William-Adolphe Bouguereau was a French painter associated with Academic art and the Realist movement. Active during the Victorian Era, Bouguereau became one of the foremost French artists of his time. His paintings are characterized by their incredibly smooth surfaces and the masterfully executed human anatomy, with particular attention to the female body. His subjects included modern interpretations of classical themes, religious artworks, and genre paintings depicting female rural laborers. Bouguereau's fame crossed the Atlantic and became immensely popular amongst American millionaires.
William-Adolphe Bouguereau was born in the city of La Rochelle, France, on November 30, 1825. He was born into a Catholic household in a family of olive oil and wine merchants. Brought up in a religious home, by fourteen years of age, young William was sent to a Catholic college in Pons, where he would study priesthood. There, he learned drawing and painting under Louis Sage, who was taught by the distinguished Neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.
Bouguereau reluctantly ceased his studies and returned to his family, who was now residing in Bordeaux. There, he met a local artist and enrolled at the Municipal School of Drawing and Painting in 1841. The artist also worked as a shop assistant, coloring lithographs and executing small paintings that would later be reproduced using chromolithography. Bouguereau soon became the best alumn in his class and decided to move to Paris to follow a career as an artist. In order to fund his move, the artist sold 33 oil paintings in only three months; all artworks were unsigned, and only one of them was able to be traced.
Bouguereau arrived at the French capital in March 1846, when he was twenty years old. Soon, he enrolled at the distinguished Ecole des Beaux-Arts. To enhance his training, Bouguereau started to study historical costumes and archeology, as well as attend anatomical dissections. The artist was later admitted to the workshop of Francois-Edouard Picot, where he studied Academic painting.
In 1850, Bouguereau painted Dante and Virgil in Hell, which now hangs at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, and arguably became one of his best-known artworks. The composition depicts a scene from Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy. Dante, accompanied by the ancient Roman poet Virgil, descends to the eighth circle of hell and observes two damned souls tangled in battle. Bouguereau submitted this unconventionally grim artwork to that year's Salon. It was met with great critical acclaim, especially regarding his attention to the musculature and compelling narrative drama.
By that point in his career, the artist was also focusing on showing his artistic prowess, especially by depicting nude figures in highly strained poses and displaying the artist's anatomical knowledge. Highly regarded at the Paris Salon, Bouguereau participated at the distinguished exhibition for his entire career.
In 1851, when he was 26, Bouguereau was awarded the coveted Prix de Rome with his masterpiece Zenobia Found by Shepherds on the Banks of the Araxes. As his reward, the artist was granted a three-year residence at the Villa Medici in Rome. In addition to his formal training, he was able to study first-hand antiques from Roman, Etruscan, and Greek origins, and especially study Renaissance artists and their masterpieces first-hand. Bouguereau also delved into classical literature, which would have a pivotal influence on his production for his entire career.
Although Bouguereau nourished a keen appreciation for traditional art as a whole, the artist was particularly fond of the Old Masters, such as Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Titian, Rubens, and Eugene Delacroix. In 1854, Bouguereau left Rome and returned to his hometown of La Rochelle. Bouguereau's career flourished following his residence at the Villa Medici. In 1856, he was commissioned by the Ministry of State for Fine Arts to execute Napoleon III Visiting Flood Victims of Tarascon in June.
At some point during his early career, Bouguereau's production followed Raphael's footsteps, especially regarding his approach to form, compositions, and subject matter. Since Raphael was one of his favorite artists, Bouguereau took the review as an immense compliment. Bouguereau's portraits were also revered for the painter's ability to retain the sitter's likeness, beautifying them at the same time. He also received several commissions to decorate public buildings and private houses, making his artworks even more fashionable.
By 34 years of age, Bouguereau already received the Legion of Honour, the highest French order of merit. By this time, the artist began to turn away from history paintings and overly demanding commissions to focus on more personal artworks exploring realistic and rustic themes.
By the 1860s, Bouguereau's reputation extended to England. By that time, Bouguereau became closely associated with the Academie Julian, one of the most distinguished Parisian private art schools. There, during several decades, he was the teacher of hundreds, if not thousands of aspiring artists, men, and women from around the world.
Many of his alumni were able to establish artistic careers in their own respective countries. Some would follow their teacher's academic style, while others, like Henri Matisse, would rebel against it. Bouguereau married one of his pupils, the American painter Elizabeth Jane Gardner, whose artworks are also noteworthy.
Bouguereau was an assiduous traditionalist whose artwork with mythological themes was a modern interpretation of Classical subjects, encompassing both paganism and Christianism, with particular attention to the female nude. His compositions of idealized settings, populated by goddesses, madonnas, and nymphs, proved to be quite appealing to the prosperous art patrons of the time.
In 1876, the artist painted a large scale interpretation of the Pieta theme. A year before the artwork's completion, Bouguereau's teenage son George was victimized by a sudden illness. The artist's traumatic loss and profound grief would be one of the main elements that impelled Bouguereau to execute several religious paintings, and this is often considered the most moving. In the composition, there's a direct tribute to his son's memory located at the golden urn in the foreground bearing the date of his death.
