Biography of William Bouguereau by Damien Bartoli, Fred Ross

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Biography of William Bouguereau

by Damien Bartoli, with Fred Ross


  1. William Bouguereau: Introduction by Fred Ross
  2. William Bouguereau Biography by Damien Bartoli with Fred Ross
  3. Concise Biography — Family Roots and Birth
  4. Bordeaux and the Municipal School of Drawing and Painting
  5. Paris and the École des Beaux-Arts
  6. The Villa Medici
  7. Bouguereau's Professional Career
  8. Celebrity and Official Honours
  9. A Rift in the Société des Artistes Français
  10. Marriage and Death
  11. Bouguereau Today
  12. Bouguereau Paintings in American Museums

William Bouguereau: Introduction by Fred Ross

William Bouguereau is unquestionably one of history's greatest artistic geniuses. Yet in the past century, his reputation and unparalleled accomplishments have undergone a libelous, dishonest, relentless and systematic assault of immense proportions. His name was stricken from most history texts and when included it was only to blindly, degrade and disparage him and his work. Yet, as we shall see, it was he who single handedly opened the French academies to women, and it was he who was arguably the greatest painter of the human figure in all of art history. His figures come to life like no previous artist has ever before or ever since achieved. He wasn't just the best ever at painting human anatomy, more importantly he captured the tender and subtlest nuances of personality and mood. Bouguereau caught the very souls and spirits of his subjects much like Rembrandt . Rembrandt is said to have captured the soul of age. Bouguereau captured the soul of youth.

Considering his consummate level of skill and craft, and the fact that the great preponderance of his works are life-size, it is one of the largest bodies of work ever produced by any artist. Add to that the fact that fully half of these paintings are great masterpieces, and we have the picture of an artist who belongs like Michelangelo , Rembrandt and Caravaggio , in the top ranks of only a handful of masters in the entire history of western art.

Having died in 1905, we can suppose it best that he was not here to see the successful assault on traditional art that turned the art world inside out and upside down in the decades that followed his death. His fate was to be much like that of Rembrandt , whose work was also ridiculed and banished from museums and official art circles for the hundred years following his death. Rembrandt's reputation wasn't resuscitated until the 1790's (he died in 1669) due to the influence of the founder of the Royal Academy in London, Sir Joshua Reynolds . Even as recently as 1910, Reynolds paintings brought higher prices at auction than Rembrandt. Bouguereau's re-appreciation can rather accurately be traced from about 1979 when his prices at auction quadrupled that year alone, and then was further catapulted by the 1984 retrospective that traveled from the Petite Palais in Paris, to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in Canada and finally to the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford. In 1980, the Metropolitan Museum in New York permanently hung two of his works that been left in storage from early in the century.

L'Eveil du Coeur (The Heart's Awakening)
Oil on canvas, 1892
62 3/4 x 43 1/2 inches (160 x 111 cms)

Since 1960, his values in the market place have literally exploded, doubling on average every 3.5 years. From works selling for and average $500 to $1500 in 1960, they have accelerated to where in the last three years alone his auction records have been repeatedly broken another 4 times. In 1998 The Heart's Awakening sold for $1,410,000 at Christie's New York. In 1999 L'Amour et Psyche, enfants sold for $1,760,000 also at Christie's to be surpassed the very next day at Sotheby's when Alma Parens owned by Sylvester Stalone sold for $2,650,00. That record only lasted one year until May of 2000, when Charite sold $3,520,000 back at Christie's. Over the last 20 years his paintings all over the world have been taken out of their crates, basements, storage rooms and attics, dusted off, many cleaned and expertly restored, and today over a hundred museums and institutions proudly have his works on permanent exhibit. Reproductions of his paintings are selling by the millions in poster shops and gift stores world wide, and there is much evidence that they are even outselling the reproductions of paintings by any of the most famous modernists. The definitive full Catalogue Raissonée on his life and work is being completed by Damien Bartoli and the Bouguereau Committee and after 25 years of work will be published in 2003 or 2004 in time to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of his death in 2005.

Since Bouguereau is one of the most important artists in history, we will be regularly adding additional images by him to this site. Besides Mr. Bartoli's excellent biography below, you can read more about him in the ARC Philosophy.

William Bouguereau Biography by Damien Bartoli with Fred Ross

For a period extending roughly from the beginning of the First World War to the 1980s, the number of people in American and Europe — especially in France — who were ever exposed to the name of William Bouguereau, were rare indeed. Fewer still were those who, driven by curiosity, had the opportunity of seeing a single photograph of his painting, let alone the real thing.

Only tiny black-and-white images offered in old dictionaries or art reference books could be found. And for the scarce paintings in French public collections, not one was exhibited. Rather, they were rolled up or stored without care or maintenance; tossed aside, pell-mell, with other equally despised academic paintings. They moldered eventually in the purgatory of provincial museums where only the "authorized" could view them, while uncooperative "officials" would not permit any careful examination.

It is sad to note what little effort has heretofore been made to shed more light on the life and work of Bouguereau. Only the admirable catalogue of the 1984/85 Bouguereau exhibition organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Art, permits a serious approach to the subject, and we owe a debt of gratitude for this to Louise d'Argencourt and the late Mark Steven Walker, and the three Museums involved who made it possible.

