About us
William-Adolphe Bouguereau Photo

William-Adolphe Bouguereau

French Painter

Movements and Styles: Neoclassicism, Naturalism

Born: November 30, 1825 - La Rochelle, France

Died: August 19, 1905 - La Rochelle, France

William-Adolphe Bouguereau Timeline

Important Art by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

The below artworks are the most important by William-Adolphe Bouguereau - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Dante and Virgil in Hell (1850)

Dante and Virgil in Hell (1850)

Artwork description & Analysis: The source material for this painting is Canto XXX from the "Inferno" sequence of the medieval poet Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy (1308-20). In this section, the poet Dante and his guide Virgil descend to the eighth circle of hell, where they encounter the tormented souls of "falsifiers" (counterfeiters and fraudsters). Bouguereau was likely inspired by the following lines from the poem: "As I beheld two shadows pale and naked, / Who, biting, in the manner ran along/ That a boar does, when from the sty turned loose." In the foreground, the wrathful Capocchio - a friend from Dante's schooldays, who was burned at the stake as an alchemist - is attacked by Gianni Schicchi, another of Dante's contemporaries, who had impersonated a dead man in order to steal his inheritance. A demon hovers in the background, while other damned souls writhe around in the fiery landscape.

Bouguereau submitted this atypically macabre work to the Salon of 1850, at a time when he was just establishing himself as an Academic painter. The work garnered significant critical praise, including from the writer Théophile Gautier, who remarked on Bouguereau's attention to musculature and narrative drama. Through his studies at the École des Beaux-Arts, Bouguereau had encountered the works of the great Neoclassical painters, and had absorbed a contemporary fashion for dark subjects from medieval literature. At this early point in his career, he was also concerned with showing off his technical prowess, by capturing unusually strained nude poses.

Bouguereau would not return to Dante, soon discovering that - in his own words - "the horrible, the frenzied, the heroic does not pay", and that the public preferred Venuses and Cupids. Nevertheless, he retained the exquisite skill in figure painting which is clear from this work. Composed the same year as his breakthrough painting Zenobia Found by Shepherds on the Banks of the Arax (1850), which earned him the Grand Prix de Rome, this painting thus marks the point in Bouguereau's career when he established himself as a champion of the Academic style.

Oil on canvas - Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Pietà (1876)

Pietà (1876)

Artwork description & Analysis: For this ambitious religious work, Bouguereau devised a large-scale interpretation of the classic Pietà theme, showing the Virgin Mary mourning the body of Christ. At the center of the composition, consumed by her black veil, Mary cradles her child, entreating the viewer to pity with her gaze. Golden aureoles, resembling the gold-leaf details on Renaissance icons and altar-work, surround the heads of the two central figures, while a group of mourning angels encircles the scene, echoing the central compositional shapes.

A year before completing the painting Bouguereau had suffered the traumatic loss of his teenage son George to a sudden illness. Contemporary correspondence reveals the artist's overwhelming grief at the death, that also seemed to have moved him to create a number of monumental religious works, this one being the most affecting. The golden urn in the foreground bears a faint Latin inscription dedicated to George, including his date of death. In stylistic terms, the art historian Gerald Ackerman has compared Bouguereau's religious works to "the masters of the high Renaissance[.] [Bouguereau] builds compositions out of the movement of strong, well rounded bodies, whose authoritative presence fills the canvases with energy." It is no coincidence that the position of Christ's head and shoulders echo that of Michelangelo's Vatican Pieta (1498-99) sculpture. Bouguereau also paid close attention to detail through his use of color: the rusty, drying blood on the white cloth in the foreground, the reddened eyes of the tearful Virgin, and the green tones of Christ's extremities in decay, all enhance the visual precision.

In 1870s France, religious painting was no longer the dominant genre it had been half a century previously, and the sharp, precise style of Neoclassicism was also under threat, from the advance of Impressionism; it is worth noting that this painting was composed four years after Monet's Impression, Sunrise (1872). However, Bouguereau was no captive of avant-garde fashion, and his personal identification with the Pietà theme allowed him to create a work transcending the cloying sentimentality for which he is sometimes criticized.

Oil on canvas - Private collection

The Birth of Venus (1879)

The Birth of Venus (1879)

Artwork description & Analysis: In Bouguereau's interpretation of a famous origin narrative from Roman mythology, Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, emerges from sea-foam standing on a shell, traversing the water to reach land. A flock of nymphs, tritons, and putti surround her in admiration while, in a take on the classic contrapposto stance of Venus Anadyomene from antiquity, the goddess accentuates the curves of her body in alternate directions, while adjusting her hair. Cool pastel colors evoke the dewy atmosphere of the marine world.

