Birthday: November 30, 1825
Died At Age: 79
Sun Sign: Sagittarius
Born Country: France
Born in: La Rochelle, France
Famous as: Painter
Spouse/Ex-: Elizabeth Jane Gardner, Marie-Nelly Monchablon
father: Théodore Bouguereau
mother: Marie Marguérite Bouguereau
Died on: August 19, 1905
place of death: La Rochelle, France
Cause of Death: Heart Disease
Notable Alumni: École Des Beaux-Arts
education: École des Beaux-Arts
awards: Prix de Rome
Prix de Rome
Grand Officer of the Legion of Honour
Knight of the Legion of Honour
Officer of the Legion of Honour
Commander of the Legion of Honour
Who was William-Adolphe Bouguereau?
William-Adolphe Bouguereau was a 19th-century French Neoclassical painter who was one of the most dominant figures in art during his lifetime. A traditionalist inspired by the Renaissance masters, he painted modern interpretations of mythological and classical themes. His beautiful life-like paintings were remarkable because of the nuanced expressions and exquisitely drawn hands and feet of his subjects. A wine merchant’s son, he wasn’t encouraged by his father, but he had his mother and paternal uncle’s support and studied at art schools in Bordeaux, Paris and Rome. Early in his career, he received commissions to decorate the villas of rich and influential Parisians which helped establish his reputation. Bouguereau received both commercial success and critical acclaim. His paintings were bought by Emperors in Europe as well as millionaires of America. A tireless and hard-working painter, he produced close to 822 paintings. He was also a passionate teacher who was instrumental in getting female scholars admitted to the French academia. However, he was criticised throughout his life by avant-garde artists and critics who thought of paintings as vacuous and populist. The world of art was moving towards Impressionism and after his death his name and art went into oblivion for a while. Today, a Bouguereau painting is sold at millions of dollars breaking auction records. Retrospective of his works are being held and two of his paintings hang permanently at the Metropolitan Museum of New York.
Childhood & Early Life
William Bouguereau was the son of a wine merchant Theodore and his wife Marie Marguerite Bonnin. He was born on 30 November 1825, in the French harbour town of La Rochelle. He was the second child and had three other siblings.
Theodore’s Bouguereau did not have a flourishing business and the family barely eked out a living. To improve his prospects, he moved to Saint-Martin in the isle of Ré in 1832. William-Adolphe started school and even at this young age impressed his classmates with his ability to draw.
Theodore’s Bouguereau shop Ré wines could not do well. The financial stress made the atmosphere at home depressing and tense. To keep the children away from constant fights regarding money, the parents sent them off to various relatives and William-Adolphe went to live with his uncle Eugene.
Eugène, the younger brother of Theodore, was a priest at Mortagne. Eugène taught his nephew French, Latin, the Gospels, classical literature and also taught him hunting and riding. They would often visit sites of historical significance on horseback. This was a time that Bouguereau cherished all his life.
In 1839, Eugène sent young William-Adolphe Bouguereau to study at the Catholic college in Pons. It was here that he got his first drawing lessons from professor Louis Sage who instilled in him a love for classicism and the ethos of hard work.
In 1841, Bouguereau’s father moved to Bordeaux to start an olive oil business. He decided that William should move back with the family and train for a paying job. The 17-year-old started bookkeeping for his father but dreamed of studying at the Bordeaux municipal art school.
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Training As An Artist
William-Adolphe Bouguereau had a difficult time convincing his father to let him study art. His mother supported him and he enrolled for morning classes at the school. Because of his talent, he was enrolled directly in the senior class taught by Jean-Paul Alaux.
He would study from 6 am to 8 am and then go back to his job. In spite of this, he made rapid progress and beat full-time older students to win the prize for ‘Best Historical Painting’ in 1844.
Bouguereau’s next aim was to study at the ‘École des Beaux-Arts’ in Paris. His father reluctantly agreed. To finance his studies, he went to Mortagne and with the help of his uncle got commissions to paint portraits of important people at Saintonge. He earned nine hundred francs in this fashion.
Armed with a letter of recommendation from Alaux to François-Édouard Picot, Bouguereau arrived in Paris. He started working with Picot at his studio. He lived on very little and worked extremely hard. In April 1846, he was admitted to the ‘École des Beaux-Arts’ where he was the 99th among the 100 students admitted.
Within two years at the art school, Bouguereau had impressed his teachers enough and was allowed to compete for the ‘Grand Prix de Rome’ the French scholarship for art students so that they could live and study in Rome. Bouguereau won the scholarship in 1850 after trying for two years.
At the age of 26, Bouguereau went to the Villa Medici in Rome to study. During his three years in Rome, he studied the works of the Italy masters. He also studied old classical art from Greece and Rome and toured the various cities of Italy. He returned to La Rochelle in 1854.
