Born in 1852 into comfortable circumstances, Dagnan-Bouveret was determined to become an artist early in life. Ambitious and talented, he followed the ideal route to success. His drawing abilities earned him admittance to the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts at age 17. While at the École, he eventually entered the atelier of Alexandre Cabanel and then, in 1870 that of Jean-Léon Gérôme. He competed several times for the Prix de Rome, the culminating contest of any aspiring artist in France in the 19th century and placed second in 1876.
Among the numerous students of the renowned academician Gérôme, Dagnan-Bouveret was the most promising and the two remained close. Even after he set off on his own, Dagnan-Bouveret always looked to Gérôme for guidance and inspiration. Such influence is reflected in his most successful and creative years of his career (from 1878 to 1900), when he worked in a variety of styles, executing paintings that encompassed intimate portraits, still lifes, landscapes, monumental genre scenes and religious compositions. Dagnan-Bouveret also integrated new technology and modern methods, such as photography and plein-air painting into the traditionally rigid techniques instilled at the École. Photography in particular was crucial in his artistic process and served to create suitable compositions as well as an image repository for future works. This range of talent and evidence of his openness to new trends emerged from his contributions to the Salon in the 1870s, such as in Wedding at the Photographer’s (Musée des beaux-arts de Lyon).
Throughout his career, Dagnan-Bouveret also searched for alternative approaches to humanize the rather cold and reality-deprived academic paintings and adopted a naturalist style. He eventually expanded this technique with the inclusion of an intimate symbolism based on color harmonies and mood responses. The results can be seen, for example, in his Madonna of the Rose (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and In the Forest (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nancy). Under the influence of his wife, Anne-Marie Walter, whom he married in 1879, he became a devout Christian. His piety is revealed in a series of almost photorealistic paintings devoted to religious customs of peasants in Brittany. His religiosity peaked at the end of the century with his sentimental picture of Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus (Carnegie Museum of Art), which was purchased by the American collector Henry Clay Frick.
For his aesthetic merit and highly versatile œuvre, Dagnan-Bouveret was internationally celebrated and sought after during his lifetime. He was also officially honored and named Officer of the Legion of Honor in 1891 and member of the Institut de France in 1900. In 2002, the Dahesh Museum in New York devoted an entire show to Dagnan-Bouveret. Not only did this exhibition successfully resurrected his talent, it also shed light on his role in the early development of Modern art.