For this composition, Bouguereau drew inspiration from Renaissance masterworks such as Raphael's The Triumph of Galatea (c. 1514), with its encircling halo of cherubs, and Sandro Botticelli's seductive Birth of Venus (1486), both of which Bouguereau had studied in Italy during his Prix de Rome scholarship. Unlike Raphael and Botticelli's nudes, however, Bouguereau's Venus is captured with a refined naturalism indicating the new artistic tastes of the 1870s, without thereby foregoing Neoclassical artifice. As such, the work rises to the challenge of the late-19th-century Salon painter as described by T.J. Clark: to negotiate the flesh of a modern woman in Naturalist style while clinging to the Academic ideal of "the body as a sign, formal and generalized, meant for a token of composure and fulfillment." In its technical perfection, Bouguereau's Venus appears realistic, yet she remains displaced from individual identity, safely confined to the role of an ideal.

This proved to be a successful (and profitable) combination, and Bouguereau received great acclaim for this painting at the 1879 Salon. The strongly erotic tincture also hints at some of Bouguereau's more pragmatic methods for ensuring a buying audience for his work: whereas Botticelli's Venus conceals her bosom enticingly, Bouguereau's invites the viewer to inspect every section of her, unashamed of her nakedness and sensuality.

Oil on canvas - Musée d'Orsay

A Young Girl Defending Herself against Eros (c. 1880)

A Young Girl Defending Herself against Eros (c. 1880)

Artwork description & Analysis: In this, one of Bouguereau's most popular works, a dark-haired maiden - based on one of his most popular models, who appears in several of his other works - pushes away a cherub seeking to pierce her breast with his arrow. The two are locked in a coquettish push-and-pull battle, and the young girl's resistance to Eros seems nominal at best. Her veil slips down to reveal a pert bosom, endowing her innocence with a semi-inadvertent sexuality, granting the painting a voyeuristic appeal.

This work is a good example of Bouguereau's erotically-charged classical and mythological tableaux, which sold particularly well with a new market of super-rich buyers in the United States, but which were often the subject of scorn from his Impressionist contemporaries. More than this, Bouguereau acquired the reputation amongst some painters and critics of a lecher, preoccupied with female nudes, and denigrating the legacy of his Renaissance progenitors such as Raphael by producing cheaply eroticized imitations of their work.

In stylistic and thematic terms however, the work is not as straightforwardly kitsch as it seemed to his detractors, the landscape based on contemporary France - probably that of the rural south, where Bouguereau had spent many of his formative years - and the painting is thus offering at least a superficially modernizing approach to its subject-matter. Moreover, Bouguereau's mastery of the human form, and of subtle tonal contrasts, is clearly evident.

Oil on canvas - Getty Center, Los Angeles

Dawn (1881)

Dawn (1881)

Artwork description & Analysis: Bouguereau's Dawn is the first in a series of four nude studies representing stages of the day, also including paintings entitled Dusk (1882), Night (1883), and Day (1884). In the inaugural work of the series, a nude female figure dances weightlessly on the surface of a pond, reaching over to smell a lily which she cradles gently in her arm. The cool tones of her skin echo the soft colors of early morning, while Bouguereau displays his mastery of dancer's poses by showing her balancing on the very skin of the water. Diaphanous drapery swirls around her, while her suspension in the air, and mirrored reflection, generate a supernatural effect.

Bouguereau returned to the marketable motif of the female nude throughout his career, arranging the body in various evocative and illustrative poses, often alluding to myth or literary history. Producing single-figure works such as Dawn allowed him to concentrate on the essential technical crafts of figure-painting: in this case, his mastery of line, and handling of subtle color-contrasts, contribute not only to the sinuous beauty of the figure but also to the atmospheric depiction of early morning. The model's fingers and toes are tinged with pink, a nod to the description of daybreak in Homer's Odyssey as "rosy-fingered dawn, the child of morning". Though the work is not based on any mythological or literary reference beyond this, Bouguereau always endowed his female nudes with a broad sense of classicism and the poetic.

Bouguereau's 'times-of-day' series was bought by his regular dealer Adolphe Goupil, who sold the four works in turn to various American collectors. The sale of the series reflects Bouguereau's success with Stateside as well as European art-markets, indicating his unparalleled critical and commercial acclaim during his lifetime.

Oil on canvas - Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama

The Nut Gatherers (1882)

The Nut Gatherers (1882)

Artwork description & Analysis: Two young girls rest in a grassy clearing, pausing from the task of collecting hazelnuts. One holds a handful of nuts in front of her, while the other seems more interested in playing or sharing a secret. This work is an excellent example of Bouguereau's genre painting - work depicting scenes from everyday life - in which he generally favored the subject of women and girls in agricultural or domestic settings. His nut gatherers are dressed in plain peasant clothes, but appear exceptionally clean and content for members of the rural working poor.

