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William Bouguereau

La frileuse
La couturièere(Sewing)
La leçon difficile
Study head of a young girl
Dante et Virgile aux enfers
The thirst
Leonie Bouguereau

William Bouguereau was born on November 30th, 1825 in La Rochelle, in a family of wine and olive oil shopkeepers.

He seemed at first intended to take over the family business. Then an uncle made him discover classic painting, the mythology and the Bible symbolism.

Very early in life, William shows great talent. At a time when he was drawing labels for jars of jam and preserves, his father allows him to join the École des Beaux-Arts in Bordeaux, where he will take away a first prize in anatomy drawing.

In 1846, he registers at the Paris École des Beaux-Arts. In 1850, he gets the very prestigious First Prize of Rome, a very coveted scholarship that permits him to pursue his training in Italy.

It is around this time that Bouguereau meets the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel who will later become the impressionist's champion but who at the time facilitates the purchase of academic paintings exposed at the Salon.

In 1876, Bouguereau obtains the medal of honour at the Salon. Then he becomes a member of the Academy of Arts.

Later he will become a member of the jury of the Salon.

In 1885, Bouguereau is elected president of the Taylor Foundation, the function that he will occupy till the end of his life.

He also worked on big projects of decoration, in particular for Jean-François Bartholoni's hotel and also the ceiling of the Theatre of Bordeaux.

Bouguereau is a harsh defender of an academic and traditional art. His paintings are saturated with realism and by mythology.

His themes are those already dealt with during the First Renaissance and the Neo-Classicist periods.

Bouguereau abundantly treated allegorical subjects, numerous idyllic, rural and bucolic scenes, a good many of his paintings also illustrate the themes of the family links and the childhood. Bouguereau's shepherdesses are clean and pink; they are chaste and modest girls, his goddesses are modestly suggestive.

Illustrating Christian as well as heathen mythologies, Bouguereau gives life to legions of nymphs, naiads, Madonna's or farmer girls; all subjects very appreciated by the amateurs of the time.

For Bouguereau, the drawing is essential. The colour stays wisely locked into its outlines, applied according to the technique of the glacis, the touch is invisible. This is all the opposite of the modern painting which at the time is trying to have access to the art market.

His theme of preference, the one that regularly returns in all his paintings, is the woman. Bouguereau's name is associated with a genre of academic, sensual nude, which will be worth a tremendous success to him.

His mythological compositions, which serve as a pretext to show the feminine nude body, his representations of an ideal world in an almost photographic style seduce the French amateur. Bouguereau is one of the favourite artists of the right-thinking bourgeoisie of the Second Empire, the III Republic; a new bourgeois clientele of middle class, infatuated with academic painting.

Bouguereau's work contains more than 800 paintings among which many are today in America. The reason for this exile is that if Bouguereau was popular in Europe, he also had a great deal of success with the buyers across the Atlantic. The American millionaires considered Bouguereau the most important French artist of the moment. They bought his paintings at a high price.

Bouguereau was so popular with the Americans that in 1878, during the first retrospective of his work for the international exhibition of Paris, the State could not gather more than 12 paintings. The rest of his production was in the United States.

To satisfy the ever increasing public, Bouguereau signed a contract with the Goupil publishing house for the marketing of reproductions in engraving of his works.

But the public appreciation of Bouguereau does not make unanimity. In full glory, he sees himself slandered, mistreated by the impressionistic Avant-Garde. Bouguereau is a member of the Salon jury. In this quality, he constantly closes access to the Salon for the Impressionist. The latter take revenge by inventing the term «Bouguereauté» to indicate in a derogatory way the extremely licked technique of the painter.

Later, when this Avant-Garde obtains the favour of the public, when the market is finally open to the appreciation of modern Art, the academism of Bouguereau will be rejected. The painter will be discredited in Europe and everywhere.  Until the end of the XXthcentury, in a context where the influence of modernism grows to become the official Art, Bouguereau will be severely criticized, even put in the index by a modernist thought favourable to a more cutting edge art.

For decades, the «Académistes» will know a significant devaluation of their painting on the market and in art history. Their name will even disappear from non-specialized encyclopaedia and art educations or were simply mentioned as example not to be followed.

In the sixties, Salvador Dali will contribute to the rediscovery of Bouguereau by showing admiration for his paintings. Since the retrospective exhibition of his work, organized in the Petit Palais, in Paris, in 1984, the reputation of Bouguereau gradually improved, on a background of controversy between partisans and opponents of the academic style.

For many people, Bouguereau represents an impeccable way of representing. He represents the good taste and the refinement and a respect for traditions. For others, he was a competent but backward technician, stuck in the bygone days.

The academic painting, the great realism, are for Bouguereau a pretext to show off an amazing draftsman talent, capable of seizing all the attitudes of the human body while creating within the erotic register without overturning into the saucy expression of the porno.

See all of Bouguereau's work at

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Last update: April 11  2018

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