French painter. From 1838 to 1841 he took drawing lessons from Louis Sage, a pupil of Ingres, while attending the collège at Pons. In 1841 the family moved to Bordeaux where in 1842 his father allowed him to attend the Ecole Municipale de Dessin et de Peinture part-time, under Jean-Paul Alaux. In 1844 he won the first prize for figure painting, which confirmed his desire to become a painter. As there were insufficient family funds to send him straight to Paris he painted portraits of the local gentry from 1845 to 1846 to earn money. In 1846 he enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris, in the studio of François-Edouard Picot. This was the beginning of the standard academic training of which he became so ardent a defender later in life. Such early works as Equality (1848; priv. col., see 1984–5 exh. cat., p. 141) reveal the technical proficiency he had attained even while still training. In 1850 he was awarded one of the two Premier Grand Prix de Rome for Zenobia Discovered by Shepherds on the Bank of the River Araxes (1850; Paris, Ecole N. Sup. B.-A.). In December 1850 he left for Rome where he remained at the Villa Medici until 1854, working under Victor Schnetz and Jean Alaux (1786–1864). During this period he made an extensive study of Giotto’s work at Assisi and Padua and was also impressed by the works of other Renaissance masters and by Classical art. On his return to France he exhibited the Triumph of the Martyr (1853; Lunéville, Mus. Lunéville; see fig. 1) at the Salon of 1854. It depicted St Cecilia’s body being carried to the catacombs, and its high finish, restrained colour and classical poses were to be constant features of his painting thereafter. All his works were executed in several stages involving an initial oil sketch followed by numerous pencil drawings taken from life. Though he generally restricted himself to classical, religious and genre subjects, he was commissioned by the state to paint Napoleon III Visiting the Flood Victims of Tarascon in 1856 (1856; Tarascon, Hôtel de Ville), so applying his style to a contemporary historical scene. In 1859 he provided some of the decorations for the chapel of St Louis at Ste Clothilde church, Paris (in situ), where he worked under the supervision of Picot. The austere style of the scenes from the life of St Louis reflect Bouguereau’s knowledge of early Italian Renaissance art |
Among Bouguereau’s Salon entries of the 1860s was Destitute Family (1865; Birmingham, Mus. & A.G.), exhibited in 1865, which conformed to a declining though still prevalent fashion for moving contemporary subjects. It depicts a mother surrounded by her children, seated by the Madeleine church in Paris. Though the mournful mother and wretched children were intended to play upon the emotions of the public, the classically inspired architectural backdrop and carefully arranged poses tend to idealize and ennoble the subject so as to avoid offence by too honest a form of realism. In 1867 he executed the ceiling decorations for the chapels of St Pierre-Paul and St Jean-Baptiste at St Augustin church in Paris (in situ), where he was required to follow the rigid instructions of the commissioning body. In 1869 he painted decorations and the ceiling of the Salle des Concerts at the Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux (in situ). He remained in the capital during the siege of Paris (1870–71) in the Franco-Prussian War and in 1875 he began teaching at the Académie Julian in Paris. The sober, even melancholy, nature of several works of the 1860s gave way to lighter, playful paintings in the 1870s. Most notable of these is Nymphs and Satyr (1873; Williamstown, MA, Clark A. Inst.; see fig. 2), which depicts nymphs playing around a satyr in a woodland setting. Employing an elegant, dynamic composition, the work was much praised by critics as well as being favoured by Bouguereau himself. A similar spirit pervades Donkey Ride (1878; Jacksonville, FL, Cummer Gal. A.), which was based upon the traditional festival that accompanies the harvest. Bouguereau was always eager to include children in his works and he here altered the figure playing Bacchus from the traditional young man to a small child. This prevalent use and idealization of children is often responsible for the sentimentality that mars many of his works.
In 1881 Bouguereau was commissioned to provide decorations for the Chapelle de la Vierge of the St Vincent-de-Paul church in Paris (in situ). He executed eight large paintings depicting traditional scenes from the life of Christ, the last of which was finished in 1889. In 1884 he completed the huge painting of the Youth of Bacchus (1884, 3.31´6.1 m; priv. col., see 1984–5 exh. cat., pp. 24–5) showing the young god amidst a wild, dancing crowd at the coming of summer. As it was highly priced by Bouguereau, the work remained in his studio until his death. Many of the figures in the painting were inspired by those in contemporary and antique sculpture, an influence that was noticeable in other works also. In 1888 he was appointed a professor at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He continued painting and exhibiting until his death and among his later canvases is the characteristic work Admiration (1897; San Antonio, TX, Mus. A.), which shows how little his style had changed throughout his life. In addition to his better-known figure works, Bouguereau was also admired for his portraits, one of the most striking being Aristide Boucicart (1875; Paris, Bon Marché Col.), a stern three-quarter-length portrait of the founder of the famous Bon Marché store in Paris.
Although his work was widely collected by the English and more especially by the Americans in his lifetime, Bouguereau’s reputation in France was more equivocal—indeed quite low—in his later years. While popular with the public and various critics, his work ignored the increasing demand for paintings of modern life which had been made by Charles Baudelaire and was to be fulfilled by the Impressionists. He remained a staunch supporter of the academic training system at a time when it was criticized for stifling originality and nurturing mediocrity. With the advent of modernism he was scorned as one of the most prominent representatives of everything the new movement opposed: high technical finish, narrative content, sentimentality and a reliance on tradition. This hostility was further heightened by the perceived association of academic painting with the bourgeois values that had resulted in world war. However, recent more objective assessments have reinstated Bouguereau as an important 19th-century painter.