William Bouguereau (born November 30, 1825 died August 19, 1905) is an outstanding French artist of the 19th century, a master of religious, mythological and everyday genres, a prominent representative of academism. In the work of William Bouguereau, one can clearly see the adherence to the classical principles of art. His paintings evoke romantic feelings in the viewer, and the artist’s biography is an example of serving high ideals in art.
During his lifetime, William Bouguereau achieved wide recognition not only in his homeland, but also far beyond its borders. His works were eagerly bought by patrons of art from England and the United States, and the artist himself was extremely negative about the innovative trends in painting of the late 19th century and led a sharp polemic with its adherents.
William Bouguereau (full name William-Adolphe Bouguereau) was born on November 30, 1825 in the port city of La Rochelle in western France into the family of a small merchant. Although the boy discovered a talent for drawing from childhood, his parents did not have the funds to teach him. But after 7 years, due to serious financial problems, the father and mother were forced to give William to be raised by his uncle Eugene, a Catholic priest. This event had a huge impact on the future fate of the boy.
Uncle, unlike his parents, reacted very favorably to the young nephew’s hobby for drawing, and also tried with all his might to instill in his pupil basic Christian values deep faith and love for people. It was he who helped William get a job at an art school in Pona with a student of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingre Monsieur Louis Sage, where the young Bouguereau achieved noticeable success and mastered the basics of the profession.
In 1843, his father, who by that time had improved significantly in trade, took his 17-year-old son to Bordeaux to join the family business. William passionately wanted to become an artist, but he had to work in the shop during the day, and only in the evenings the young man could continue his studies at the art school.
A year later, the young talent took part in the competition and won the main prize for a painting on a historical theme. He wanted to continue his studies in Paris, but his father was categorically against it. During this difficult period of his life, his uncle came to the aid of his nephew, who found customers for the paintings.
Over the next two years, William Bouguereau painted 33 portraits, saved 900 francs and set off to conquer the capital.
Arriving in Paris, the young artist simultaneously got a job with the master François Picot and to study at the School of Arts. Beginning in 1848, Bouguereau took part in the competition for the award of the Rome Prize three times, but only on the third attempt did he win it together with Paul Baudry.
4 years of living in Rome was not in vain for the young artist. During this time, he traveled all over Italy, visited the main historical centers of local painting and became closely acquainted with the work of many great masters of the Renaissance. It was in Rome that the artist’s special style and manner of painting were finally formed.
Remaining an ardent admirer of the academic style, William Bouguereau exhibited his work at the Paris salons all his life, including during his stay in Italy. Returning to his homeland, he very soon became a famous artist, worked hard and acquired a large number of generous customers.
The personal life of the master was not very happy.
In 1855, he began to live with a young 19-year-old girl, Nelly Monchablen, who became the mother of his five children, of which only his daughter Henrietta survived her father. Three children died very early, in 1877 Nelly died of tuberculosis, and his son Paul lived only 32 years.
After the death of his first wife, William wanted to marry Elizabeth Jane Gardner a second time, but his mother was categorically against it. Only 19 years later, his desire could come true, Elizabeth became a faithful companion, student and secretary of her husband until the end of his days.
For many years, William Bouguereau with great pleasure indulged in his favorite business painting. During his life, he painted over 800 paintings and received many awards for services to the arts. The artist has always remained a supporter of academicism and often entered into polemics with representatives of innovative trends. He left to posterity many beautiful works in the genre of nudity, often turned to the theme of motherhood in his work and financially supported aspiring artists.
Until the end of his days, the recognized master of French painting lived mainly in Paris, occasionally visiting his small homeland. William Bouguereau died on 19 August 1905 and was buried in the capital’s Montparnasse cemetery.
The most famous paintings by William Bouguereau
There are many admirable works in the artist’s creative heritage. And yet, the most famous paintings by William Bouguereau can rightfully be called such works:
- “Zenobia, discovered on the banks of the Araks” (1850) the winner of the competition for the right to travel to Rome to study. It was she who brought the artist fame in the academic circles of France.
- “Day of Remembrance of the Dead” (1859) is an artist’s work, stunning in its depth of tragedy, in which one can feel a feeling of tremendous grief for a deceased loved one.
- The Bather (1864) is the first nude painting to be a resounding success at an exhibition in Ghent, Belgium. The local museum bought it for a lot of money and still keeps it in its collection.
- “Portrait of Gabrielle Cat” (1890) is the only work of the artist, written not by order of the client. The painter was so struck by the beauty of the daughter of his colleague Pierre Auguste Cot that he painted her portrait, which he presented to the girl as a wedding gift.
For most of his life, Bouguereau did not experience financial difficulties, his paintings were in great demand.
But after the death of the master, the attitude towards his work changed dramatically.
During the period of revolutionary changes in art at the beginning of the twentieth century, Bouguereau was labeled as an obsolete conservative and forgotten for a long time. Only at the end of the 1970s, interest in his work flared up with renewed vigor, and now at art auctions the paintings of the great French painter are again sold for huge sums of money.