And yet, Bouguereau was one of the most admired, listened-to, and envied artists at the end of the nineteenth century; as much by his peers as by the public who flocked each year to the Salon to admire the pictures that somehow "made" the event and which were often reproduced on the front page of magazines. Millions of his reproductions were avidly purchased for the homes of those who couldn't afford paintings. On the whole, his were the most expensive paintings and his clients were society's wealthiest — Americans for the most part — who had to wait many months, even years, before they could finally get their hands on a single painting from the Master. And that, in spite of his prolific output of more than 800 works.

Outside of a few very rare commissions in his youth, Bouguereau always refused to be dictated to regarding his subject matter and one can truly say that he only painted what pleased him, including the numerous portraits, which represent another interesting aspect of his oeuvre.

Having held the positions as President of numerous boards, societies, and important institutions, he was crowned with countless accolades, honors and decorations. Bouguereau was one of the most recognized personalities of the 19th century. More importantly, they were all highly deserved for he was also, without a doubt, one of the greatest painters of all time. He succeeded thanks to his genius and by dint of his tireless hard work and unequalled technical mastery — this in the very period when the appreciation of drawing and modeling were at their zenith in the visual arts. He worked in the eminent tradition handed down from Raphael , Poussin , and Ingres , maintaining and synthesizing their art but using his own pictorial sense and singular dexterity, which make his paintings immediately recognizable. Rising at six o'clock, he would install himself in his studio and stay there without budging until nightfall, appeasing his midday hunger with eggs and his thirst with a glass of water. He received guests, he smoked, he chatted, he joked; but he did not stop — he never stopped. As soon as the light became insufficient for painting, he worked at his voluminous correspondence, then finally; letting his imagination wander, he would search for new subjects, designing new compositions by lamplight, stopping only when weariness got the best of him.

With an imagery at once, extraordinary, fanciful and sublime, he often conjured an ethereal universe of transcendant beauty — an idealic and shimmering realm from which ugliness, poverty and pessimism were forever banned. These works he balanced by those reminding the more fortunate in society to care for the young, the poor and the suffering. The unequalled heights of his artistic accomplishments were legendary; yet he was never satisfied with his work. His pursuit of perfection drove him relentlessly, as if posessed, to endlessly correct and perfect his techniques, methods, and visions. No sooner did he arrive at some new heavenly height of poetic and technical mastery, than this 19th century Sisyphus would start anew his ascent, as he forever pressed forward the heavy burden of his artistic ideals.

His choice of subjects and his unique style caught on rapidly and he became the high priest of a following of disciples and imitators — some of whom never had access to his teaching, such as; Zuber-Buhler or Meyer von Bremen . For, aside from his creative drive, he had a passion for teaching and was a messiah-like professor without peer. In this field, he did not concern himself with the meager compensation he received as compared to the high prices of his paintings. Throughout his life Bouguereau advocated the example of the Old Masters and perseverance in work, letting his pupils nevertheless express their own individuality freely, much as his master, Picot , had permitted him.

Some students, however, caused problems. The most famous of these was Matisse, who quickly dropped out of Bouguereau's studio. From the start, the benevolent master tried to encourage Matisse, but soon threw up his hands in exasperation, noting the young man's weaknesses, "You badly need to learn perspective," he said to him, "But first, you need to know how to hold a pencil. You will never know how to draw."

On the subject of teaching, we should add that, thanks to his innovative ideas and, no doubt, because of his love for the American painter, Elizabeth Gardner, he was one of the champions of the integration of women, not only in the ateliers but also into the official art courses. It is in large part due to his militant conviction that we owe the opening up to women, first in his own atelier, and later in the celebrated Julian Academy, and finally, in the École Beaux-Arts Atelier.

At the same time that he was admired and envied he was also much impugned by a growing clique of painters and writers of the new generation who considered themselves "progressive" and who believed that rebellion against traditional values in painting as defended by the Académie, was their whole "raison d'etre." The easier paths of painting for which they searched would be their ticket to fame and fortune. Exploiting "Newness," as an end in itself, they passed themselves off as champions of progress who emerged seemingly everywhere in the agitated and unstable Europe at the dawn of the 20th century.

Bouguereau and his colleagues of the Salon and the Institute of France were rapidly labeled as reactionaries in the face of this growing cult of the new, found first in Impressionism and Post Impressionism, but soon to take a far darker and destructive turn. And so it was that, little by little, despite their popularity with the public, the most celebrated painters of the Academy — Bouguereau, Gérôme , Cabanel , Meissonier , Léon Bonnat , Lefebvre — found themselves blacklisted by a group of youthful artists supported by a cooperative press and the fabulous inherited wealth of a few "high priest" patrons of this "avante garde," who were on the brink of monopolizing in their turn the official posts-in the Beaux-Arts, in the teaching profession, and in curatorial positions of the major museums.

With this unrelenting storm of criticism, Bouguereau remained unperturbed, serenely pursuing his search for absolute beauty. Creator of a dazzling world of dreams and fantasy, he continued to live surrounded by virgins, lovers, idealized archetypes, subjects of a sun-drenched mythology who were his life long passion and companions. He infused them with life with a vivid palette and dressed them in a symphony of delicate colors and harmonious tones and light. He was pursuing his work with the fervor of one driven, obstinately faithful to his aesthetic as well as to his inspiration, and never concerned himself with scoffers or detractors. He never felt the need to defend that which self evidently needed no defense. It has been left to others, 6 generations later, to uncover, analyze and expose the lies, distortions and fallacies that were used to bring him and his brethren down.