After his return from Italy, William-Adolphe Bouguereau received a commission to decorate the villa of the rich Monlun family at La Rochelle. He came back to Paris at the end of 1854 and was asked to decorate the drawing rooms of the Hotel Custine.
By 1857 Bouguereau became quite well known. Emperor Napoleon III asked the young painter to paint two portraits, one of him and one of the Empresses. The Emperor also asked him to make a large historical painting of one of his visits.
In 1856, he had his own studio at Carnot and was teaching students. In 1859, he completed one of his most famous paintings ‘All Souls Day’. He also took part in decorating Paris’s church of St. Clotilde.
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Bouguereau was a traditionalist who made a thorough study and detailed pencil sketches of his subjects. The accuracy of the human form that is so distinctive of his painting was a result of this rigorousness.
During the late 1850s, Bouguereau forged links with important art-dealers such as Paul Durand-Ruel. With the help of such dealers, he was able to exhibit his paintings to large gatherings at art exhibitions. Thanks to such wide exposure by 1860 he was a well-known artist in England.
In 1870 France went to war with Prussia. Bouguereau was on a vacation with his family in Brittany, he returned to Paris and in spite of his age did not shy away from enrolling as a soldier in the Garde Nationale. He would stand on guard on fortifications and relieve young soldiers from their duty.
He took up a part-time teaching job at the ‘Académie Julian’ in Paris in 1872. He taught numerous students during his lifetime while some of them followed their teacher some others like Henri Matisse rebelled against him and created a style of their own.
In 1875, he undertook the decoration work of the La Rochelle chapel ceiling with his assistants. Six paintings on copper plates were made which took six years to complete.
By the 1890s, William-Adolphe Bouguereau was seen by the Americans as one of the important French artists and his works adorned the walls of wealthy Americans. In 1891, he said that he had made certain changes to his style to please the American taste.
As early as 1850, William-Adolphe Bouguereau painted one of his most famous works ‘Dante and Virgil in Hell’. The painting was inspired by the neoclassical painting style and medieval literature. The dramatic painting is known for the meticulous rendering of the musculature of the two male figures.
‘Pieta’ (1876) is considered one of his best religious paintings. It shows Mary holding the body of Jesus Christ after his death and is an expression of the artist’s own grief at the loss of his teenage son Georges. A faint inscription on an urn in the painting mentions the date of his death.
During the 1870s, he produced some of his most famous works like ‘The Comforting Virgin’, ‘Nymphes et un Satyre’, ‘The Spinning Maid’, ‘Petty Thieves’ ‘Reapers’, ‘Charity’ and ‘Homer and his Guide’.
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The ‘Birth of Venus’ (1879) draws inspiration from the renaissance painters Raphael and Sandro Botticelli. Bouguereau bought in naturalism of the 1870s in this study of Venus. The painting was a great success at the 1879 art Salon.
Awards & Achievements
Recognition came early in William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s career. He was given the ‘Medal of Honour’ by the 1857 Salon and in 1859 named the ‘Chevalier of the Legion of Honour’.
In 1876, after trying for 12 years Bouguereau was elected to the rank of President of the ‘Académie des Beaux-Arts’. This was an honour that he had desired all his life. Six months later he was named ‘Officer of the Legion of Honour’.
Family & Personal Life
William-Adolphe Bouguereau married Nelly Monchablon, who had been one of his models, on 24 May 1866. The couple had lived together for 10 years and had 3 children before they officially tied the knot. They had two more children. Nelly died soon after giving birth to their fifth child in 1877.
Bouguereau’s second wife was American academic and artist, Elizabeth Jane Gardner, who had been his pupil. They had been in a relationship for 19 years. Bouguereau’s mother and daughter were opposed to their marriage. His mother had him swear that he would not marry again in her lifetime. They married after his mother died in June 1896.
While his professional life saw ascent, his personal life was full of tragedies. He lost four of his five children, two of them dying in the infancy. Only his first child Henriette outlived him.
Bouguereau was a gentle, helpful and inspiring teacher. He constantly advocated for the training of female student artists at the ‘Acadèmie Julian’.
Bouguereau had many admirers among the rich and famous, and one of them was King William III of the Netherlands. He invited the painter to the Het Loo Palace in May 1876 and they spent time together.
Bougeaureau was fond of living a good life and was a chain smoker. He died of heart disease on August 19, 1905, at La Rochelle. He was buried at the Montparnasse Cemetery beside his first wife and children.
While these days his name is written as William-Adolphe, he always signed his paintings as W. Bouguereau. So, it is assumed that William was his given name.