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William-Adolphe Bouguereau was the most celebrated French painter of his time. He was born in La Rochelle in November 1825 and brought up in a Catholic family in which none of his parents had a connection to the arts. At thirteen years of age, he was studying in a Catholic college in Pons, where Louis Sage – a former student of the Neo-classical artist, Ingres – taught him the fundamentals of drawing and painting.
Not content with his religious studies, Bouguereau returned to life in Bordeaux with his family, where he enrolled in the Municipal School of Drawing and Painting in 1841, ultimately becoming a featured student. At this time, he also worked in a shop painting stone lithographs for lithographic prints. Five years later, Bouguereau moved to Paris with the plan to study art – a trip he funded by completing thirty-three oil portraits in only three months.
In Paris, the painter began his studies at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts, where he not only studied drawing, but historical costumes, archeology, and anatomy by observing cadaver dissections as well – all to enhance his artistic techniques. His Academic influence came mostly from François-Édouard Picot, as he was admitted to his studio. As a Neo-classical artist, Bouguereau strived to revive the past master’s Classic approach to painting, primarily artists of the Renaissance, like Raphael. In 1850, at the age of twenty-six, the young artist submitted Zenobia Found by Shepherd on the Banks of the Araxes to the Prix de Rome and won a residence to the Villa Medici, where he would study for three years.
During the height of his career, Bouguereau participated at the annual Paris Salon Exhibit and continued until his death. He would mostly portray mythological characters with extremely idealized, but realistic detail. From voluptuous nymphs to powerful Gods and Goddesses – Bouguereau gave life and soul to the painted subjects. As an opposition to the Classic themes, the French painter would also depict beautifully simple and humble women of the rural areas, as well as gypsies. By the 1860s, Bouguereau was associated with Académie Julian, a private school for painters and sculptors in Paris, where he lectured classes to hundreds of students. The artist, who was a widow, married his most successful pupil, Elizabeth Jane Gardner.
Bouguereau was praised by the Academy throughout his career, receiving many awards, like the Grande Medal of Honour in 1885, and in 1905 was made the Grande Officier of the Legion of Honour, among others. Even so, many artists despised his work – mostly the avant-guard painters of the Impressionism. He would, later on, be dreaded amongst many other modern painters, like Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso; making his popularity drastically decline and, consequently forcing galleries and museums to show less of his work. Ultimately, his artwork virtually lost its value in the market, but after the 1970s was rediscovered by art historians, reclaiming Bouguereau as the best painter of his time.
William Adolphe Bouguereau passed away in August 1905, in La Rochelle, his hometown.