-old returned to Dubrovnik to work as a seaman apprentice, which took him as far away as Liverpool, England, and eventually Peru. There he worked for a time drawing letters on coaches. In returning to his hometown around 1876, his talent in drawing brought him to the notice of the local archbishop, who arranged the necessary financial support allowing Bukovac to study in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. There he came under the influence of the quintessential academic painter of all time, Alexandre Cabanel.

Suffer the Little Children, 1880s, Vlaho Bukovac
Upon finishing his schooling, Bukovac remained in Paris for the next sixteen years, successfully painting portraits, nudes, and various religious subjects. His Suffer the Little Children (above) is from that period. Though it and most of Bukovac's other Paris works are staunchly Academic in style, Bukovac also picked up the essence of French Impressionism. However this loosening of his style was not to manifest itself for several years, until after he moved first to Belgrade, then Zagreb, and later Prague. He died in Prague in 1922. Though likely the only Croatian painter ever trained in Paris, Bukovac absorbed the prevailing style wherever he lived and worked. Thus he would have to be classed as an eclectic painter, his manner of painting changing greatly over the course of his career. Such artists, in not fitting neatly into any historic style, national, or ethnic category are often simply ignored by art historians, which may account for why Bukovac is so little know or appreciated, even in his Croatian homeland.

Reclining Nude, 1897, Vlaho Bukovac. Possibly his most famous work,
this painting sold in 2006 for just over $125,000.


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