French painter William Adolphe Bouguereau is one of Western history's greatest artistic talents. Best known for his realistic genre paintings and mythological themes, this artist is one of the most recognized personalities of the 19th century .
William Adolphe Bouguereau was born November 30, 1825, in La Rochelle, France, the son of wine merchants. In 1842, he began his early training at École Municipale de Dessin et de Peinture in Bordeaux. At twenty-one, his passion for art led him to Paris where he studied under François-Edouard Picot. During this time, he earned money from painting portraits and coloring lithographic labels for local merchants. His training with Picot prepared him to take the next step, and so he enrolled at École des Beaux-Arts.
Four years later, Bouguereau was awarded the coveted Prix de Rome which granted him the next four years of study at Villa Medici, where he was exposed to the Classical and Renaissance techniques. Upon his return to Paris in 1854, his work was exhibited at the Salon. Art dealers Durand-Ruel and Goupil helped him reach the British and American markets.
In 1856, William Adolphe Bouguereau married Marie-Nelly Monchablon who bore him two daughters and three sons. They lived in Montparnasse, Paris, which was a popular place for artists. All was in place until his world began to crumble when a series of deaths in the family changed his life dramatically. The couple’s infant daughter Jeanne-Léontine died in 1872, and their teenage son Georges died in 1875. Two years later, the death of his beloved Nelly was closely followed by that of their infant son William-Maurice. The grieving artist expressed his outrage and despair in ‘Pietà’ (1876). During the 1870’s, his focus changed, as reflected in his choice of subjects. Historical and genre scenes of the past were replaced by classical poses of nymphs and satyrs characterized by his own romanticized realism.
In 1879, he found a second chance at love with Elizabeth Jane Gardner (fellow artist and neighbor). Out of respect for his mother’s opposition to the marriage, the couple waited until her death in 1896 to tie the knot.
A perfectionist by nature, William Adolphe Bouguereau made it a point to research his subjects before attempting to paint them. He was also known to paint from early dawn until the end of the day. He spent some of his time teaching such greats as Matisse, who left Bouguereau’s studio when the two clashed on issues of perspective.
This artist is recognized for his contribution in the integration of women into official art courses at institutions such as Julian Academy and École des Beaux-Arts. His wife Elizabeth and Cecille Beaux were some of the women artists who benefited from the changes in the system at that time.
As Impressionism began to emerge, Bouguereau, as well as other artists who defended academic traditions related to painting, were accused of holding back the progression of French art. In his opposition to Modern Art, he used his influences to keep the Impressionist painters from exhibiting at the Salon.
Throughout his career, Bouguereau received many accolades, including a first-class Salon medal (1857), and the honor of being knighted in 1859. Other awards include the Legion of Honor (1876), and the induction as a life member (one of forty) into the Académie des Beaux-Arts of the Institut de France.
William Adolphe Bouguereau died of heart disease in 1905, five years after the death of his son Adolphe-Paul from tuberculosis at the age of thirty. Banished from many museums and art circles after his death, he faded out into history. However, since 1979, he has been rediscovered and is now considered an artistic genius.