William-Adolphe Bouguereau, the pinnacle of the realistic depiction of human form

(Last Updated On January 24, 2020)
William-Adolphe Bouguereau - Sur le rocher

William-Adolphe Bouguereau – Sur le rocher (1872)

For a few years I have been astonished to find no article in Pigtails in Paint devoted to the paintings by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905), since most of them represent women and girls. The closest to it is the humorous piece “Bouguereau Remastered” by Pip, about contemporary works incorporating parts of paintings by Bouguereau in a totally different setting, usually with some satirical bent.

Although he is today not widely known by the large public, and he has been reviled by the modern art establishment throughout the 20th century, in his lifetime Bouguereau was considered as one of the greatest painters in the world. In his own country, France, he received many awards and official distinctions, and he presided over several academies and art salons; in the USA many millionaires eagerly bought his works.

He belongs to the tradition of classical academic art, later derisively called in France “art pompier,” which translates as “fireman art.” This term probably comes from the shiny metallic helmets with horse-hair tails worn by French firemen in the 19th century, which are similar to those worn by heroes of Graeco-Roman mythology and history in such paintings. It also evokes the adjectives “Pompeian” or “pompous.” It suggests unimaginative and conventional academic art showing repeatedly stereotyped allegorical, mythological or historical scenes, or glorifying the powerful (in particular the emperor Napoleon), following the tradition of the two great French classicist painters Jacques-Louis David and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau - Les pommes

William-Adolphe Bouguereau – Les pommes (1897)

Although Bouguereau’s early works followed academic conventions, he progressively developed his own lively personal style, with subjects looking like real persons, not a painting on a canvas. Look at the pictures in this article, the girls in them seem to be looking at you. In my view, his best works were made between 1870 and 1900, and indeed the eight paintings by him that I selected belong to that period.

Despite his reputation as one of the best painters ever, he was never satisfied with his work. He relentlessly pursued perfection and strove to endlessly correct and perfect his techniques and methods. He worked six days a week from six o’clock until nightfall, never stopping, even in old age. Although each painting took weeks to be completed, 828 paintings by him have been identified. For a detailed discussion of his techniques, see the article “Bouguereau at Work” by Mark Walker.

Bouguereau truly loved women, and many of his works depict women and girls, sometimes in a very sensuous manner, as in Nymphes et Satire, Naissance de Venus, La Vague, and La Perle. He also championed the integration of women in ateliers and official art courses, and helped open academies and salons to women painters.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau - Enfant au bain

William-Adolphe Bouguereau – Enfant au bain (1886)

William Bouguereau was born on November 30, 1825, in La Rochelle, a coastal town in the department of Charente Maritime, southwest of France. At the age of 12, he went to stay with his uncle Eugène Bouguereau, a priest who had just been given a church in the parish of Mortagne sur Gironde. As a surrogate father and mentor, Eugène encouraged William’s interest in classical culture. In 1839, Eugène decided to send his nephew to study the classics at the college of Pons, where William received drawing lessons from Louis Sage, a young professor who had been a pupil of Ingres and was a committed classicist. He became convinced that persistent hard work was necessary in order to gain mastery over technical problems.

In 1841, the Bouguereau family moved to Bordeaux. William’s father intended to end his studies, so that he would train for bookkeeping for the family business. But with the support of his mother and friends, William could convince his father to let him enroll at the Bordeaux municipal art school. He gained admission directly into the senior class taught by Jean-Paul Alaux, attending morning classes, then working. Nevertheless, he soon won the 1844 prize for “Best Historical Painting,” although he was competing against older students who were enrolled full-time. Then William obtained his father’s permission to go to Paris to enter the École des Beaux-Arts. To pay his costs, he spent three months in the region painting oil portraits of the notable personalities of Saintonge.

With a letter of recommendation from Alaux to the painter François-Édouard Picot, he joined the latter’s studio, where he worked like a slave. In April 1846, Bouguereau was barely admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts, ranking 99th out of the 100 admitted. In 1848 he was allowed to make submissions in the three preliminary stages of the competition for the famous “Grand Prix de Rome.” Unable to decide between the two best candidates, the members of the Académie awarded two second Grands Prix, one to Bouguereau and the other to Gustave Boulanger. The following year he again entered the competition, but his painting did not even get a mention while Boulanger received the first Grand Prix. Finally, in 1850, Bouguereau competed for the third time and won the Premier Grand Prix.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau - Au pied de la falaise

William-Adolphe Bouguereau – Au pied de la falaise (1886)

The prize allowed the winner to spend an all-expenses paid year to study in the Villa Medici in Rome, administered by the painter Jean Alaux. There Bouguereau met several older artists, and he was able to study the Italian old masters and also Greek, Etruscan, and Roman antiquities. For his work assignments, he painted his first masterpieces.

