Born in La Rochelle, France on November 30, 1825 into a wine merchant family. He was on the path to join the family business until his uncle, Eugene, arranged for William to go to high school. Eugene was a Roman Catholic priest and had taught William about classical and Biblical subjects which is where he would gain a deep love for the subjects and would prove to effect the subject matter he painted his entire career.
Bouguereau began his artistic training in 1838, attending drawing lessons with Louis Sage, a former pupil of Jean-Dominique Ingres. His training was interrupted in 1841 after his father moved the family to Bordeaux and established a new business in olive oil. His father sent for his assistance, always hoping that his son would take over the family business, but both he and his father, much to his father’s disappointment, realized that Bouguereau was more interested in filling the ledgers with drawings than with paid receipts. William showed artistic talent early on and a client convinced his father to send him to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Bordeaux. After working another job with a wine merchant, Bouguereau earned enough money to enter the École, where Jean-Paul Alaux, after some persuasion, moved Bouguereau to the advanced class. He was only able to study early in the morning and late at night because he earned extra money by designing labels for jams and preserves during the day. Nonetheless, in 1844, after only two years of part time study, he won first prize in figure painting for a depiction of St. Roch.
His uncle stepped in once again, arranging for Bouguereau to paint the portraits of his parishioners at a fixed price, in exchange for room and board. Thirty three portraits sufficed for him to save nine hundred francs. An aunt matched this sum, which finally gave Bouguereau enough to go to Paris in 1846, at the age of twenty one. With the recommendation of Alaux from Bordeaux, Bouguereau was accepted into the atelier of Francois Edouard Picot (1786-1868) and then at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. Bouguereau just made the cut, placing ninety-ninth out of a hundred for entry into the École.
|Égalité devant la Mort|
|Zenobia Found by Shepherds on the Banks of the Araxes|
He supplemented his education by attending anatomical dissections and studied historical costumes and archeology. Bouguereau first exhibited at the Salon in 1849 at the age of 24 with Égalité devant la Mort (Equality Before Death) . He was chosen as a contestant for the Prix de Rome in 1848 (third of ten contestants), in 1849 (seventh of ten), and again in 1850, when he was the last of the ten competitors chosen. He was awarded the Prix de Rome in 1850, for his painting Zenobia Found by Shepherds on the Banks of the Araxes, but it was in fact a kind of second prize, as Paul Baudry (1828-1886) had won more votes. But because of the political upheaval and the July Monarchy being overthrown the prior year, there was no award given in 1849 and thus two awards were given in 1850.
Bouguereau traveled to Rome and stayed for four years at the Villa de Medici which is still owned by the French government and occupied by the French Academy. In addition to absorbing the lessons to be learned in Rome from antiquity and the work of Renaissance artists, he traveled throughout Italy to copy the masterpieces found in Orvieto, Assisi, Siena, Florence, Pisa, Ravenna, Venice, Parma, Naples, Pompeii, Capri, Bologna, Milan, and Verona. He also visited the hill towns and lakes around Rome Terni, Narni, Civita Castellana, Albano and Nemi, Castel Gandolfosites that had inspired landscapists since the seventeenth century.
|Combat of the Lapiths and Centaurs|
|Le triomphe du martyre: Le corps de Sainte Cecile apporte dans les catacombes|
|The Triumph of Galatea|
Upon his return to Paris in early 1854 Bouguereau was awarded valuable commissions in two areas, portraiture and decorative work. These opportunities for work came from both Paris and his hometown of La Rochelle where he had kept strong ties. Bouguereau continued to exhibit paintings (some of which had been painted in Rome) at the Salon, where they were received by the public with great favor. Because of his training at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, and that institution's emphasis on paintings with themes drawn from mythological, classical, and biblical history, the subjects of Bouguereau's early Salon submissions were mostly somber and serious. Titles such as Combat of the Lapiths and Centaurs (1852; private collection) and Le triomphe du martyre: Le corps de Sainte Cecile apporte dans les catacombes (The Triumph of the Martyr: The Body of Saint Cecilia Being Carried into the Catacombs) (1854).William exhibited at the Paris Salon regularly. An early reviewer stated “Bouguereau has a natural instinct and knowledge of contour. The eurythmie of the human body preoccupies him. And in the recalling the happy results which in this genre, the ancients and the artists of the 16th century arrived at, one can only congratulate M. Bouguereau in attempting to follow their footsteps... Raphael was inspired by the ancients... and no one accused him of not being original.”
Raphael was a favorite of Bouguereau’s so he took the review as a high compliment. He had copied Raphael's “The Triumph of Galatea” while in Rome.
Bouguereau was very popular and had many commissions to decorate houses, churches, and public buildings which the Academics perceived as the highest art. He was versatile in that sometimes he painted in his own style, but when needed could paint in an existing style for decorations.
|Napoléon III Visitant les Inondés de Tarascon|
William was given these commissions early on which helped his fame. He made reproductions of his paintings like “The Annunciation” for patrons. He also did many private portraits which are still in private collections today. In 1856 the state commissioned him to paint Napoleon III in Napoléon III Visitant les Inondés de Tarascon (Napoleon III Visiting the Flood Victims of Tarascon), his only true attempt at contemporary historical painting.
In 1856 he married Marie-Nelly Monchablon. They had 5 children.