Bouguereau was also very traditional regarding his method. Before applying paint to a canvas, he would make several pencil and oil studies, as well as carefully executed sketches. Such forethought resulted in an aesthetically pleasing and accurately represented human form. His rendering of the feet, hands, and skin was especially celebrated. The artist also explored religious and erotic symbolism used by the Old Masters, such as the "broken pitcher," which represented the loss of innocence.
By 1879, Bouguereau finished his Birth of Venus, depicting the famous birth of the Roman goddess of beauty and love. The artwork was greatly inspired by masterpieces of the Renaissance, such as Sandro Botticelli's magnificent Birth of Venus and especially Raphael's Triumph of Galatea, both of which Bouguereau studied during his period in Rome.
However, in Bouguereau's take on the narrative, the subjects are rendered with exquisite naturalism, in accord with the new tastes of the time, without departing from its Neoclassical roots. Bouguereau, with his impeccable technical expertise, created a highly realistic genre of composition and execution. However, he was able to maintain the goddess' idealized figure and imbue her with a transcendental aura that elevates her presence.
During his career, Bouguereau also produced genre paintings depicting day-to-day life scenes of rural areas, laborers, and children. In these paintings, the artist explored mainly female characters, such as in The Nut Gatherers and The Young Shepherdess, two fine examples of Bouguereau's genre paintings. Genre paintings were artworks that explored aspects of everyday life, with ordinary people often engaging in common activities.
In his genre paintings, Bouguereau's main subject matter was young girls in agricultural and domestic scenes. In The Nut Gatherers, the artist depicted two very young-looking girls resting after their chore of collecting hazelnuts, one of which stills holds one in her hands. Despite the fact that they are lying on the ground in plain peasant clothes after a day's works, their garments are exceptionally unblemished and white. Unlike other painters who depicted pastoral life in a more realistic manner, such as Jean-Francois Millet and Gustave Courbet, Bouguereau presented the viewer with a sentimental and idealized view of the peasant everyday life.
During the early 1880s, the staple artistic taste was shifting towards naturalism. Jules Bastien-Lepage's Haymakers, which is often regarded as the masterwork of Naturalist genre painting, was exhibited at the Salon of 1878 and was met with great acclaim. Bouguereau's close attention to the shifting tastes of the art market was a probable incentive for him to explore genre painting.
During his career, Bouguereau was a highly revered artist, also prevalent amongst American millionaires, who considered the foremost French artist of the period. To many, his artworks were the quintessence of refinement and taste. However, the avant-garde movements despised his work, and as these movements gained steam, their criticism became increasingly harsher. These attacks were mainly based on their analysis that Bouguereau, with his traditional academic painting, was an artist stuck in the past.
One of Bouguereau's most abrasive detractors was Edgar Degas; he and his associates coined the term "Bougueraute," a derogatory manner to refer to Bouguereau's smooth surfaces, also known as a licked finish, which they considered artificial. Like Degas, Paul Gauguin also detested Bouguereau's artworks and even scored them zero in his reviews. Bouguereau was the target of a consistent defamatory campaign that would damage his reputation, along with many Realist painters.
During his late-career, Bouguereau's artworks continued to display his unmatched naturalistic precision, depicting subjects such as harmony with nature, family relations, and quiet contemplation. Bouguereau was highly passionate about his craft. Even during his last years, the artist would rise at the very dawn to work on his paintings and would only stop at nightfall, doing this six days a week. Throughout his career, Bouguereau is known to have produced at least 822 pictures. Several of these paintings are now lost.
William Adolphe Bouguereau died in his hometown of La Rochelle on August 19, 1905, of heart disease. Bouguereau was interred with his wife and children at the Montparnasse Cemetery.
William-Adolphe Bouguereau was one of the most distinguished and acclaimed artists of his time, achieving remarkable commercial success. His artworks depicting idealized and sensual women in mythological or religious themes, bucolic pastoral scenes, childhood, and innocence, always with masterful execution of the human anatomy, proved to be quite popular among the bourgeoise.
As the Modern art movements emerged, especially the Impressionist movement, Bouguereau's legacy was largely overshadowed and even actively defamed. The interest in his work would only be renewed by the 1970s and 80s, with important exhibitions in distinguished museums in Montreal, Paris, and New York, reclaiming his rightful place as one of the technically exquisite Western painters.
However, one cannot say that his presence and influence was not felt after his passing. Perhaps not in a stylistic sense, but Bouguereau's role as a teacher was crucial in the development of art teaching. Although the artist was severe and conservative regarding the artworks' technical execution, he was also considered encouraging and progressive in many ways, standing in high-regards amongst his students. Arguably, Bouguereau's most important and long-lasting contribution to Western art was his passionate advocacy for teaching female students at the Academie Julian, the most distinguished private art school of the period.
Also, his beautiful images became recurrent in posters, calendars, and cards, such as Lamour et Psyche Enfants, which became known as The First Kiss. Sadly, his artworks flooded Western culture without raising his name to the same prominence.
"For me, a work of art must be an elevated interpretation of nature. The search for the ideal has been the purpose of my life. In landscape or seascape, I love above all the poetic motif."
- William-Adolphe Bouguereau