Many of these detractors went so far as to slander Bouguereau. They spread the lowest and most defamatory rumors. Despite a mountain of anecdotal evidence to the contrary, he was accused of stinginess: "Each time I have to piss," they claimed he had said, "It costs me ten francs." The fact is, throughout his life, Bouguereau spent considerable time organizing charity sales to benefit his needy colleagues. In addition, he would generously devote one day a week as an administrative volunteer of the Baron Taylor charitable foundation before he became its president. Because he ignored criticism, and because he never bragged, allegations could take root without denial. Thus, his altruism was unknown to most people.

It was also said of him that he was a lecher and was only happy painting female nudes. Certainly, Bouguereau truly loved women, but then again, that calumny doesn't stand up to examination and the nude represents less than 10% of his oeuvre. It's particularly hypocritical to hear this kind of talk perpetuated in a day and age when one is likely to see considerably worse on prime time television and spoken by the same people who would extol the virtues of explicit sexuality in the works by Mapplethorpe or Francis Bacon.

All the great artists of the Académie, as they became the archetype of what not to do, dropped out of sight. This phenomenon was further aggravated after the First World War when the members of the Institute de France were denigrated by association as perpetuators of the "old establishment" — scapegoats, associated with the dreadful conflict that had decimated the European population.

Today, after eight decades of fruitless struggle, this duality would appear to have passed and we are finally able to view anew the charms and universal power in the best of academic painting. And, at the same time, we can appreciate earlier works of art, born of diverse philosophies and conflicting conceptual approaches, without having to wrestle with adversarial factions. Indeed, for a long time now in the realm of music, most amateurs and professionals alike, could appreciate with equal pleasure the compositions of Saint-Saëns and Rachmaninov, or of Stravinsky and Berg, performed in the same concert.

The greatest artists in history have had to take criticism and rejection ...usually from second rate or non existent talents green with envy that they wear as obvious as a scarlet letter... or Kelly in this case.

Mozart's works and career were maligned and nearly ruined by Salieri, Rembrandt was a target of unmitigated scorn by his fellow artists and the art world during the end of his life and for more than 100 year after his death and was denigrated and his work virtually banned from the art world... only to be rediscovered by Sir Joshua Reynolds in the 1790's.

But even then, it took another hundred years for his prices to go up to a small fraction of the prices for Gainsborough , Lawrence , Romney , Raeburn and Reynolds himself.

Bouguereau achieves emotional power in his work second to none, and for the themes he loved, beyond any other in art history. He was especially sensitive to the difficulties in growing up, and all through childhood he manages to capture the most exquisite subtle nuances of insecurity, self consciousness, the search for identity, the struggle with budding sensuality and the conflict between the need to mature and the joy of wanting to stay immersed in childhood.

By achieving this with images of some of the most real and simultaneously idealized figures, he attracted first with more sheer if more superficial beauty and then held in place his viewer who having been lured into his magical visions found far more than was bargained for in messages laden with Judeo-Christian values harmonized with Enlightenment sensibilities of the rights and value of men and democratic ideas.

ARC Chairman Fred Ross on the vicissitudes of the reputations of great artists

Concise Biography — Family Roots and Birth

The origin of the Bouguereau surname arose in the high Middle Ages and certain specialists in genealogy suppose that the family name is similar to the word bogue or "chestnut husk". That is to say; that the name is associated with "chestnut", although that does remain conjectural. Genealogical research on William Bouguereau's family does not reach earlier than the beginning of the 16th century when a certain Macé Bouguereau, living in La Rochelle, married a Dame Bastienne Briot around the year 1530. It is from that union that the lineage of William Bouguereau descended. Let us point out, for the benefit of non-European readers, that La Rochelle, the capital of Aunis, is an old harbour city of moderate importance in the départment of Charente Inférieure, subsequently renamed Charente Maritime.

Historically La Rochelle was reputed to be the center of French Calvinism thus earning the name la Geneve Francais. Traditionally Catholic and Protestants intermarried freely here and young men traditionally took the religion of their fathers and young girls that of their mothers. The descendants of Macé Bouguereau, little by little, formed family bonds with the Calvinists, of which there were traditionally many in La Rochelle. Those who remained in Charente after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes held, for the most part, official posts in the city. Many, for example, held positions in the mint up to the time of the French Revolution. The last of the line to do so was Jean Élie Bouguereau, Chief Minter for La Rochelle.

Jean Élie was the father of Samuel Élie Bouguereau, professor of English, who was the father of eight children, of which Théodore would become the father of the painter, William.

On the 30th of November, 1825, the same year as the execution of the famous "four sergeants" William Bouguereau was born, second son of Théodore Bouguereau and Marie Marguérite (sic) Bonnin, herself a young Calvinist. Five years later, William was baptized into the Catholic faith.

The couple then lived on the rue de Duc near the port. The head of the family was a small businessman who ran a wine store but his business at best eked out a living. Early in 1828 the family moved from the rue de Duc to the rue Saint-Claude area and Madame Bouguereau gave birth in March of the same year to a girl whom they named Marie Adeline, but nicknamed Hanna.

In 1832, the family left for Saint-Martin; principal town of the isle of Ré, where Théodore thought he would start a business on its port. William was enrolled at the local school, and already his classmates were talking about the innumerable drawings that literally illuminated his notebooks and school texts.

In spite of the new move and the good reputation of Ré wines, Théodore's business never thrived and it was this chronic situation that doubtless caused the atmosphere in the family to languish, depressed, heavy and tense. Endless quarrels compounded their difficulties as the family's finances placed them in dire straights. Mired in economic worry, yet always wishing to spare the children scenes of their violent disagreements, the young couple sent them off to stay with relatives.

