William-Adolphe Bouguereau (November 30, 1825—August 19, 1905) was a stout classicist and academic French painter whose mature work stood in full contrast to the emerging avant-garde.
Bouguereau came from a merchant family on the west coast of France. He was sent to a Catholic school with the view of becoming a priest. The school, which he eventually left prematurely, taught him to draw and paint. He then worked as a shop assistant prior to his move to Paris at the age of 20. His work at the shop involved him coloring lithographs and making portraits on the side.
Bouguereau attended the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts and at the same time became the pupil of François-Édouard Picot, the academic master from whom he would inherit the academic skill and orientation.
William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s Roman Works
His Roman period, from 1851 to 1854, represented the customary learning experience that academic artists sought before the capital’s wealth of classical and Renaissance artifacts.
It was enabled by his third-attempt victory of the Prix de Rome scholarship. In Central Italy, Bouguereau studied art and nature. This is the moment of his contact with Raphael in particular, the artist he came to admire above all other masters.
William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s maturity as an artist was also his apogee as a popular painter. As well as exhibiting regularly at the Paris Salon, his work was in high demand as the decoration of villas and as portraiture. He thus left his mark in La Rochelle, his native town, as well as Paris. In 1856 he enjoyed a state commission to paint Emperor Napoleon III in the act of visiting the victims of a flood.
Rising profile in France
It would be the prelude to his Légion d’honneur of 1859. In the 1860s Bouguereau was regarded as the premier French artist and had international renown, with several rich patrons from Britain and America. Their great interest in his work centered upon his portrayals of beautiful contemporary human subjects in a classicist style.
The official Academy endorsed William-Adolphe Bouguereau with a series of honors. While his acquaintance with the imperial family of France endured, he also befriended King William III of the Netherlands.
William-Adolphe Bouguereau became a highly regarded art teacher at the private Académie Julian, where he would meet, as a pupil, his later lover, and wife, the American Elizabeth Jane Gardner. In the same capacity, he also taught Henri Matisse, one of the new generation of vanguardist painters who would thereafter react against Bouguereau and the academic manner that he embodied.
Over the course of an exceptionally productive career, William-Adolphe Bouguereau is estimated to have painted at least 822 pieces, many of which have been lost. At his death, at the age of 79, he was mourned across France.
Innocence and nostalgia
William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s notable focus on feminine subjects produced a series of depictions of innocence which likely contributed to the late-19th-century Western perception of both innocence and femininity. Bouguereau’s young girls are portrayed as unprepossessing children with, most commonly, a look of polite or shy curiosity. They are regularly depicted barefoot and outdoors, and not unseldom in the company of siblings, thus naturally with an air of bashful informality.
In depicting The Young Shepherdess (1885) and Sewing (1898) — and indeed all other instances of girls or young women from the lower classes in places of their daily employment — Bouguereau appears also as a cultivator of a sense of nostalgia for the pastoral lifestyle.
Judging by the continuous interest of clients for this strand of sentimentalism, Bouguereau had clearly tapped into an emotional need of people of his age and class.
Academicism, Classicism, Genre
The academic approach to art which Bouguereau represented — most clearly in the eyes of the emerging generations of artists in the 1870s and 80s — was so-called, firstly, because it was imparted in the prestigious academies of art. However, already the 18th century had seen ‘academic’ discussed in opposition to ‘romantic’.
The academic regard for rigorous compositions based on established conceptions of order and form had been defied by the Romantics and the Symbolists to the extent that they had sought to express the subjective impression. It is not until the avant-garde, however, that ideas of rationality in the shape, order, and color of objects are self-consciously rejected.
Bouguereau’s academicism meant that his paintings were preceded by detailed studies in sketch form. The application of paint is followed, in the end, by a smoothing final layer intended to dissolve every trace of individual strokes (the so-called licked finish). His choice of subjects was — especially in his youth — often historical, literary, or mythological. When he depicted contemporary human subjects, he sought a version of the perfection he had gleaned from the classics. His many portrayals of female figures, which went on to become his dominant artistic interest, are accomplished with a studied shapeliness which even gives the impression that their bodies have been beautified, idealized.
Such is the case with the Two Sisters of 1901, or Daisies of 1894. These renditions of exasperated childish innocence may captivate the viewer with their glow (white shirts, roseate complexions, and golden hair).
They were extremely popular with moneyed, European and American, purchasers.
Bouguereau’s classicism consists of his traditionalist compositions which, whether made up of contemporary or mythological subjects, invariably betoken the classical precedents from which they derive.
Bouguereau painted many expressly mythological pieces, such as Nymphs and Satyr of 1873, and a selection of religious iconographies, such as The Holy Family of 1863. But the stylistic continuity with his worldly subjects is blatant. Thus we admire the Renaissance in the contemporary Bather (1864), which enjoyed great pecuniary success.
Bouguereau’s genre paintings simply bring his classicist aspirations into the everyday scenes of life around him. This pursuit is manifest in all of his portrayals of young women and girls. Bouguereau’s bathers are idealized contemporaries whose ordinary gestures (such as the taking off of the sock by the girl in Before The Bath) are given the poise of models, or indeed nymphs.
The suave perfection of Bouguereau’s female subjects was noted and appreciated by the patrons who acquired his art. An erotic interest in them was undeniable. Bouguereau may be said to have, in that respect, displayed the form of late-19th-century upper-class erotic conceptualization.