William-Adolphe Bouguereau - Biography and Legacy
La Rochelle, France
La Rochelle, France
Biography of William-Adolphe Bouguereau
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.
Education and Early Training
A few years after moving to live with his uncle, Bouguereau was sent to the Catholic college in Pons, where he continued his religious and secular education. At Pons, Bouguereau was tutored in drawing by Louis Sage, a follower of the great Neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, but his studies were interrupted by his father, who demanded that he join the family at their new home in Bordeaux, in south-east France. Here the young William-Adolphe became acquainted with Charles Marionneau, a local artist and historian who helped him to gain admission to the Municipal School of Painting and Drawing. Though he was under pressure to contribute to his father's business, Bouguereau thus resumed his artistic training, financing his education by creating hand-colored lithographs for food products. He excelled in this mercenary work, eventually saving enough to move to Paris, which he did in 1846, at the age of 20.
Following a recommendation from the Municipal School in Bordeaux, Bouguereau was invited to study under the accomplished Neoclassical painter François-Édouard Picot. Like the other students in Picot's studio, Bouguereau worked on the basic elements of figurative painting and drawing, using lithographs, plaster casts, and live models. Barely subsisting on his meager savings, he nevertheless gained admission to the prestigious École Royale des Beaux-Arts, whose curriculum focused on painting, anatomy, perspective, history, antiquity, and sculpture. Bouguereau's lofty ambition was to win the Grand Prix de Rome, a prize for outstanding young artists which included sponsored study at the French Academy in the Villa Medici in Rome. After two unsuccessful attempts, he achieved his goal with the grand historical painting Zenobia Found by Shepherds on the Banks of the Arax (1850), on a theme previously tackled by Nicolas Poussin. Bouguereau left for Rome in January 1851, spending the next three years refining his technical skills, and studying art collections, churches, architecture, and sculpture throughout the Italian peninsula. His scholarship ended in 1854, but instead of returning to Paris, he travelled back to his home town of La Rochelle.
Following his formative experiences in Italy, Bouguereau's career was defined by the ceaseless accumulation of praise and commissions, and by the annual exposure of his work at the Paris Salon. He stuck doggedly to the Neoclassical style in which he had been trained, and the display of his work at the Salons generated enormous interest from middle and upper-class patrons, and created opportunities to decorate state buildings and churches. In 1856, his prestige was further heightened by a commission from Emperor Napoleon III, for whom he completed the unashamedly propagandist work Napoleon III Visiting the Floods of Tarascon, showing the emperor's humanitarian visits to areas of the Rhône and Loire Valleys recently devastated by flooding. Demand for Bouguereau's work was consistent over this period, partly because of his contracts with two powerful art dealers, Paul Durand-Ruel and Adolphe Goupil. Indicating his pragmatic and commercialist approach to his work, Bouguereau began from around the 1860s to move beyond grand historical and classical subjects, creating quasi-Naturalist genre scenes in line with shifting artistic tastes. In practical terms however, he remained a staunch defender of tradition, and was instrumental, along with his Neoclassical peer Alexandre Cabanel, in ensuring that Édouard Manet's Déjeuner sur l'Herbe was rejected from the 1863 Paris Salon. This led to the establishment of the "Salon des Refusés", often seen as synonymous with the birth of avant-garde art.
In 1856, Bouguereau began a relationship with his 19-year-old model Nelly Monchablon, with whom he would have three children prior to their marriage in 1866, and another two thereafter. He maintained a luxurious family home and studio in the Montparnasse neighborhood of Paris, and in the summer would travel with his family to La Rochelle, where he often accepted local decorative commissions. Bouguereau kept a largely apolitical profile throughout his life, but twice became involved with politics outside of art, on both cases aligning himself with the forces of the French establishment. He enlisted in the National Guard during the revolution of 1848, and again in 1870, at the end of the Franco-Prussian War, prior to the brief seizure of power by the revolutionary Paris Commune (with which some of Bouguereau's peers, such as Gustave Courbet, associated themselves).
While Bouguereau's professional life was one of uninterrupted success - he was granted lifetime membership of the Academy in 1876, and made a Commander of the Legion of Honor in 1885, the highest possible distinction for a living artist - his personal life was marked by tragedy. Three of his children died in infancy, and their mother Nelly died in 1877, events which inspired a series of somber religious paintings. Shortly after Nelly's death, however, Bouguereau began a relationship with another model, the American Elizabeth Jane Gardner - also a notable artist - whom he would marry in 1896, following a two-decade engagement (the couple were waiting for the death of William-Adolphe's mother, who disapproved of his remarrying). During this period Bouguereau's influence spread well beyond France, and he became active in artists' societies in Belgium, Austria, and Spain. Even in his advanced years, he worked prolifically, never abandoning his traditional methods of painting.
Over the last few decades of his life, Bouguereau also became an enthusiastic and influential teacher, mentoring both male and female artists in the Academic style. From 1872 onwards, he taught at the prestigious Académie Julian, and became known for advocating the training of female artists within that institution. Many of his pupils went on to achieve commercial and critical success, while outside of formal education he attracted countless admirers and imitators. When Bouguereau died in 1905 he was honored by grand funeral processions and memorials, both in Paris and La Rochelle. He is buried in Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris, next to Nelly and their children. Throughout his life he had remained intensely dedicated to his work, remarking: "each day I go to my studio full of joy; in the evening when obliged to stop because of darkness I can scarcely wait for the next morning to come ... if I cannot give myself to my dear painting I am miserable."
The Legacy of William-Adolphe Bouguereau
The popularity of Impressionism across the 20th century - not to mention the attitudes of the Impressionists to Bouguereau's work - partly explains Bouguereau's posthumous demise. More generally, the rise of avant-garde trends across the second half of the 19th century established a new paradigm whereby artists defined themselves against the Neoclassical standards of the Academy, meaning that Bouguereau's Academy-approved work was scorned by many of the most famous artists of the generation below him. He infamously reprimanded one of his students, Henri Matisse, for not being able to draw, while another, Edgar Degas, would describe a fussy, overwrought painting as "bouguerated". The same counter-cultural forces pushed back against the reputation of Bouguereau's Neoclassical contemporaries Alexandre Cabanel and Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier.
To be fair to his critics, Bouguereau clearly had a pragmatic attitude to the sentimental paintings which he produced with factory-line efficiency. These were paintings for the market, composed in response to a middle and upper-class clamor for images of stylized feminine beauty, titillating mythology, rustic country life, and childhood innocence. But Bouguereau's reputation as a bastion of bourgeois taste meant that the more progressive aspects of his life and work were overlooked. He had a passion for mentoring young artists at the Académie Julian, for example, and, unlike his contemporaries, enthusiastically encouraged the training of women artists.
Some renewed interest in Bouguereau's work emerged in the 1970s-80s, with major exhibitions in New York, Montreal, and Paris. Around the same time, various monographs and revisionary academic articles cast new light on his influence over 19th-century art in France and the United States. His paintings now command high prices at auction, and continue to circulate amongst private hands. It is fitting, given his mass appeal during his lifetime, that many of his works also appear on greetings cards, posters, and calendars, with images such as Cupid and Psyche (1890), better known as The First Kiss, flooding contemporary Western culture without the artist's name becoming any better known.