He returned afterwards to Bordeaux, where he painted first a few family portraits, then left for La Rochelle to decorate the villa of wealthy relatives. At the end of 1854, he settled down in Paris, decorating rooms. The Salon of 1857 bestowed the Medal of Honour on Bouguereau. The Emperor Napoleon III then commissioned him to paint his portrait as well as one of the Empress. From that point on, Bouguereau became a young celebrity. In 1857, he began teaching students of his own.

In 1862, he totally altered his painting technique as he laboured relentlessly, looking for new approaches in the use of color. From the late 1860s forward his greatest body of work commenced, along with the style and subjects for which he is well known.

In 1872, Bouguereau secured a part-time teaching post at the Academy Julian, and in 1875, he became part of the permanent staff of that institution. In 1876, after twelve prior attempts, he was elected to the highest titular rank of the Institute’s Académie des Beaux-Arts. In 1881, the Société des Artistes Français was founded in order to manage the annual arts Salon; Bouguereau was elected the first president of the Painting section.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau - La pêche aux grenouilles

William-Adolphe Bouguereau – La pêche aux grenouilles (1882)

In 1882, he bought a house in La Rochelle, where he spent his summers. In 1886, he attended a reception at the college in Pons as president of the alumni association; in the course of the festivities, he offered a self-portrait to his first professor Louis Sage and reminded him of the debt of gratitude he owed him.

Following a dispute with the painter Meissonier and his supporters over a detail in regulations, Bouguereau resigned as president of the Société des Artistes Français, but there was a split, and the breakaway Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts was founded, with its own Salon held at the Champ de Mars.

Bouguereau married twice. In 1856, William began living with one of his models, Nelly Monchablon, aged 19. Their liaison remained first secret, and the couple married on May 24, 1866. They had five children, but four of them died in William Bouguereau’s lifetime; only his eldest daughter Henriette outlived him. Nelly herself died on April 3, 1877. The grief from the death of his children inspired some of his his most beautiful religious works, such as Pieta and Vierge Consolatrice.

Among his pupils was Elizabeth Jane Gardner, an American expatriate. After the death of Nelly, he wanted to marry her, but his mother made him swear he would not remarry within her lifetime. They were secretly engaged in May 1879. Finally, after his mother’s death, he and Elizabeth married in Paris in June 1896. She worked as his private secretary, and as a painter herself, she had always strove to emulate William’s style.

Elizabeth Jane Gardner Bouguereau - Dans le jardin

Elizabeth Jane Gardner Bouguereau – Dans le jardin (1878)

By 1900, the loss of a fourth child, his 32-year-old son Paul, dealt a severe blow to his mind and body. Exhausted by years of hard work, heavy smoking, and excessive eating and drinking, he began to age very quickly. One can indeed see a decline in the quality of his paintings from that year.

In 1903, he was made a Grand Officer de la Légion d’Honneur, the highest French official distinction. He was invited to Rome to participate in the centenary of the Villa Medici, he made the trip with Elizabeth. By the end of that year, it proved too difficult for him to hold a pencil or a paintbrush and he found himself nearly unable to work. Sensing that the end was near, he left Paris in the middle of the night on July the 31st, 1905, to return to his beloved La Rochelle, where he died on August 19. He is buried with Nelly and his children at the family vault at Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris.

Although Bouguereau knew glory in his lifetime, he also had his adversaries in the world of art, mainly in the new schools of “modern art,” starting with impressionism. Edgar Degas invented the verb “bouguereauter” to designate the academic technique of licked finish to smooth the surface of a painting and make the brushstrokes invisible, a characteristic feature of Bouguereau’s painting. Indeed, the impressionists preferred a rougher result, with visible brushstrokes. The writer Joris-Karl Huysmans compared his painting to the “soft flesh of an octopus.” Paul Gauguin loathed Bouguereau and mocked him in his writings. His opponents included also one of his former pupils; according to the biography of William Bouguereau by Damien Bartoli with Fred Ross:

Some students, however, caused problems. The most famous of these was Matisse, who quickly dropped out of Bouguereau’s studio. From the start, the benevolent master tried to encourage Matisse, but soon threw up his hands in exasperation, noting the young man’s weaknesses, “You badly need to learn perspective,” he said to him, “But first, you need to know how to hold a pencil. You will never know how to draw.”

