Bouguereau, William

William Adolphe Bouguereau (French 1825-1905) Regarded today as one of the most important exponents of official Salon painting of the Second Empire, William-Adolph Bouguereau once described himself as “an idealist” who saw “only the beautiful in art.”

Bouguereau was born in 1825 in La Rochelle, France. He moved with his family to Saint-Martin on the ne de Re in 1832. There, while attending primary school, he developed a serious interest in drawing. Later, as a college student at Pons, Bouguereau received his first formal art instruction. His teacher, a M. Sage, who had studied under Ingres, instilled in his pupil a respect for the principles of sound draftsmanship that he would retain throughout the course of his career.

Around 1841, Bouguereau was sent to Bordeaux to assist with matters pertaining to the family’s olive-oil business. However, the young man’s artistic aspirations were still very much in evidence. Through the assistance of a family friend, Bouguereau enrolled in part-time classes at the École des Beaux-Arts of Bordeaux. Two years later he was awarded the first prize in figure painting. Bouguereau subsequently received his father's permission to study art in Paris. He arrived in the French capitol in 1846 and immediately enrolled in the atelier of François-Edouard Picot, one of the most eminent teachers of the day. After only two months with Picot, Bouguereau was accepted at the École des Beaux-Arts. During these years, when not in the studio, Bouguereau spent his time in the Louvre, studying the art of ancient Greece and Rome, and visiting the architectural monuments of Paris.

Although Bouguereau fought in the Garde Nationale during the Revolution of 1848, his military activity made no real disruption in his studies. During that same year he was awarded second prize in the prestigious Prix de Rome competition. In 1850 he won the first prize, allowing him to spend the next four years in Italy. Settling in Rome, Bouguereau continued his study of the antique as well as the art of the High Renaissance.
Returning to Paris in 1854, Bouguereau embarked on what would become an outstanding career as a painter and teacher. His work, dealing with religious, classical and peasant themes, infused with a heightened sense of emotion, were considered high points of the annual Salons. A technical virtuoso, Bouguereau’s mature style was characterized by emphasis on high finish, clear, unified lighting and idealized forms. These principles were passed on to his students at the Academia Julian, where Bouguereau taught for many years. Among his many American pupils were Elizabeth Jane Gardner of Exeter, and John David Wolfe of New York.

It would be a mistake to try to force Bouguereau’s pictures into a few easily categorized groups: peasants, mothers and children, bathers; while many of his works do indeed conform in general tenor to these groups, many do not. Le Jour des morts is a work that forms part of a series of paintings dealing with themes of loss and deprivation. Two women, perhaps a mother or daughter, lay a wreath on a grave. Their deep mourning suggests that they have lost their husband and father, and the solemnity with which the artist portrays the scene recalls the mood of ancient Greek grave reliefs. For these pictures of particularized sadness, Bouguereau chose to dress the figures in contemporary attire. Similarly placed in the nineteenth century are the mother and daughter in The Thank Offering (1867). Here, a tender offering to a statue of the Virgin in a household shrine is made to hasten the recovery of a sick child (Bouguereau’s title for it was just that, The Sick Child. To our eyes, a scene like this may suffer from an overdose of sentimentality, but in the nineteenth century such simple piety as sincere and widespread. Infant and childhood mortality were facts of life in the absence of sterilization and widespread inoculation (the English physician Edward Jenner began experimenting with inoculations against smallpox only in 1796), but the loss of a child to illness would nonetheless have been a wrenching experience.

Although Bouguereau’s work was often disparaged by many turn-of-the-century critics, who found fault with his overt sentimentality, his career and its impact on the 19th century tradition continues to undergo reassessment by the scholarly community, most recently in a comprehensive exhibition organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and circulated to museums in France and the United States.

Museum Collections Include:
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; The Detroit Institute of Arts; Musée d’Orsay, Paris, Museum of Fine Art, Bordeaux; Guggenheim Museum, New York