Saturday, February 24, 2018

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (by Lexi Bateman)

"One has to seek Beauty and Truth, sir! As I always say to my pupils, you have to work to the finish. There's only one kind of painting. It is the painting that presents the eye with perfection, the kind of beautiful and impeccable enamel you find in [Paolo] Veronese and [Tiziano Vecelli] Titian."

"Each day I go to my studio full of joy; in the evening when obliged to stop because of the darkness I can scarcely wait for the next morning... My work is not only a pleasure, it has become a necessity. No matter how many other things I have in my life, if I cannot give myself to my dear painting I am miserable." 


William Bouguereau was born in La Rochelle, France on November 30, 1825 into a family of wine and oil merchants. Bouguereau demonstrated an early affinity for drawing, but it wasn't until he began his studies at a French priesthood in Pons in 1939 that he received any formal arts training. Not much is known about his teacher, Louis Sage (1816-1888), except that he trained in Ingres' studio when he was younger. Bouguereau began working for his parents in the early 1840s, but didn't give up his schooling or his love of drawing. He continued to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Bordeaux during the early mornings and late evenings. After two years of part-time studying (1844), Bouguereau won the first prize in figure painting for a piece representing Saint Roch -- an accomplishment that launched his art career.

In 1846, after tirelessly painting friends' portraits (thirty-three in total) for additional income, Bouguereau had earned enough money to move to Paris, the world's arts apex. With a recommendation from Jean-Paul Alaux, his head master at Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Bouguereau was accepted to François-Edouard Picot's (1786-1868) studio and then to the Paris branch of Ecole de Beaux-Arts.

At the time, the highest prize in the arts was the Prix de Rome. It was awarded to ten artists whose history paintings were deemed exceptional. Bouguereau was chosen as a contestant for the award in 1848 and again in 1849. He finally won the award in 1850 for his Zenobia Found by Shepherds on the Banks of Araxes -- though he technically placed second in terms of votes. As a recipient of the prize, he traveled to Rome where he studied classical art and Italian Renaissance painters for four years at the Villa Medici. While in Italy, he earned himself the nickname "Sisyphus" because he applied himself so rigorously to his studies. During his time in Rome, he was copied renowned works in Orvieto, Assisi, Siena, Florence, Pisa, Ravenna, Venice, Parma, Naples, Pompeii, Capri, Bologna, Albano and Nemi, and Castle Gandolfo -- pieces that would influence his artistic style for the duration of his life.

When he returned to Paris in 1854, he was commended for his portraiture and decorative cycles. He exhibited some of his paintings at the Salon -- an annual exhibition of contemporary art in the city. Because of his schooling in the priesthood as well as the focus of his studies at Ecole des Beaux-Arts, most of his early work drew on mythology, classical, and biblical history, though they were not his most commercially popular paintings. He began to paint more simple scenes -- children with their mothers and shepherdesses that could be hung on the walls of homes. By the early 1860s, Bouguereau's work was popular in both England and America.

By the end of his life, Bouguereau had amassed countless accolades and produced almost seven hundred paintings.

Artistic Style

William Bouguereau's paintings can be characterized by their hyper-realist, technically perfect style. He interpreted traditional, orthodox genre paintings and mythical scenes with Classical subjects and an emphasis on the female form. Because Bouguereau was committed to Realism, he advocated against the growing Impressionist movement of the time. His vocal refutation of Impressionist works made him somewhat unpopular amongst proponents of the movement, but his paintings remained popular with wealthy art patrons. 

Selected Works 

L'innocence is perhaps the most well-known of Bouguereau's works. Because he painted primarily for historical purposes (as was expected during the time), many of his paintings refer to biblical stories or ancient Greek and Roman myths. This painting foreshadows the sacrifice of Jesus, as Mary holds him in her arms together with a sacrificial lamb. Bouguereau's technical success is evident in this piece; he was both a portrait artist and a landscape painter. He captures both a perfect human form and a detailed landscape backdrop in this single painting. This work is respectfully traditional of Renaissance style and composition, while also being remarkably detailed, light, and evocative.

Study for Summer
Though I could not find the final Summer painting -- if Bouguereau even made one, that is -- I think this study sketch is valuable in its own right. Given that this is a pencil sketch, I was amazed at how consistently he was able to shade in this figure. He has achieved at least five values with his pencil -- a task that I find particularly challenging. I have a hard time working with pencil when shading because pencils want to leave lines, not consistent shades. With a detailed piece like this, I would have chosen to work with charcoal simply because I think it's easier to control. Hats off to Bouguereau!

Nymphs and Satyr, Studies and Final 
Nymphs and Satyr is another of Bouguereau's more popular and well-known paintings. I discovered in my research some sketches that he did before he started work on the final painting itself. I thought that his detailed figure drawings of Satyr and some of the nymphs were interesting because you can see the initial gesture drawing and the more polished sketch all on one page. In these sketches, you can really follow the artists process through to the final image. I also thought that the larger sketches were important in understanding how Bouguereau thought about composition. He really worked in these to establish large, dramatic planes of motion in the piece, and he played with the orientation of the image so that he could find the best, most effective composition for the painting. Often times I think of painters as just sitting down in front of a blank canvas and painting. These sketches really opened my eyes to the amount of meticulous plotting and planning Bouguereau put into his work. 

Night, Twilight, Dawn, Day Series
This series contains my favorite of Bouguereau's paintings. I love Renaissance art because it prioritizes the human form, portraying it with ethereal, eternal, unearthly beauty. I was drawn to Twilight because it maintains that same level of physical human beauty while also subverting the traditional Renaissance style by being a little bit creepy. The moon just beginning to appear in the sky and the black shroud that envelops the central figure feel ominous to me, especially given the stark contrast against the pale whiteness of the figure herself. This ominous tone reaches a climax in Night, where the black shroud feels more tangible and birds begin to swoop down out of the sky seemingly at the figure herself. These paintings as a series are cohesive enough in composition to feel like a unit, but different in subtle ways that make each of these distinct figures feel like these moments to me. The woman in Twilight is Twilight, as the woman in Day is Day. I find the first two images in this series especially striking -- compositionally and technically beautiful. They embody what I love about Renaissance art and twist it into something a bit darker and more sinister. 


  •  Bartoli, Damien and Frederick Ross. William Bouguereau. Antique Collector's Club, 2010.
  • William Bouguereau: 1825-1905, The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (catalogue)
  • Wissman, Fronia E. Bouguereau. Pomegranate Artbooks, 1996.

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