By the late 1850's William had made strong connections with art dealers. One in particular was Paul Durand-Ruel. He helped clients buy pieces from artists who exhibited in the Salon. Paul introduced William to Hagues Merle who was often compared to William and even a rival in subject and treatment.
Through the exposure from the Salon, William’s fame extended to internationally by the 1860’s. He bought a house and studio in Montparnasse with his income.
Throughout both his studies and his professional artistic career, Bouguereau had a work ethic that was equal to none. Rising at 6 o’clock and staying in the studio until nightfall. Then when light was gone he would work on correspondences, and design new compositions until he finally got tired. Bouguereau was a constant perfectionist in his own work, often reworking the composition after it was technically complete. William employed the traditional methods of careful pencil studies and oil sketches before a painting which resulted in a pleasing and accurate depiction of the human form. He used many compositional ideas and subject matter from the Renaissance masters as well as religious and erotic symbolism.
He gained honors from the Academy and in 1876 reached Life Member and in 1885 received Commander of the Legion of Honor which is awarded for excellent civil or military conduct. It is the highest decoration in France. He also received the Grand Medal of Honor. Vice President of the French Salon, president of the Artists, Painters, Architects, and Draughtsmen’s Assocation of Paris, member of the French Institute. Became the new Meissionier in the eyes of the public after Meissionier’s death in 1891.
He had a passion for teaching. Some of his students and followers: Zuber-Buhler, Mayer von Bremen, and Matisse, who quickly dropped out of his studio even though Bouguereau tried to encourage him though finally threw up his hands in exasperation.
He began teaching drawing at the Academie Julian in 1875 where he was especially sought after by young women who valued his teaching experience and his ability to work with them in establishing professional artistic careers. One quote attests to his status as an artistic demi-god:
You would never believe the “relics” that the American women sent home to their country, the most highly prized of these being a broken matchstick the great man had used; the ladies would snatch at the cigarette that he politely disposed of…
|Elizabeth Jane Gardner|
In 1877 his wife and infant son died. But this mourning period is considered one of his most productive. He started courting a student he had met at the academie and would marry her in 1896. Her name was Elizabeth Jane Gardner. She was one of his students and was also very accomplished.
William used his influence to open many French art institutions for allowing women. He opened up his own studio to women and then the Academie Julien, then afterward the Ecole.
He has 826 paintings attributed to him. In the spring of 1905 his house and studio were burgled after a string of burglaries in the neighborhood. He died later that year on August 19 at the age of 79 from heart disease. His last Salon entry was the year of his death when he exhibited L’Océanide (Ocean Nymph).
By the Academic community he was considered one of the greatest painters, even in his own time, though simultaneously reviled by the avant-garde. The avant-garde emerged at the dawn of the 20th century and their concentration was to rebel against tradition because newness was an end in itself. Bouguereau, Gerome, Cabanel, Meissonier, Bonnat, and Lefebvre were labeled as reactionaries to this new movement that started as impressionism and continued into Post impressionism and onward.
The youthful artists blacklisted these artists. They had a cooperative press and a few wealthy patrons to back them up in their efforts. Bouguereau was unperturbed by the criticism as he continued to search for absolute beauty.
Detractors even slandered William’s name by spreading defamatory rumors. However, though the rumors were completely unfounded, he didn’t fight back so they were able to take root.
His fame reached Belgium, Netherlands, Spain, and the U.S. He epitomized taste, refinement, and tradition. But to the avant-garde he represented a technician stuck in the past. The term “Bouguereaute” was coined by Degas and his associates as a derogatory term for any artistic style reliant on “slick and artificial surfaces” also known as a licked finish.
His work was collected by millionaires, but by 1920 he fell into disrepute due to changing tastes with the rise of modernism and his staunch stance against Impressionism. His name was all but obliterated from the history books.
The renewal in interest about Bouguereau began with an exhibition in 1984 by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. It opened at the Musee du Petit-Palais in Paris, traveled to the Wadsworth Antheneum in Hartford, CT and concluded in Montreal. Then in 2000 Fred Ross founded the ARC who champions Bouguereau and who considers his work as “deserving of the highest accolades in the art world.”
Quotes by William:
“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.”
“One has to seek beauty and truth, Sir!”
“One is born and artist. The artist is a man endowed with a special nature, with a particular feeling for seeing form and color spontaneously, as a whole, in perfect harmony. If one lacks that feeling, one is not an artist and will never become an artist; and it is a waste of time to entertain the possibility. This craft is acquired through study, observation, and practice; it can improve by ceaseless work. But the instinct for art is innate. First, one has to love nature with all one’s heart and soul, and be able to study and admire it for hours on end. Everything is in nature. A plant, a leaf, a blade of grass should be the subjects of infinite and fruitful meditations. For the artist a cloud floating in the sky has form, and the form affords him joy, helps him think.”
“In painting, I am an idealist. I see only the beautiful in art and, for me, art is the beautiful. Why reproduce what is ugly in nature? I do not see why it should be necessary. Painting what one sees just as it is, no- or at least, not unless one is immensely gifted. Talent is all-redeeming and can excuse anything. Nowadays, painters go much too far, just as writers and realist novelists do. There is no way of telling where they’ll draw the line.”
Please note: I am not claiming to be any sort of expert on artists or art history. If you feel that I need to make a correction, please email me at email@example.com and I will rectify the problem as quickly as possible. The lectures in the CAS Lecture Series are as much for me to learn from as I compile information as they are for other students. Thank you for your understanding. ~Katie