Gustave Boulanger was among the most decorated French painters of the nineteenth century. He won the highly coveted Rome prize in 1849 with his Ulysse reconnu par sa nourrice, medals at the Salon in 1857, 1859 and 1863, as well as the Legion of Honor in 1865. In 1882, he was elected member of the Académie des Beaux-arts, the most prestigious honor awarded to a French artist.
However, information about Boulanger’s life is scarce. It is known that he was orphaned at age fourteen and adopted by his uncle A. M. Desbrosses, an official from Santo Domingo. He was the pupil of Jollivet and then of Paul Delaroche. He was closely allied with Jean-Léon Gérôme, who would become one of the most critically acclaimed artists of the era. With Gérôme, Henri Picou and Jean-Louis Hamon, Boulanger founded the Neo-grec movement, a style that favored the erudite representations of intimist or anecdotical scenes inspired by Ancient Greece. The term “Neo-grec” was coined by Théophile Gautier in 1847, upon his visit to the Salon and discovery of Gérôme’s famed painting The cock fight (Musée d’Orsay, Paris). As Greece won its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1829, and archaeological excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum intensified in Italy, the Neo-grecs proposed a renewed vision of Antiquity, as opposed to the traditional tragic subjects drawn from mythology of the neo-classicists like Jacques-Louis David.
Like Gérôme, Boulanger traveled to the Italian peninsula (as a Rome prize winner, he spent six years at the Villa Medicis) and Algeria to perfect his style and search for visual motifs. In fact, his experience in Northern Africa gave rise to another direction in his art and Boulanger eventually became classified as an Orientalist alongside his friend Jean-Léon Gérôme.
Until his last day, Boulanger remained a conservative artist and never embraced the new trends in art. “Boulanger worshiped Antiquity,” Firmin Javel wrote in the preface of Boulanger’s posthumous studio sale in 1889. As a result, Boulanger despised modern art and more particularly the realists, naturalists and impressionists, which he considered idle and impertinent. Boulanger’s sarcastic diatribe also published in the catalogue of his studio sale sheds light on the disagreement – and bafflement-- that opposed the academic painters to the avant-garde during the second half of the century: “[in paintings] we no longer see helmeted heads, but heads covered with simple hats.” [on ne fait plus de têtes à casques, mais des têtes à casquettes] (Catalogue des tableaux, études, sanguines, aquarelles et dessins, œuvres de Gustave Boulanger, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 1889, p. 10)