Adolphe William Bouguereau 1825-1905


Armand Cabrera

Adolphe William Bouguereau was born in 1825 in La Rochelle. He was the son of a wine merchant. At sixteen his father allowed him to attend art school as long as his son paid his own expenses. Bouguereau took a job as a book keeper and also made labels for local grocers. After two years of study Bouguereau entered a local art competition and won first prize. With help from his Uncle who was a priest, Bouguereau was commissioned to paint portraits for wealthy landowners of the parish. Bouguereau painted 33 portraits in his first three months.

In 1846 with the money he had earned painting portraits Bouguereau entered François-Edouard Picots atelier in Paris. Fellow students included Gustave Moreau and Alexandre Cabanel.

In 1847 Ecole Competitions Bouguereau garnered four medals on for perspective and three for figure work.

In 1848 Bouguereau joined the Monarchy to help contain the civil uprising that had broken out. That same year he won one of two Grand Prix awards.

In 1850 he receives the Prix De Rome which allows him to study in Italy for three years. In Italy Bouguereau refined his technique by copying master paintings and sketching the people and countryside.

On his return to France Bouguereau resumed entering exhibitions. The state purchased Triumph of the Martyr from him in 1855.

In 1856 Bouguereau received one of his most important commissions Napoleon III visiting The Flood Victims of Tarascon. For this commission he was paid 5000 gold francs. He was also married to Marie Nelly Monchablon later that year.

The next few years Bouguereau received commissions for public spaces painting murals in Churches and theaters. In 1866 Bouguereau began marketing his genre work exclusively through Adolphe Goupil.

In 1875 he took a teaching post at the Academie Julian and in 1881 became its director. He held this office until his death.

Bouguereau moved his family to a house he had built in a Paris neighborhood. Here he stayed and worked until the outbreak of the Franco Prussian War. He moved his family to Brittany for safety but he stayed through the siege of Paris and its surrender. The siege was followed by the Communard insurrection against the formal French Government and as many as twenty thousand died in the city.

Bouguereau suffered many personal tragedies in his life; four of his five children died and his wife died at the age of forty.

He began a relationship with one of his students Elizabeth Gardner but he did not marry her until after his mother’s death. His mother had objected to their relationship and so they postponed a formal marriage until 1896.
Bouguereau was extremely successful during his lifetime he was honored with many awards. He was also vilified by younger generations of artists that rejected his focus on a high degree of finish and skilled drawing. This did not stop him from working at subjects that others found shallow or overly sentamental.
There has been much made about the style of modern art as a response to war but I think one could make the case for Bouguereau and his art as an equally valid response. His art was a refuge from what must have been for him a sad, painful personal life, burying almost all of his children and then his wife at a relatively young age. During these times his religious faith sustained him and he worked. In this context his art makes sense and I can’t help but see it as a need to make the world a beautiful place in some small way after experiencing so much tragedy.
Adolphe William Bouguereau died august 19th 1905.
William Bouguereau 1825- 1905

Louise d’Argencourt Mark Steven Walker

Exhibition Catalog published in 1984
The Lure of Paris Nineteenth Century
American Painters and Their French Teachers
H. Barbara Weinberg
Abbeville Press1991
Some Call it Kitsch
Masterpieces of Bourgeois Realism
Aleska Celebonovic
Abrams 1974


8 thoughts on “Adolphe William Bouguereau 1825-1905

  1. Thanks Armand! If one can concider
    the person behind the brush, and the encounters in his life,I think This artist made great strides.
    I didn't know some of this info, so it helps to embolden my admiration for Mr.Bouguereau.
    I always felt his paintings were true, and not just pretty pictures to be wrote off as shallow art.
    There is a faith, and hope and human goodness, an artistic pep talk to the viewer.
    It's ok to admire beauty!

  2. Another fine post, Armand! The thing I enjoy the most about Bouguereau, I think, is just how subtle his color schemes are. Colorful, but so tightly schemed. It is really rather remarkable, his control in that regard.


  3. whoops, did I write "Truth has been supplanted by beauty" should be something more like "Beauty has been supplanted by truth" !!! hope that's not a Freudian slip!

  4. Hi Armand, I mean this as a friendly comment – I've been thinking about it since the "Banishment of Beauty" debate. I can understnad that a number of artists deserve renewed recognition – and thy seem to be getting some! and I don't thin, in Bougereau's case, that a painter so fabulously good can be 'dismissed', but, but, I do feel there are problems with the subject matter. I've got 2 quotes running round my head, just nox: "It's what you bring to an object thay counts" (Andrew Wyeth
    "Truth has supplanted beauty" Garcia Lorca. Anyway thanks for both the article and your excellent blog. jon

  5. Jonin,
    I find his subject matter a little light also, not being very religious. But I don't find Picasso or any modern artist painting squares or triangles any more profound. At least with Bouguereau there is the handling of the materials.

  6. Yeah sure, I agree – but subject matter is a problem – the artists of that time/period wanted some sort of 'content' in their images (a very understanable desire) – but this can easily go awry in visual art – it tends to be too obvious (we see the stage machinery creaking away + the artist is being directive of the viewer on an emotional/intellectual level) – guess we just don't want to feel manipulated. Viewers at that time maybe didn't fell 'manipulated'…

    One conclusion I reach from that argument that nearly all "awe and shock" art is destined for the footnotes. Jon

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