It was in these circumstances that William went to stay with his uncle, 27-year-old Eugène Bouguereau, younger brother of Théodore. He was a priest who had just been given the curé of the church of Saint-Étienne in the parish of Mortagne sur Gironde. It is significant that his whole life, Bouguereau cherished fond memories of his stay in Mortagne and a long time afterwards would write that the happiness of family life was revealed to him then, which suggests that, up to that point, love or simple affection had been missing from his earlier family environment.

Eugène became his surrogate father and mentor, sharing with the young man his love of Latin and French literature and encouraging him to develop an interest in classical culture — an interest that the painter continued to pursue his whole life. Of course, religious instruction was not neglected and William spent hours reading the Gospels and Lives of the Saints. He also had ample leisure for daydreaming; stretched out on the grass, observing the flora and fauna, the passage of clouds, or the heavenly bodies in the evening.

It awakened in him a feeling of wonder for the works of nature, which he never lost. Eugène also introduced the boy to hunting and riding. Together they would frequently explore Saintonge on horse-back, visiting the monuments and historical sites of this beautiful region.

A Portrait of Amelina Dufaud Bouguereau
Oil on canvas, 1850
22 x 17 3/4 inches (55.9 x 45.7 cms)
A Portrait of Eugène Bouguereau
Oil on canvas, 1850
18 x 16 1/4 inches (46.2 x 41.3 cms)
A Portrait of Genevieve Bouguereau
Oil on canvas, 1850
18 x 16 1/4 inches (46.2 x 41.3 cms)
A Portrait of Léonie Bouguereau
Oil on board, 1850
11 x 9 inches (28.5 x 22.9 cms)

In 1839, Eugène decided to send his nephew to study the classics at the college of Pons, a religious institution administered by a friend of his. William adapted easily to the ascetic conditions of the boarding school and made good progress.

While pursuing his religious studies, the young man was introduced also to ancient history, Greek and Latin mythology, and to the fables and poetry of Longus, Ovid, Virgil, and doubtless, Pausanius, an author he loved well. While living with his uncle he perhaps had only a taste of this new universe, but it never ceased to captivate and enchant him. These myths and legends were the rich source from which grew his "fantasies" — foundations of what he imagined and painted to the end.

He received his first true drawing lessons here from Louis Sage, a young professor who had been a pupil of Ingres and was a committed classicist. Sage instilled the precepts of Ingres in his students, warning them against the seductions of the romantic 'heresy' and presenting the life of an artist as an endless competitive struggle. Bouguereau's later convictions were rooted in this rich soil. He became convinced that persistent hard work was necessary in order to gain a superior mastery over the technical problems which could have shackled the free reign of his imagination.

Bordeaux and the Municipal School of Drawing and Painting

In 1841, Théodore Bouguereau, making a clean slate of it, changed course by abandoning his moribund business in favor of the olive oil trade in Bordeaux.

Young William, then 17 years old, reluctantly rejoined his family in Bordeaux. In fact, Théodore had decided to end his son's studies, not because of their cost, but rather so that the young man-now at an age to train for a salaried position-could help him provide for the family. He was to do the bookkeeping for the business and then later take over the same responsibilities for a small workshop next door.

Enticed by a friend who took drawing and painting at the Bordeaux municipal art school, young William dreamed only of enrolling in the courses offered there. That naturally presented difficulties, for he would need his father's permission. Getting it was a long and difficult process. But, the favorable opinion of his mother and additional support of family friends weighed in his favor, and Théodore finally relented on condition that these studies would not lead his son into a thorny and risky art career.

And that is how William Bouguereau, along with the overwhelming evidence of a transcendent and obvious talent, was able to gain admission directly into the senior class taught by Jean-Paul Alaux. At the start he could only attend morning classes, between six and eight AM, since he could not neglect his "professional" duties. However, his progress was so rapid that he soon won the 1844 prize for "Best Historical Painting" although he was competing against older students who were enrolled full-time.

This powerfully fueled William's dreams of 'going up' to Paris to enter the École des Beaux-Arts. But first, he had to obtain the indispensable paternal authority to leave home. Reluctantly, his father uttered the necessary words of permission and the young artist began to formulate plans and financial calculations for helping to pay the costs of his studies in Paris. William then had a very daring idea: with the help of his uncle, Eugène, who instantly guaranteed him bed and boarding in Mortagne, he spent three months in the region painting oil portraits of the notable personalities of Saintonge. Those commissions brought him a small nest egg of nine hundred francs.

Paris and the École des Beaux-Arts

After a brief stay in La Rochelle, where he just barely escaped military conscription, Bouguereau departed for Paris. He had with him a letter of recommendation from Alaux to François Picot, a celebrated painter of the period. He settled himself into rue Corneille and then went immediately to Picot's studio where he worked like a slave. He lived frugally and allowed himself little time for sleep.

Finally, in April of 1846, Bouguereau was admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts. Amazingly, he almost wasn't accepted: he was 99th out of the 100 admitted. But the young student soon was seen in a very favorable light; regularly ranking among the best in the school. Consequently, in 1848 he was allowed to make submissions in the three preliminary stages of the competition for the "Grand Prix de Rome." The subject for the painting in the final submission that year was: "St. Peter, after having been miraculously released from prison comes into the house of Mary, mother of John, where his unexpected presence causes general astonishment." Unable to decide between the two best candidates, the members of the Académie awarded two seconds Grands Prix, one to Bouguereau and the other to Gustave Boulanger .

