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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

Quotes

"For me, a work of art should be a heightened interpretation of Nature. The quest for the Ideal has been the purpose of my life. In a landscape or seascape I love poetic subjects above all."
William-Adolphe Bouguereau
"No head of an artist's studio, no private master was ever more broadminded or less discriminative, or ever recommended free inquiry, initiative, and personality, with as much persuasiveness and independence."
Art historian Marius Vachon (1850-1928) on Bouguereau's teaching
"One has to seek Beauty and Truth. There's only one kind of painting. It's the painting that presents the eye with perfection, the kind of beautiful and impeccable enamel you find in Veronese and Titian."
William-Adolphe Bouguereau
"Every minute of mine costs 100 Francs."
William-Adolphe Bouguereau
"Whoever gets a picture by Bouguereau gets the full worth of his money, in finished painting, first-rate drawing, and a subject and treatment that no well-bred person can fault."
William-Adolphe Bouguereau
"In spite of all that is written to the contrary, an artist only reproduces what he finds in nature - to know how to see and how to seize what one sees - there is all the secret of the imagination."
William-Adolphe Bouguereau
"Think about the drawing, the color, the composition - when you work you must consider all these things equally."
William-Adolphe Bouguereau
"I am very eclectic, as you see. I accept and respect all schools of painting which have as the basis of their doctrine the sincere study of nature and the search for the true and the beautiful. As for the Impressionists, the Pointillists, etc., I cannot discuss them. I do not see the way they see, or claim to see. That is the only reason for my negative opinion about them."
William-Adolphe Bouguereau

"Can we imagine the anguish felt by an artist who senses that the fulfillment of his dream is compromised by the weakness of his execution?"

Biography

Childhood

William-Adolphe Bouguereau was born in 1825 in La Rochelle, a traditionally Protestant city on France's south-west coast. His father was a modestly successful wine and olive oil merchant and a Roman Catholic, while his mother was from a middle-class Calvinist family. Compromising on their children's religious education, they decided to raise their sons as Catholic and their daughters as Protestant. Bouguereau's upbringing was strict, but he developed a deep love for his seaside home and its local customs which endured throughout his life. At twelve, he was sent to live with his uncle, a Catholic priest, possibly to prepare the boy for a career in the Church. During this period, which Bouguereau later recalled as "the happiest time of my life," he was exposed to classical literature, outdoor excursions, and a new depth of familial affection.

Education and Early Training

A few years after moving to live with his uncle, Bouguereau was sent to the Catholic college in Pons, where he continued his religious and secular education. At Pons, Bouguereau was tutored in drawing by Louis Sage, a follower of the great Neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, but his studies were interrupted by his father, who demanded that he join the family at their new home in Bordeaux, in south-east France. Here the young William-Adolphe became acquainted with Charles Marionneau, a local artist and historian who helped him to gain admission to the Municipal School of Painting and Drawing. Though he was under pressure to contribute to his father's business, Bouguereau thus resumed his artistic training, financing his education by creating hand-colored lithographs for food products. He excelled in this mercenary work, eventually saving enough to move to Paris, which he did in 1846, at the age of 20.

Ferdinand Mulnier's photograph of William Bouguereau (c. 1880)
Ferdinand Mulnier's photograph of William Bouguereau (c. 1880)

Following a recommendation from the Municipal School in Bordeaux, Bouguereau was invited to study under the accomplished Neoclassical painter François-Édouard Picot. Like the other students in Picot's studio, Bouguereau worked on the basic elements of figurative painting and drawing, using lithographs, plaster casts, and live models. Barely subsisting on his meager savings, he nevertheless gained admission to the prestigious École Royale des Beaux-Arts, whose curriculum focused on painting, anatomy, perspective, history, antiquity, and sculpture. Bouguereau's lofty ambition was to win the Grand Prix de Rome, a prize for outstanding young artists which included sponsored study at the French Academy in the Villa Medici in Rome. After two unsuccessful attempts, he achieved his goal with the grand historical painting Zenobia Found by Shepherds on the Banks of the Arax (1850), on a theme previously tackled by Nicolas Poussin. Bouguereau left for Rome in January 1851, spending the next three years refining his technical skills, and studying art collections, churches, architecture, and sculpture throughout the Italian peninsula. His scholarship ended in 1854, but instead of returning to Paris, he travelled back to his home town of La Rochelle.

Mature Period

Following his formative experiences in Italy, Bouguereau's career was defined by the ceaseless accumulation of praise and commissions, and by the annual exposure of his work at the Paris Salon. He stuck doggedly to the Neoclassical style in which he had been trained, and the display of his work at the Salons generated enormous interest from middle and upper-class patrons, and created opportunities to decorate state buildings and churches. In 1856, his prestige was further heightened by a commission from Emperor Napoleon III, for whom he completed the unashamedly propagandist work Napoleon III Visiting the Floods of Tarascon, showing the emperor's humanitarian visits to areas of the Rhône and Loire Valleys recently devastated by flooding. Demand for Bouguereau's work was consistent over this period, partly because of his contracts with two powerful art dealers, Paul Durand-Ruel and Adolphe Goupil. Indicating his pragmatic and commercialist approach to his work, Bouguereau began from around the 1860s to move beyond grand historical and classical subjects, creating quasi-Naturalist genre scenes in line with shifting artistic tastes. In practical terms however, he remained a staunch defender of tradition, and was instrumental, along with his Neoclassical peer Alexandre Cabanel, in ensuring that Édouard Manet's Déjeuner sur l'Herbe was rejected from the 1863 Paris Salon. This led to the establishment of the "Salon des Refusés", often seen as synonymous with the birth of avant-garde art.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, <i>Self-Portrait</i> (1879). Interestingly, the artist's ears and nose are noticeably smaller than in contemporary photographs.
William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Self-Portrait (1879). Interestingly, the artist's ears and nose are noticeably smaller than in contemporary photographs.

