By the early twentieth century, Bouguereau and his art fell out of favor with the public, due in part to changing tastes. In the 1980s, a revival of interest in figure painting led to a rediscovery of Bouguereau and his work. Throughout the course of his life, Bouguereau executed 822 known finished paintings, although the whereabouts of many are still unknown.
Life and career
William-Adolphe Bouguereau was born in La Rochelle, France, on 30 November 1825, into a family of wine and olive oil merchants. The son of Théodore Bouguereau (born 1800) and Marie Bonnin (1804), known as Adeline, William was brought up a Catholic. He had an elder brother, Alfred, and a younger sister, Marie (known as Hanna), who died when she was seven. The family moved to Saint-Martin-de-Ré in 1832. Another sibling was born in 1834, Kitty. At the age of 12, Bouguereau went to Mortagne to stay with his uncle Eugène, a priest and developed a love of nature, religion and literature. In 1839, he was sent to study for the priesthood at a Catholic college in Pons. Here he was taught to draw and paint by Louis Sage, who had studied under Ingres. Bouguereau reluctantly left his studies to return to his family, now residing in Bordeaux. There he met a local artist, Charles Marionneau, and commenced at the Municipal School of Drawing and Painting in November 1841. Bouguereau also worked as a shop assistant, hand-colouring lithographs and making small paintings that were reproduced using chromolithography. He was soon the best pupil in his class, and decided to become an artist in Paris. To fund the move, he sold portraits – 33 oils in three months. All were unsigned and only one has been traced. He arrived in Paris aged 20 in March 1846.
Bouguereau became a student at the École des Beaux-Arts. To supplement his formal training in drawing, he attended anatomical dissections and studied historical costumes and archeology. He was admitted to the studio of François-Édouard Picot, where he studied painting in the academic style. Dante and Virgil in Hell (1850) was an early example of his neo-classical works. Academic painting placed the highest status on historical and mythological subjects, and Bouguereau determined to win the Prix de Rome, which would gain him a three-year residence at the Villa Medici in Rome, Italy, where in addition to formal lessons he could study first-hand the Renaissance artists and their masterpieces, as well as Greek, Etruscan, and Roman antiquities.
Villa Medici, Rome 1851–1854
The young artist entered the Prix de Rome contest in April 1848. Soon after work began there were riots in Paris, and Bouguereau enrolled in the National Guard. After an unsuccessful attempt to win the prize, he entered again in 1849. Following 106 days of competition, he again failed to win. His third attempt commenced unsuccessfully in April 1850 with Dante and Vigil in Hell but five months later, he heard he had won a joint first prize for Zenobia Found by Shepherds on the Banks of the Araxes.
Along with other category winners, he set off for Rome in December and finally arrived at the Villa Medici in January 1851. Bouguereau explored the city, making sketches and watercolours as he went. He also studied classical literature, which influenced his subject choice for the rest of his career. He walked to Naples and on to Capri, Amalfi and Pompeii. Still based in Rome and working hard on course work, there were more explorations of Italy in 1852. Although he had a strong admiration for all traditional art, he particularly revered Greek sculpture, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian, Rubens and Delacroix. In April 1854, he left Rome and returned to La Rochelle.
Height of career
Bouguereau, painting within the traditional academic style, exhibited at the annual exhibitions of the Paris Salon for his entire working life. An early reviewer stated, “M. Bouguereau has a natural instinct and knowledge of contour. The eurythmie of the human body preoccupies him, and in recalling the happy results which, in this genre, the ancients and the artists of the sixteenth century arrived at, one can only congratulate M. Bouguereau in attempting to follow in their footsteps … Raphael was inspired by the ancients … and no one accused him of not being original.”
Raphael was a favourite of Bouguereau and he took this review as a high compliment. He had fulfilled one of the requirements of the Prix de Rome by completing an old-master copy of Raphael’s The Triumph of Galatea. In many of his works, he followed the same classical approach to composition, form, and subject matter. Bouguereau’s graceful portraits of women were considered very charming, partly because he could beautify a sitter while also retaining her likeness.
Although Bouguereau spent most of his life in Paris, he returned to La Rochelle again and again throughout his professional life. He was revered in the town of his birth and undertook decorating commissions from local citizens. From the early 1870s, he and his family spent every summer in La Rochelle. In 1882, he decided that rather than rent he would purchase a house, as well as local farm buildings. By August of that year, the family’s permanent summer base was on the rue Verdière. The artist commenced several paintings here and completed them in his Paris studio.
Bouguereau flourished after his Villa Medici residence. In 1854–55 he decorated a pavilion at the grand house of a cousin in Angoulins, including four large paintings of figures depicting the seasons. He was happy to undertake other commissions to pay off the debts accrued in Italy and to help his penniless mother. He decorated a mansion with nine large paintings of allegorical figures. In 1856, the Ministry of State for Fine Arts commissioned him to paint Emperor Napoleon III Visiting the Victims of the Tarascon Flood. There were decorations for the chapel at Saint-Clotilde. He received the Legion of Honour on 12 July 1859. By this time, Bouguereau was turning away from history painting and lengthy commissions to work on more personal paintings, with realistic and rustic themes.