Zénobia retrouvée par les bergers sur les bords de l'Araxe
Oil on canvas, 1850
Ecole des Beaux-Arts

The following year he again entered the competition where the designated subject was: "Ulysses recognized by his wet-nurse, Eurycle, on his return to Troy." But, his painting did not even get a mention while Boulanger went on to receive the first Grand Prix. Finally, in 1850, he competed for the third time with; Zenobia found by shepherds on the banks of the Araxe. This time the jury of the Academy bestowed the Premier Grand Prix on Bouguereau. Then, like the past winners, he left to spend an all expenses paid year of work and study in Rome.

The Villa Medici

At the time, the Villa Medici, where Prix de Rome winners went to study, was administered by the painter, Jean Alaux. Bouguereau and Baudry (the other winner that year) were to meet a number of older artists, among them: Boulanger , Lenepveu , de Curzon , and Lecointe . During their Roman sojourn, the visitors were able to study at leisure not only the Italian old masters but also Greek, Etruscan, and Roman antiquities. Bouguereau would forge his opinions of Correggio , Titian , and Veronese in situ; Leonardo da Vinci , Michelangelo , and Raphael he already regarded highly and would continue to do so.

The Villa Medici, where 19th century Prix de Rome winners went to study

The student-visitors were also encouraged, in spite of the dangers, to travel about in Italy and William did not hesitate. With de Curzon he went to Pompeii, Naples and Capri, and in the north, visited the cities of Siena, Perugia, Assisi, where he copied the cycle of St Francis in its entirety. In Florence he spent most of his time at the Uffizi Gallery.

But, the French artists were also required to send assignments back to the Institute. Most notably during his stay in Rome, Bouguereau produced a copy of Raphael's Galatea; Canephorae from antique friezes; The Jews led into Captivity; Battle of the Centaurs, and finally; The Triumph of the Martyr — the crowning achievement of his time in Rome, which was later preserved at the Musée de Luxembourg.

Bouguereau's Professional Career

After this period abroad, Bouguereau returned to Bordeaux where he painted first a few portraits of his family. He then left for La Rochelle to decorate the villa of wealthy relatives, the Monlun family. At the end of 1854, he settled down in Paris again and undertook the decoration of two drawing rooms in the Hôtel Custine for Jean François Bartholoni. Bartholoni's son, Anatole, struck by the beauty of the rooms Bouguereau had decorated, asked the young and now professional artist to decorate the drawing rooms of his own mansion in the rue de Verneuil as well. Théophile Gauthier, the great writer and poet, was dazzled by William's decorative achievements and wrote about them in his art column, which helped to accelerate Bouguereau's success. The Salon of 1857 bestowed the Medal of Honour on Bouguereau for his Bartholoni décor as well as for his painting, The Return of Tobias. The Emperor Napoleon III then commissioned him to paint his portrait as well as one of the Empress. Toward the end of the year, the Emperor asked him to execute a large historical painting to commemorate his visit to the flood victims of Tarascon.

Le jour des morts (All Souls Day)
Oil on canvas, 1859
Musee des Beaux-Arts

From that point on, Bouguereau became one of the young painters that all of Paris was talking about. Another wealthy Parisian businessman, the banker Émile Pereire, asked him in 1857 for his assistance in decorating part of his mansion in Fanbourg Saint Honoré — a big commission which took the artist two years to complete. Also in 1857, his first child, Henriette was born. Bouguereau was living then in the Carnot where he had his studio and began teaching students of his own. In 1859, he painted one of his greatest canvases, All Souls Day, which was purchased by the city of Bordeaux. He then participated in the decoration of the St. Louis Chapel in the Church of St. Clotilde in Paris. In the same year he became a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour and father of a son, Georges.

A second daughter, Jeanne, was born on Christmas Day, 1861. Bouguereau was singularly unproductive in 1862 and 1863: two paintings finished in 1862 and ten in '63, including the Holy Family, which Napoleon III bought as a gift for his wife, Eugénie. In those two years, Bouguereau was facing two daunting challenges: First, he totally altered his painting technique as he labored relentlessly, looking for new approaches in the use of color. Second, he was forced-reluctantly-to focus on public relations in an effort to earn the goodwill and support of the Academicians for, at the instigation of his friend, Francisque Duret, he had just applied a second time for membership in the Institute.

In 1865 he was awarded a commission for the decoration of the ceiling and the tympanums of the concert hall of the Grand Théâtre of Bordeaux. This project worried him a great deal since construction was not completed until 1869 and the decorating, in 1870.

Bouguereau's daughter, Jeanne, passed away in 1866. It was to prove to be the first in a series of seemingly never-ending bereavements. That same year, he asked his friend and pupil, Jean Louis Pascal to draw up plans for his own home to be built on a lot he had purchased on Nortre-Dame-des-Champs. And so, in 1868, he was able to move in with his family and his mother, just in time for the birth of their fourth child, Paul. It was from this time forward that his greatest body of work commenced along with the style and subjects for which he is the most revered and well known.