By the early 1880s, the official tastes of the Paris Salon were shifting, and the movement of Naturalism was entering the artistic mainstream. Jules Bastien-Lepage's Hay Makers (1877), perhaps the great masterwork of rural Naturalist genre painting, showing two laborers resting after a day's exertion in the fields, had been displayed at the 1878 Salon to great acclaim, and Bouguereau was closely attentive to the shifting moods of the art market. Works such as Nut Gatherers respond to this shift, though his genre paintings display the same idealized polish as his Neoclassical work.

Criticisms of Bouguereau as overly sentimental can perhaps be traced to images such as The Nut Gatherers. Nevertheless, his later works are remarkable for their naturalistic precision, and successfully depict themes such as familial relations, quiet contemplation, and harmony with nature. Writing about the artist's view of peasant life for an exhibition catalogue, Mark Steven Walker praises the "heroic attention required to sustain such a vision of perfection in a less than perfect age." The image has certainly proved enduringly popular: sold to the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1952, The Nut Gatherers is cited by the Museum as one of their most popular works.

Oil on canvas - The Detroit Institute of Arts

The Young Shepherdess (1885)

The Young Shepherdess (1885)

Artwork description & Analysis: In Bouguereau's 1885 painting The Young Shepherdess, a girl stands alone at the forefront of an expansive pasture, turning her body to face it with an air of propriety: suitably enough, as the title indicates her responsibility for the flock of sheep it contains. She looks back at the viewer with mild curiosity and friendliness, not averting her gaze.

Towards the end of his career, Bouguereau painted many rustic genre scenes that proved immensely popular with collectors, including various works on the "shepherdess" theme. At the Salon and through the endeavors of his dealer Adolphe Goupil, viewers were charmed by the artists' depictions of rural labor, especially when co-mingled with images of young girls at play. Bouguereau offered a more sentimental vision of peasant life than Realist painters such as Courbet and Millet, as indicated by works such as The Young Shepherdess. But again, his mastery of naturalistic figure painting cannot be questioned. In practical terms, the painting's protagonist is based on one of the Italian immigrant girls whom Bouguereau hired as models during family summers in La Rochelle. The girls received a monthly salary, participated in household chores, and ate meals with his family.

Art historians are divided on whether Bouguereau simply pandered to the market with his genre painting, or whether he elevated the peasantry with his love for their nobility and humility. John House describes Bouguereau's genre scenes as "broadly idealist ... treating his peasant women as if they were Raphael Madonnas." On the other hand, he lent distinctive personalities to some of his peasant girls, complicating his general commercializing attitude to the Naturalist style. In any case, Bouguereau's stance on the underclass never took a strong moral or sociological position like that of his contemporaries, and his politics - when directly expressed - tended towards conservatism.

Oil on canvas - San Diego Museum of Art



By submitting the above you agree to The Art Story privacy policy.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau Photo

Related Art and Artists

Raphael: Triumph of Galatea (1514)

Triumph of Galatea (1514)

Artist: Raphael

Artwork description & Analysis: This fresco depicts the story of Galatea, daughter of the sea god Nereus, who had fallen in love with Acis, a shepherd. The story goes that Polyphemus, the Cyclops and son of Poseidon, loved Galatea, and when he caught her and her beloved Acis in embrace, he killed him in a jealous rage. In the center, we see Galatea riding the seas on a conch-shell chariot drawn by two dolphins, trying to flee Polyphemus. Mythical sea creatures surround her. On the left Polyphemus seizes a sea nymph to throw aside as he struggles to get near Galatea. Another nymph to the right sounds an alarm. Flying putti hover in the sky above, threatening Galatea with arrows from Cupid's bows.

The Triumph of Galatea was painted to decorate the Villa Farnesina for Raphael's banker and friend Agostino Chigi. It is the only painting from Greek mythology ever painted by the artist. It was inspired by the poem "Stanza per la Giostra," by Angelo Poliziano, which is also thought to have been the inspiration for Botticelli's The Birth of Venus (1483-1485). The verse describes how, despite the love song sung by Polyphemus, Galatea spurns his love, sailing away with her company of sea-nymphs. Although neither his poetic series nor the intended frescos to decorate the villa were completed, we are lucky to have within this work a marvelous example of Raphael's technical artistic ability as well as imaginative interpretation.

The piece breathes with an emotional intensity that is testament to Raphael's ability to conjure ideals of grandeur so majestically. The figures in the composition all interact with each other to form a cohesive whole. Each gesture is met with a reciprocal gesture, guiding our gaze to the central beauty of Galatea's face, which the artist professed came directly from his imagination rather than a model. A frenzied fluidity of movement is achieved through Galatea's billowing robe, the plunging dolphins, and the supreme musculature of the other figures, illustrating perfect machinations of the body.