In 1856, Bouguereau began a relationship with his 19-year-old model Nelly Monchablon, with whom he would have three children prior to their marriage in 1866, and another two thereafter. He maintained a luxurious family home and studio in the Montparnasse neighborhood of Paris, and in the summer would travel with his family to La Rochelle, where he often accepted local decorative commissions. Bouguereau kept a largely apolitical profile throughout his life, but twice became involved with politics outside of art, on both cases aligning himself with the forces of the French establishment. He enlisted in the National Guard during the revolution of 1848, and again in 1870, at the end of the Franco-Prussian War, prior to the brief seizure of power by the revolutionary Paris Commune (with which some of Bouguereau's peers, such as Gustave Courbet, associated themselves).

Late Period

Photograph of Bouguereau (1904) next to his <i>The Wave</i> (1896) at left, and <i>Admiration</i> (1897) at right
Photograph of Bouguereau (1904) next to his The Wave (1896) at left, and Admiration (1897) at right

While Bouguereau's professional life was one of uninterrupted success - he was granted lifetime membership of the Academy in 1876, and made a Commander of the Legion of Honor in 1885, the highest possible distinction for a living artist - his personal life was marked by tragedy. Three of his children died in infancy, and their mother Nelly died in 1877, events which inspired a series of somber religious paintings. Shortly after Nelly's death, however, Bouguereau began a relationship with another model, the American Elizabeth Jane Gardner - also a notable artist - whom he would marry in 1896, following a two-decade engagement (the couple were waiting for the death of William-Adolphe's mother, who disapproved of his remarrying). During this period Bouguereau's influence spread well beyond France, and he became active in artists' societies in Belgium, Austria, and Spain. Even in his advanced years, he worked prolifically, never abandoning his traditional methods of painting.

Jefferson Davis Chalfant, <i>Bouguereau's Atelier at the Académie Julian</i> (1891)
Jefferson Davis Chalfant, Bouguereau's Atelier at the Académie Julian (1891)

Over the last few decades of his life, Bouguereau also became an enthusiastic and influential teacher, mentoring both male and female artists in the Academic style. From 1872 onwards, he taught at the prestigious Académie Julian, and became known for advocating the training of female artists within that institution. Many of his pupils went on to achieve commercial and critical success, while outside of formal education he attracted countless admirers and imitators. When Bouguereau died in 1905 he was honored by grand funeral processions and memorials, both in Paris and La Rochelle. He is buried in Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris, next to Nelly and their children. Throughout his life he had remained intensely dedicated to his work, remarking: "each day I go to my studio full of joy; in the evening when obliged to stop because of darkness I can scarcely wait for the next morning to come ... if I cannot give myself to my dear painting I am miserable."

Legacy

Bouguereau's oil painting <i>Cupid and Psyche</i> (1890), now a popular image on greetings cards.
Bouguereau's oil painting Cupid and Psyche (1890), now a popular image on greetings cards.

The popularity of Impressionism across the 20th century - not to mention the attitudes of the Impressionists to Bouguereau's work - partly explains Bouguereau's posthumous demise. More generally, the rise of avant-garde trends across the second half of the 19th century established a new paradigm whereby artists defined themselves against the Neoclassical standards of the Academy, meaning that Bouguereau's Academy-approved work was scorned by many of the most famous artists of the generation below him. He infamously reprimanded one of his students, Henri Matisse, for not being able to draw, while another, Edgar Degas, would describe a fussy, overwrought painting as "bouguerated". The same counter-cultural forces pushed back against the reputation of Bouguereau's Neoclassical contemporaries Alexandre Cabanel and Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier.

Bouguereau and his class of female students at the Académie Julian in 1903, from the collection of the Artist's Heirs, Ross and Bartoli.
Bouguereau and his class of female students at the Académie Julian in 1903, from the collection of the Artist's Heirs, Ross and Bartoli.

To be fair to his critics, Bouguereau clearly had a pragmatic attitude to the sentimental paintings which he produced with factory-line efficiency. These were paintings for the market, composed in response to a middle and upper-class clamor for images of stylized feminine beauty, titillating mythology, rustic country life, and childhood innocence. But Bouguereau's reputation as a bastion of bourgeois taste meant that the more progressive aspects of his life and work were overlooked. He had a passion for mentoring young artists at the Académie Julian, for example, and, unlike his contemporaries, enthusiastically encouraged the training of women artists.

Some renewed interest in Bouguereau's work emerged in the 1970s-80s, with major exhibitions in New York, Montreal, and Paris. Around the same time, various monographs and revisionary academic articles cast new light on his influence over 19th-century art in France and the United States. His paintings now command high prices at auction, and continue to circulate amongst private hands. It is fitting, given his mass appeal during his lifetime, that many of his works also appear on greetings cards, posters, and calendars, with images such as Cupid and Psyche (1890), better known as The First Kiss, flooding contemporary Western culture without the artist's name becoming any better known.

Most Important Art

William-Adolphe Bouguereau Famous Art

Dante and Virgil in Hell (1850)

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.
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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
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