Bouguereau was vacationing in Brittany when, on July 19, 1870, France declared war on Prussia. He returned to Paris alone, leaving his wife, Nelly, and the three children at Concarneau. On the 2nd of September, the Emperor capitulated at Sedan, but Paris refused to surrender. The siege of the city began and Bouguereau courageously decided to remain. Although exempt from military duty on account of his age, he nevertheless enrolled in the Garde Nationale, where he served as a simple soldier, standing guard on the fortifications and relieving other young soldiers on fatigue-duty. Paris was bombarded but fortunately, he and his own home were spared.

When the siege finally lifted, he left for La Rochelle where his family and his mother had taken up residence awaiting the end of the Commune. They all returned to the capital in September of 1871. Bouguereau made use of his stay in La Rochelle to cultivate ties with leaders of the community, both clerical and secular. Also while there, he painted the decorative elements of the Virgin's chapel in the cathedral and the celebrated full-length portrait of the bishop, Monsignor Thomas. In 1872, Bouguereau secured a part-time teaching post at the Academy Julian, probably replacing some of the regular teaching staff on vacation leave. The following year, he participated in the World's Fair in Vienna as a jury member and as an exhibitor with Seduction and The Spinning Maid. We also owe to those years some of his best work: Nymphes et Satyre; The Petty Thieves; The Reapers; Charity; Homer and his Guide; the portrait of the Boucicants; etc.

Vierge Consolatrice (The Virgin of Consolation)
Oil on canvas, 1875
80 1/4 x 58 1/4 inches (204 x 148 cms)
Les Musees de la Ville de Strasbourg, France
Oil on canvas, 1876
Dallas Museum of Fine Arts

In 1875, his son, Georges, became sick and died at the age of 16 at the home of the Seignacs where they had sent him to escape the suffocating heat of the Parisian summer. This was a heavy blow to the family. This grief of the man who was now a master painter, inspired two of his most beautiful religious works; The Pieta and The Comforting Virgin. In the same year, Rodolph Julian asked him to become part of the permanent staff of his world-renowned institution.

At last, in 1876, Bouguereau was elected to the highest titular rank of the Institute's Académie des Beaux-Arts, replacing Pils . This achievement, after twelve prior attempts, was the crowning success of his career to date. He himself admitted, "To be a member of the Institute is the only public honour I have sought passionately." But even this was soon surpassed, for six months later he was named an Officer of the Legion of Honour.

In October, his wife Nelly gave birth to their third son, Maurice, but their joy was short lived. In April 1877, his beloved wife Nelly died from consumption and the complications of her difficult pregnancies. In June, the baby, too, died at the age of 7 months. Desolation again shook the household. Rarely has a life filled with so much tragedy been accompanied by such consummate achievement, as one masterpiece after another left his easel. He painted 12 oils in 1877, 17 in 1878 and 23 in 1879 including some of his greatest and most ambitious works.

By the end of 1877, Bouguereau began mentioning to his family the prospect of marriage to one of his students, Elizabeth Jane Gardner , an American 12 years his junior who had settled in Paris in 1865. But his daughter, and more particularly, his mother was so opposed to the idea that he decided to speak no more of it. In fact, his mother made him swear not to think of remarrying before her own death. Bouguereau kept his promise although he and Elizabeth were secretly engaged in May, 1879.

Celebrity and Official Honours

Few truly unusual events punctuated the following years. Bouguereau received one first-place medal at the International Exposition in Munich and became a member of the committee for the perfecting the manufacture of Gobelin tapestries. His daughter, Henriette, married Georges Vincens, son of a wealthy La Rochelle businessman and a distant cousin related to the Signette branch of the family. The union led to the birth of little William, making the great master, William, a grandfather for the first time. He had attained the pinnacle of happiness and contentment-despite the many setbacks-knowing that the future of the Bouguereau line was assured.

In 1881, the French government handed over the administrative control of the annual Salon to the artist exhibitors themselves. As a result, the Société des Artistes Français was founded and Bouguereau was elected the first president of the Painting section. His weighty responsibilities in that post-particularly the planning and jurying-taxed his free time. But, Bouguereau would always rise to the occasion, never shirking his obligations, no matter how burdensome.

Among the notable events of the following years was the purchase of a townhouse on rue Verdière in La Rochelle. Here, Bouguereau would spend his summer vacations. At this time, Julian put him in charge of a teaching studio where, he was assisted by Gabriel Ferrier and Alfred Bramtot.

Oil on canvas, 1884

The French art dealer, Goupil, organized an exhibition of French artists in London in 1884. Seven of Bouguereau's paintings were exhibited, including two of his favourites: The Young Bacchus and Biblis.

Bouguereau was elected president in 1885 of the benevolent association founded by Baron Taylor, whose goal was to accumulate funds to help support less-fortunate artists and their families. The same year, for the funeral of Victor Hugo , he was chosenby the French Institute to represent painters — a much-envied honor.

The next year, 1886, saw him attend a reception at the college in Pons as president of the alumni association. In the course of the festivities, he offered a self-portrait to Louis Sage and reminded his first professor of the debt of gratitude he owed him. Bouguereau then insisted on taking personal charge of the preparations for the exhibition to commemorate the death of his old friend, Baudry — the opening would be attended by the President of the Republic.

Meanwhile, in his private life, he was very much worried by the financial imprudence of his son-in-law, Georges, which would reflect badly on the Vincens family and especially on his daughter, Henriette and her son, little William.

The following year, the exclusive contract he had with Goupil expired and was not renewed. Though he had done some business with Goupil's successors, Boussod & Valadon, he was thereafter, represented by the London firm of Tooth & Son. As increasingly, wealthy Americans were purchasing his greatest works, this well placed English-speaking dealer became a considerable asset rather than a detriment.