It's easy to see Michelangelo's influence in the muscular forms or Leonardo's harking back to Roman classical frescos with the bright coloring. Yet, there is no doubt that this painting is a supreme example that embodies all Raphael had learned resulting in a magnificent elegy to the dreamlike nature of beauty.

Fresco - Villa Farnesina, Rome

Titian: The Venus of Urbino (1538)

The Venus of Urbino (1538)

Artist: Titian

Artwork description & Analysis: This painting comes from a long tradition of representations of Venus and it appears to have been based on Giorgione's Sleeping Venus (1510), although Titian's interpretation of the goddess is much more erotic. This sensuality is heightened by the directness of the nude's gaze, her faint smile, and her awareness of the viewer, along with the depiction of her in an opulent domestic environment without the allegorical or mythological symbols traditionally associated with Venus. Whilst Giorgione's nude is idealized and demure, Titian's is realistic and tempting. The warm, light tones of her skin are in contrast to the darker, richer background and the play of light on her body and subtle use of chiaroscuro gives a sculptural quality to the nude. Her curves also contrast with the regularity of architectural elements including the tiled floor, classical column, and green hanging which bisects the scene, highlighting the fertile center of the figure.

There is a significant debate about the interpretation of the image with some arguing that it is a painting of courtesan Angela Zaffetta whilst others have suggested that it is a marriage portrait commissioned by Guidobaldo to celebrate his nuptials to the 10-year-old Giulia Varano in 1534. Evidence for this latter theory comes in the form of the symbolism of the sleeping dog (loyalty) and the two servants at the cassone, a trunk in which a trousseau of clothes given to the bride by her husband's family would be kept.

This image is considered one of the most famous and accomplished examples of the genre and over the centuries the canvas has inspired numerous other works which borrow from the image, utilizing the relaxed pose of the subject, the wider composition, and the suggestive representation of the nude. These include Valazquez's Rokeby Venus (1647-51), Goya's The Nude Maja (c.1797), and The Grande Odalisque (1814) by Ingres. One of the most prominent examples is Olympia by Édouard Manet (1863), a refined pre-Impressionist homage, which sparked a great deal of controversy when it was first displayed. Olympia is lying in the same position as Venus, with eyes that shamelessly meet those of the viewer, however, she is not a goddess, but a prostitute lying in the room in which she works. Manet's painting demonstrates the powerful influence of Titian's Venus in representing fleshy and sensual feminine beauty.

Oil on canvas - Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Jean-François Millet: The Gleaners (1857)

The Gleaners (1857)

Artist: Jean-François Millet

Artwork description & Analysis: Three peasant women gather grains from what's left at the end of a harvest day as the evening shadows gather around them. In the background, a horse-drawn cart full of wheat, haystacks, sheaves of wheat, a man on horseback, a village, and a large crowd of laborers depict the abundance of the harvest.

In Millet's day French farmers followed the Biblical injunction to leave gleanings (or left-over scraps of the grain harvest) in the fields so that poor women and children could live on them. Millet's Gleaners occupy the extreme foreground of the canvas. The grinding poverty of the peasant women, evident in their rough, simple garments, and the back-breaking work of collecting individual grains appear as a contemporaneous depiction of the Biblical directive. Shown at the 1857 Salon, the painting was criticized for its depiction of rural poverty. One reviewer said, "These are homely scarecrows set up in a field: M. Millet's ugliness and vulgarity have no relief."

The painting is dominated by the sculptural figures of the three women. Arms extending toward the ground, the emphasized lines of their shoulders and backs convey the strain of the arduous work. Each woman is depicted engaged in a specific task; one searches for stray grain on the ground, one collects the grains and the third ties them all together. Their faces are hidden, suggesting a sort of homogeneous anonymity rather than individuality. As with The Sower, that anonymity allows them to represent all of the poverty-stricken peasants of France, rather than simply these women. The contrast between the shadows lengthening around the women and the illuminated background where the harvesters are celebrating conveys the distinction between poverty and plenty. The distant steward on horseback, supervising the harvest, represents social order and the privilege of distance from hard labor. The leavings of grain, scattered on the ground, glisten like jewels against the drab color of the ground, yet the viewer cannot help but realize how meager they really are, and how much effort the women must make to simply live. Even so, despite their straightened circumstances, Millet bestows a certain dignity upon them. They display a measure of quiet fortitude amidst the monotony of their efforts, and despite the simplicity of their garb, their figures are robust, accustomed to the rigors of their working life.

Oil on canvas - Musée d'Orsay, Paris

If you see an error or typo, please:
tell us
Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Elisabeth Rivard

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Greg Thomas

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Elisabeth Rivard
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Greg Thomas
Available from:
[Accessed ]