By the late 1850s, he had made strong connections with art dealers, particularly Paul Durand-Ruel (later the champion of the Impressionists), who helped clients buy paintings from artists who exhibited at the Salons. Thanks to Durand-Ruel, Bouguereau met Hugues Merle, who later often was compared to Bouguereau. The Salons annually drew over 300,000 people, providing valuable exposure to exhibited artists. Bouguereau’s fame extended to England by the 1860s. Three paintings were shown at the 1863 Salon and Holy Family (Now at Chimei Museum) was sold to Napoleon III, who presented it to his wife the Empress Eugénie, who hung it in her Tuileries apartment.
Bather (1864), a shocking nude, was submitted to an exhibition in Ghent, Belgium. It was a spectacular success and purchased by the museum at great expense. At this time, William took on decorative work at the Grand Théâtre, Bordeaux, which lasted four years. In 1875, with assistants, he began work on a La Rochelle chapel ceiling, producing six paintings on copper over the next six years. Once installed in the city in summer 1875 he began Pietà, one of his greatest religious paintings and shown at the 1876 Salon, in tribute to his son Georges. At the behest of King William III of the Netherlands, Bouguereau went to Het Loo Palace in May 1876. The king admired the artist and they spent intimate times together. In May 1878 the Paris Universal Exhibition opened to showcase French work. Bouguereau found and borrowed twelve of his paintings from their owners, including his new work Nymphaeum.
Bouguereau was a staunch traditionalist whose genre paintings and mythological themes were modern interpretations of Classical subjects, both pagan and Christian, with a concentration on the naked female form. The idealized world of his paintings brought to life goddesses, nymphs, bathers, shepherdesses, and madonnas in a way that appealed to wealthy art patrons of the era.
Bouguereau employed traditional methods of working up a painting, including detailed pencil studies and oil sketches, and his careful method resulted in a pleasing and accurate rendering of the human form. His painting of skin, hands, and feet was particularly admired. He also used some of the religious and erotic symbolism of the Old Masters, such as the “broken pitcher” which connoted lost innocence.
Bouguereau received many commissions to decorate private houses and public buildings, and, early on, this added to his prestige and fame. As was typical of such commissions, he would sometimes paint in his own style, and at other times conform to an existing group style. He also made reductions of his public paintings for sale to patrons, of which The Annunciation (1888) is an example. He was also a successful portrait painter and many of his paintings of wealthy patrons remain in private hands.
French painter William Adolphe Bouguereau is one of Western history’s greatest artistic talents. Best known for his realistic genre paintings and mythological themes, this artist is one of the most recognized personalities of the 19th century .
William Adolphe Bouguereau was born November 30, 1825, in La Rochelle, France, the son of wine merchants. In 1842, he began his early training at École Municipale de Dessin et de Peinture in Bordeaux. At twenty-one, his passion for art led him to Paris where he studied under François-Edouard Picot. During this time, he earned money from painting portraits and coloring lithographic labels for local merchants. His training with Picot prepared him to take the next step, and so he enrolled at École des Beaux-Arts.
Four years later, Bouguereau was awarded the coveted Prix de Rome which granted him the next four years of study at Villa Medici, where he was exposed to the Classical and Renaissance techniques. Upon his return to Paris in 1854, his work was exhibited at the Salon. Art dealers Durand-Ruel and Goupil helped him reach the British and American markets.
In 1856, William Adolphe Bouguereau married Marie-Nelly Monchablon who bore him two daughters and three sons. They lived in Montparnasse, Paris, which was a popular place for artists. All was in place until his world began to crumble when a series of deaths in the family changed his life dramatically. The couple’s infant daughter Jeanne-Léontine died in 1872, and their teenage son Georges died in 1875. Two years later, the death of his beloved Nelly was closely followed by that of their infant son William-Maurice. The grieving artist expressed his outrage and despair in ‘Pietà’ (1876). During the 1870’s, his focus changed, as reflected in his choice of subjects. Historical and genre scenes of the past were replaced by classical poses of nymphs and satyrs characterized by his own romanticized realism.
In 1879, he found a second chance at love with Elizabeth Jane Gardner (fellow artist and neighbor). Out of respect for his mother’s opposition to the marriage, the couple waited until her death in 1896 to tie the knot.
A perfectionist by nature, William Adolphe Bouguereau made it a point to research his subjects before attempting to paint them. He was also known to paint from early dawn until the end of the day. He spent some of his time teaching such greats as Matisse, who left Bouguereau’s studio when the two clashed on issues of perspective.
This artist is recognized for his contribution in the integration of women into official art courses at institutions such as Julian Academy and École des Beaux-Arts. His wife Elizabeth and Cecille Beaux were some of the women artists who benefited from the changes in the system at that time.
As Impressionism began to emerge, Bouguereau, as well as other artists who defended academic traditions related to painting, were accused of holding back the progression of French art. In his opposition to Modern Art, he used his influences to keep the Impressionist painters from exhibiting at the Salon.
Throughout his career, Bouguereau received many accolades, including a first-class Salon medal (1857), and the honor of being knighted in 1859. Other awards include the Legion of Honor (1876), and the induction as a life member (one of forty) into the Académie des Beaux-Arts of the Institut de France.
William Adolphe Bouguereau died of heart disease in 1905, five years after the death of his son Adolphe-Paul from tuberculosis at the age of thirty. Banished from many museums and art circles after his death, he faded out into history. However, since 1979, he has been rediscovered and is now considered an artistic genius.