A Rift in the Société des Artistes Français

Whether in the service of official duties or in his conduct of everyday life, Bouguereau always presented a frank, just, and honest temperament. He despised injustice and the arbitrary use of power. This caused him to sometimes be abrupt and, above all, a fierce advocate for what he believed. These character traits were the source of some conflicts, many with his colleagues and critics, as well as with various state officials. It was owing to his inflexibility of one such deeply held conviction that led after the World's Fair of 1889, to a major falling-out with the artist, Meissonnier, and his supporters over a detail in the regulations governing allocation of compensation. Bouguereau, as President of the Société des Artistes Français fiercely defended the future of young artists, battling to keep the medallists from the World's Fair from being excluded from competing in future Salons. Despite Bouguereau's prompt resignation after his fruitless efforts to reconcile the dissenters, this bitter confrontation caused a split and a subsequent founding of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, complete with its own annual Salon held at the Champ de Mars.

Le Saintes Femmes au Tombeau (Holy Women at the Tomb)
Oil on canvas, 1890

This unwillingness to bow to political pressures caused him on another occasion to defy both public opinion and the press, as well as provoking the wrath of Paul Déroulède and the League of Patriots, by participating in the Berlin Exposition in March of 1891. There he exhibited Holy Women at the Tomb and Our Mother of the Angels.

In April of 1892, he went to London where he prepared an exhibit of French artists at the Royal Academy and its outstanding success resulted in it becoming an annual event.

Marriage and Death

In February of 1896, Bouguereau's mother died in her 92nd year. Elizabeth Gardner was from New Hampshire, but she married William in his home parish in La Rochelle for he preferred at 71 years of age, not to undertake the lengthy trip to the U.S.A. Then that year when courses at the Julian and Beaux-Arts academies were over, the "young couple" made their way to La Rochelle on a kind of honeymoon. For a while, Elizabeth Gardner-Bouguereau decided to put her own career as an artist on hold and dedicate her life to her husband. She was very devoted and was always at his side, acting as his secretary for the master's voluminous correspondence, papers, and speeches.

Portrait de Mademoiselle Elizabeth Gardner
Oil on canvas, 1879
18 x 15 inches (46 x 38.5 cms)
Collection of Fred and Sherry Ross

In 1899, his son Paul, a lawyer who had become a well-regarded member of the Paris bar and an officer in the military reserve, contracted tuberculosis. On medical advice, Paul left in February for Menton in the south of France along with his father and stepmother who stayed with him until mid-May. The master profited from his time in the South by being able to paint long hours, seemingly without respite. Paul later went to Pau to convalesce, not returning to Paris until 1900 where he was to soon die in the arms of his family. Thus Bouguereau was forced to suffer the ghastly tragedy of witnessing 4 of his 5 children dying before him, the heaviest of burdens that all his power, fame and fortune could do nothing to alleviate. By this time, Bouguereau was worn out by his duties relating to the 1900 World's Fair in Paris but still he did not shirk any of his responsibilities and his work helped keep his mind otherwise occupied. Accompanied by his wife, Bouguereau attended a few dinners and receptions but most invitations were declined because the couple was in mourning.

To the overburdened father, the loss of Paul was a decidedly severe blow physically as well as to his spirit. He began to age very quickly; and his days now seemed to weigh upon him as never before. Moreover, Bouguereau had combined his life of hard work also with that of a bon vivant who loved to eat and drink heartily. Worst of all he was a chain smoker. In spite of a robust constitution, he began to have several serious health crises after Paul's death. In 1902 there were cardiac problems and the first signs of arteriosclerosis.

But, there were also happy moments that comforted him. The paintings he chose to represent him at the World's Fair were highly acclaimed. In his family life, his grandson William had been accepted in the prestigious École Polytechnique which was a source of great pride.

In 1903, he was made a Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor. Shortly afterward, he was invited to Rome to participate in the centenary of the Villa Medici. Bouguereau and Elizabeth made the trip to Italy and, after the official celebrations were over, they spent a romantic week in Florence. In the initial years of the 20th century, glittering invitations to the celebrated master poured in from all over Europe but Elizabeth, with the agreement of her husband, declined them routinely for she could see a rapid deterioration in his health. She cared for him and indulged him, but it was increasingly a burden for him even to walk. By the end of 1903, it proved too difficult for him to hold a pencil or a paintbrush and he found himself nearly unable to work.

It was a minor incident-an aborted break-in attempt at his home-that struck the final, fatal blow to his health and his decline started to accelerate daily. Ensuring that all of his affairs were in order, the old man — husband, father, and grandfather — sensing that the end was near, left Paris in the middle of the night on Monday, the 31st day of July 1905 to return to his beloved La Rochelle. A few days later, on the 19th of August, the great Master, William Adolphe Bouguereau, passed away quietly, surrounded by those he loved. A solemn funeral procession and service were arranged by the city of La Rochelle on August 23. The next day in Paris, a burial ceremony took place attended by family, friends, colleagues, and students.

