Bouguereau, William Adolphe

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Enfant sur un griffon by William-Adolphe Bouguereau
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Enfant sur un monstre marin by William-Adolphe Bouguereau
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During the mid-19th century, the French Academy reigned supreme as the most prestigious school in all of Europe. Since its inception in 1648, it had built its reputation on admitting only the most promising up-and-coming artists. Only 100 students were admitted each year, and competition was fierce. Such was the situation in 1846, when one pioneering young artist applied to the school. He barely made the cut — he was selected 99 out of 100. So began the career of William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905), one of the most decorated and celebrated Academic artists in history.


The Academic style of painting is named for the artistic ideals espoused by the French Academy, where young artists devoted hours to the study of draftsmanship, form, color and technique. While some artists – such as the Realist Gustave Courbet and the Impressionist Claude Monet – used these teachings as building blocks for their own distinctive style, others became masters of the Academic genre. The undisputed master of the Academic tradition was Bouguereau, and his work embodies the remarkable technical expertise and precision of the ever-popular genre.


Bouguereau was born to a family of wine and olive oil merchants just outside of Bordeaux in 1825. While his father hoped he would take over the family business, his uncle, Eugène, recognized the young artist’s talent at an early age. Eugène thus began to invite Bouguereau to stay with him for months at a time, during which they would study Latin, read the classics and sketch. It was thanks to these trips in his youth that Bouguereau fell in love with classical narratives, a subject matter that would make him famous in the years to come.


Eugène eventually convinced Bouguereau’s father to send him to art school in Bordeaux and, only a few years later, to the Academy in Paris. Thus, Bouguereau arrived in Paris in 1846 and found a place in the studio of François Édouard Picot, and soon thereafter embarked on his Academic study. A scholarship to Italy only deepened his love for antiquity, and all but ensured his trajectory as a painter of the Neoclassical tradition.


Once he returned to Paris, Bouguereau overflowed with artistic inspiration. Monumental compositions of classical themes dominated his output, and each was rendered in his distinctive flawless brushstrokes. He began to gain popularity at the Paris Salons of the early 1850s. By the late 1850s, Bouguereau was counted among the most popular artists working in the Academic tradition, and commissions from across Europe poured into his studio.


Unpretentious and modest, Bouguereau became one of the most decorated artists of the 19th century. He received medals from the Salons and Universal Expositions, successive ranks, including Grand Master, of the prestigious Legion of Honor, and was the leading member of the Institute of France and President of the Society of Painters, Sculptors and Engravers. His art never deviated from the basic principles of Academic training, and he so dominated the Salons of the Third Republic that the official Salon became known unofficially as Le Salon Bouguereau.


In addition to the accolades of the art world, Bouguereau received many prestigious commissions to decorate public buildings including the Grand Théâtre, Bordeaux and the chapels of Sainte Clothilde, Saint Vincent de Paul and Saint Augustin, Paris. He also painted decorations for private mansions of the property entrepreneurs in Paris and La Rochelle. Bouguereau’s paintings were immensely popular in the United States, and his works can be found in a number of public and private collections across the country.


Bouguereau’s oeuvre represent the height of the 19th-century Academic tradition. Yet, near the end of his life, the popularity of the genre began to wane. At the turn of the century, the Impressionists and artistic avant-garde became the focus of popular attention, leaving little room for the Academic legacy.


As the 20th century progressed, however, attention returned to Academic painting, and Bouguereau in particular. In 1932, a New York art gallery put on a small show of Bouguereau’s paintings. Entitled “Back to Bouguereau,” the exhibition reminded American audiences of the heights of Bouguereau’s talent. By the 1970s, market prices for Bouguereau’s work were on a steady rise, and today, his works are among the most coveted in French art history.