William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825 - 1905)


''Whoever gets a picture by Bouguereau gets the full worth of his money, in finished painting, first-rate drawing and a subject and treatment that no well-bred person can fault.'' (Anonymous American critic of the 1870s cited by Michael Kimmelman, New York Times, 30 January 1998)


William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) devoted his life to the Beautiful, from his childhood in Western France, his admittance to the École des beaux-arts in Paris in 1848 to his appointment at the Academy in 1876. He is the quintessential Academic painter whose historical, mythological, religious and genre scenes received honors, praise, and top prices during his lifetime. “One has to seek Beauty and Truth,'' he told an interviewer in 1895. ''There's only one kind of painting. It's the painting that presents the eye with perfection, the kind of beautiful and impeccable enamel you find in Veronese and Titian.''


By winning the Prix de Rome in 1850, Bouguereau was propelled to a career most artists only dream of achieving:  success, respect, wealth and fame. In the 1870s, at the height of his career, his scenes of idyllic families and innocent peasant girls were the most exclusive and expensive on the market, only affordable to the very wealthy.  Perhaps a victim of his own success, some critics often spoke of his practicing stark commercialism, especially for the smaller and more affordable versions of his Salon paintings - called “réductions” and “répétitions” that he executed to meet an insatiable demand. A prolific artist with an output of 800 works, his dealers, Paul Durand-Ruel, the champion of the Impressionists, Goupil & cie and then Arther Tooth & Sons, strove to establish and maintain Bouguereau’s international presence through exhibitions and the sale of millions of prints made after his paintings.


As a dedicated professor at the Académie Julian and École des beaux-arts for twenty years, Bouguereau influenced a whole generation of artists, such as the most fervent of all and his future wife, Elizabeth Jane Gardner (1837-1922), an American painter who settled in Paris in 1865. Although conservative and resistant to anything avant-garde– Bouguereau disparaged the drawing ability of Henri Matisse (1869-1954), his student for a few months – he was very instrumental in the teaching and mentoring of female students at the Académie Julian.  Not a small feat considering that the Paris art establishment at the time was a bastion of male superiority.  It was only in 1897 that women were admitted to the École des beaux-arts as students and only in 1902 were they allowed to compete for the Prix de Rome.


Today, Bouguereau’s work can be found in the most prestigious museum collections in the world, including The Getty Museum (A Young Girl defending herself against Eros, about 1880), The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Breton Brother and Sister, 1871), The Art Institute of Chicago (The Bathers, 1884). The Musée d’Orsay in Paris owns no less than fourteen paintings.