Bouguereau Today

One can suppose it best that he was not here to see the successful assault on traditional art that turned the art world upside down in the many decades that followed his death, and the temporary ruination of his reputation and life's work even so far as to write him out of most of the history texts about the period. His fate was to be much like that of Rembrandt, whose work was also ridiculed and banished from museums and official art circles for the hundred years following his death too. Rembrandt's reputation wasn't resuscitated until the 1790's due to the influence of the founder of the Royal Academy in London, Sir Joshua Reynolds . Even as recently as 1910, Reynolds paintings brought higher prices at auction than Rembrandt. Bouguereau's reappreciation can rather accurately be tracked from 1979 when his prices at auction quadrupled, and then was further catapulted by the 1984 retrospective that traveled from the Petite Palais in Paris, to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in Canada and finally to the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. It was in fact a financial contribution by our current chairman of the Art Renewal Center that made possible that exhibition. His values in the market place have literally exploded; from works selling for and average $500 to $1500 in the 1950's, to where in the last three years alone his auction records have been broken another 4 times. In 1998, The Hearts Awakening for $1,410,000 at Christie's New York. In 1999 L'Amour et Psyche, enfants sold for $1,760,000 also at Christie's to be surpassed the very next day at Sotheby's when Alma Perens owned by Sylvester Stalone sold for $2,650,00. That record only lasted one year until May of 2000, when Charite sold $3,520,000 back at Christie's. Over the last 20 years his paintings all over the world have been taken out of their crates, basements, storage rooms and attics, dusted off, many cleaned and expertly restored, and today over a hundred museums and institutions proudly have his works on permanent exhibit. Reproductions of paintings are selling by the millions in poster shops and gift stores world wide, and there is much evidence that they are even outselling the reproductions of paintings by the most famous of the modernists.

Since we consider him one of the most important artists in history, we will be regularly adding additional images by him to this site. You can read more about him in the ARC Philosophy which can be found on the top menu bar of this page or going to: The Great 20th Century Art Scam,

Bouguereau Paintings in American Museums

After three quarters of a century in obscurity, all of the museums in the world that owned Bouguereau paintings, finally in the early 1980's realized what treasures they had. Today, over 100 museums around the world have placed Bouguereau paintings on permanent exhibit in their most prestigious galleries (at least those which had not been foolish enough to sell off their Bouguereau paintings earlier in the century when his work was being ridiculed and degraded by modernist pedagogues).

Due to popular demand we have asked Damien Bartoli to create a list of Bouguerau paintings that can be readily seen at America's premiere art museums. It is not intended to be exhaustive, but it gives the tens of thousands of Bouguereau lovers who visit his galleries here on the Art Renewal Center, an easy way to plan itineraries and excursions to see the originals. There are scores of his paintings also in private collections, including 7 in the collection of our Chairman (Fred and Sherry Ross Collection).

Appleton Museum of Art, Florida University, Ocala, FL.
Arnot Art Museum, Elmira, état de NY.
Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
  • L'amour fraternel
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA.
Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, OH.
  • Enfant à la tasse de lait
Clark Art Institute Museum, Williamstown, Massachusetts
Cummer Art Gallery of Art, Jacksonville, Fl
Dahesh MoArt ; NYC, NY
Denver Art Museum, Denver.
Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit.
Frye Art Museum, Seatle, WA.
  • Gardeuse de moutons
Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, CA.
Frye Art Museum, Seattle, WA.
  • L'Amour s'envole
H. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.
Hillwood Museum, Washington, DC.
  • La Nuit
Horace C. Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle.
  • Petite fille assise au bord de l'eau
Indianapolis Museum, Indianapolis, Indiana.
Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska.
Indianapolis Museum, Indianapolis, Indiana.
Layton Art Collection, Milwaukee Art Museum.
Lyndhurst Collections, Tarrytown, NY.
  • Premières caresses
Memorial Art Center, University of Rochester, Ny
Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Ma.
Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Ma.
  • Bergère
Museum Jay Gould, Lyndhurst Castle, Tarrytown, NY.
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Tx.
Museum at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park, Glendale, Ca
Mobile Museum of Art, Mobile, Alabama.
  • Le glaïeul
Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, Amherst, Ma
Mabee — Gerrer Museum, Shawnee, Oklahoma.
New York Metropolitan Museum, NYC, NY.
NY Historical Society, NYC. USA
  • L'ange gardien
NY Historical Society, NYC.
Norton Simon Museum of Art, Pasadena, CA.
  • Portrait de Monsieur M.
Philadelphia Museum of Arts, Philadelphia.
Pioneer and Haggin Gallery, Stockton, Ca
San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego, CA.
San Antonio Museum of Art, San Antonio, Texas.
Saint Johnsbury Atheneum, Vermont.
  • Les mûres
Syracuse University Art Collection, Syracuse.
Rahr — West Museum, Manitowoc, Wisconsin.
Syracuse University Art Collection, Syracuse, NY.
The Arkansas Arts Center, Little Rock, Arkansas.
The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Ma.
The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Oh
The Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College, Winter Park, Fl.
    Tendres propos
The Dayton Art Institute, Dayton, Ohio.
  • Le chant du rossignol
The Detroit Institute of Art, Detroit.
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis.
  • La tentation
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO.
The New Orleans Museum of Arts, New Orleans, La
  • Première rêverie
The Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, Ok
The Saint Louis Art Museum, Saint Louis, Missouri.
  • La Paix
The Seattle Art Museum, Seattle.
The Snite Museum of Art, University of Notre Dame, Indiana.
  • La petite fille aux yeux bleus
The Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Ct
  • La liseuse
UCLS Hammer Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA
  • L'abri
University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor, MI.
Virginia Museum of Art, Richmond, VA.

Founder and Chairman of the Art Renewal Center, Ross is the leading authority on William Bouguereau and co author of the recently published Catalogue Raisonné William Bouguereau: His Life and Works.