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William-Adolphe Bouguereau

French Painter

William-Adolphe Bouguereau Photo
Movements and Styles: Neoclassicism, Naturalism

Born: November 30, 1825 - La Rochelle, France

Died: August 19, 1905 - La Rochelle, France

"Can we imagine the anguish felt by an artist who senses that the fulfillment of his dream is compromised by the weakness of his execution?"

Summary of William-Adolphe Bouguereau

There are few artists of the modern period whose critical and commercial fortunes during and after their lifetime stand in such stark contrast. In his own era, the Neoclassical painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau was one of the most reputable and commercially successful artists in the Western world, showered with official acclaim and prizes, hugely popular with the art-buying bourgeoisie, and a respected and loved teacher. His religious and mythological tableaux, classical nudes, and Naturalist-influenced scenes of humble peasant life were produced at a prodigious rate, for an endlessly eager public (he once declared that "every minute of mine costs 100 Francs"). But in the decades following his death, when academic painting fell out of favor with art historians and critics, his reputation was significantly reduced, in some cases to that of an establishment huckster, tossing off lifelessly perfect nudes and pietàs for a credulous middle-brow audience. In hindsight, we can see that this latter narrative is unfair: a brilliantly talented draughtsman capable of beautiful figurative paintings, Bouguereau's tastes were simply more traditional, his attitude to his career more acquisitive and pragmatic, than that of his avant-garde peers.

Key Ideas

Bouguereau has the odd distinction of being mainly renowned for his disagreements with other artists, namely the Impressionists, and other avant-garde groupings of the late-19th century. He scorned them for their lack of technical precision, while they abhorred what they saw as Bouguereau's overly fussy, fastidious approach. The artist himself once stated that " [a]s for the Impressionists, the Pointillists, etc., I cannot discuss them. I do not see the way they see, or claim to see". The Naturalist critic Louis de Fourcaud claimed that "in his observation of nature, [Bouguereau] is always the victim of his desire to improve on it."
Bouguereau, along with artists such as Alexandre Cabanel and Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier, was one of the figureheads of a late generation of Neoclassical painters active during the 1850s-90s. Despite the attention paid to Impressionism and other developments in experimental art during this period, these artists were in fact far more successful during that period itself, with Bouguereau celebrated for his technical mastery of the classical nude, amongst other things.
In spite of his reputation as a force of reaction, Bouguereau was a venerated and - by all accounts - avuncular and encouraging teacher, whose most lasting cultural legacy was his consistent advocacy of the training of female art students at the Académie Julian. A former pupil, the American painter Edmund Wuerpel (1866-1958), described Bouguereau as " [a]lways gentle, always fair, never saying things he did not really mean [...] it was a pleasure as well as a privilege to listen to him."
William-Adolphe Bouguereau Photo

William-Adolphe Bouguereau was born in 1825 in La Rochelle, a traditionally Protestant city on France's south-west coast. His father was a modestly successful wine and olive oil merchant and a Roman Catholic, while his mother was from a middle-class Calvinist family. Compromising on their children's religious education, they decided to raise their sons as Catholic and their daughters as Protestant. Bouguereau's upbringing was strict, but he developed a deep love for his seaside home and its local customs which endured throughout his life. At twelve, he was sent to live with his uncle, a Catholic priest, possibly to prepare the boy for a career in the Church. During this period, which Bouguereau later recalled as "the happiest time of my life," he was exposed to classical literature, outdoor excursions, and a new depth of familial affection.

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