William-Adolphe Bouguereau - Jeune fille allant à la fontaine

William-Adolphe Bouguereau – Jeune fille allant à la fontaine (1885)

After World War I and the rise of expressionism, Dadaism, cubism, then non-figurative painting or “abstract expressionism,” Bouguereau became reviled by art critics. He was accused of “mawkishness” and “lubricity,” of painting to satisfy the tastes of rich buyers, etc. He progressively got out of art manuals, except as a counter-example of what should not be done. His works were less and less exhibited, and he became largely unknown by the public.

According to Fred Ross, the businessman and art collector who founded the Art Renewal Center, Bouguereau’s works were selling for an average of $500 to $1500 in 1960. He himself owns 13 Bouguereau works, and he said that when he bought his first one in 1977 (for about $4,000), they could be purchased for $10,000. This rejection by the art market extended to much of 19th century classical painting. According to Dalya Alberge, in 1965 a painting by John William Waterhouse was sold by the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro to a private collector for £200 (about $300).

Since the 1980’s there has been a revival of interest in Bouguereau, exhibitions were organised, and in parallel, the prices of his works rose steadily. The highest known to date is that of La Charité, sold $3,520,000 at Christie’s in May 2000. This is nevertheless much lower than the prices of the 89 most expensive paintings (all above $60,000,000). This list clearly excludes classical painting, since in chronological order after a Rembrandt of 1634, the next one is by the American realist painter Thomas Eakins, dated 1875. Afterwards there are only works from the various schools of “modern art,” starting with impressionists and ending with non-figurative paintings and pop art; moreover, these make the overwhelming majority of the list.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau - Petite fille au bouquet

William-Adolphe Bouguereau – Petite fille au bouquet (1896)

One of the earliest 20th century defenders of Bouguereau was the Spanish painter Salvador Dali. In his 1956 pamphlet Les cocus du vieil art moderne (“The cuckolds of the old modern art”) published by Grasset & Fasquelles, the first chapter counter-poses modern ugliness, headed by Picasso, to Bouguereau.

Beside Stalinists, he identifies two types of “cuckolds” in art: the Dadaist who has wanted to assassinate painting, and the dithyrambic modern art critics, self-cocufying through the former, married to the old modern painting and forever cheated by it. Hating classicism, these critics became attracted by ugliness and found a new beauty in it. So, to keep attuned with critics, painters strove to make ugly works in order to be modern. Now “Picasso, who fears everything, was making ugly things for fear of Bouguereau.” An editor’s footnote relates that one day Picasso showed to a friend his latest work, a collage of newspaper pieces, and told his voiceless friend “This is maybe not sublime, but, anyway, it is no Bouguereau.” Dali adds that contrarily to others, Picasso made ugly things on purpose, cuckolding thus those dithyrambic critics.

But, as Picasso is an anarchist, after having half stabbed Bouguereau, he would give the puntilla, and dispatch modern art with one blow, by making uglier himself alone in a single day than all others gathered in several years.

Pablo Picasso - William Adolphe Bouguereau

Pablo Picasso – William Adolphe Bouguereau

(The puntilla is a knife with a short and wide blade, used to dispatch the bull in the corrida.) Indeed, Dali asserts that contrarily to many others, Picasso, like Raphael, knows where real beauty is. I also quote now from a telegram he sent to Picasso:

Thanks Pablo! Your latest ignominious paintings have killed modern art. Without you, with the taste and restraint that are the very virtues of French caution, we would have had ever uglier painting, for at least a hundred years, until one reached your sublime adfesios esperpentos. You, with all the violence of your Iberian anarchism, in a few weeks you reached the limits and last consequences of abomination.

(The expression adfesios esperpentos designates ugly and ridiculous characters, like scarecrows.) Finally, on a side panel, Dali makes the following prediction:

Within ten years, one will say that, as a painter, Picasso was not so good as that, and Bouguereau was not so bad as that.

Gamma-Keystone - Salvador Dali helping to load in a truck a copy of the painting Nymphs And Satyr by Bouguereau

Gamma-Keystone – Salvador Dali helping to load in a truck a copy of the painting Nymphs And Satyr by Bouguereau

I am usually not very fond of pronouncements by Dali, as they usually consist of a mixture of narcissism and purposeful extravagance, but here his words resonate with me. I don’t like any painting by Picasso, except his early realistic works, and to me, the so-called “abstract expressionism” of Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, or Barnett Newman, as well as a large part of the so-called “contemporary art” represents a repugnant antithesis to art.

It has been argued that “abstract art” is neither abstract nor art. The word “abstraction” refers first to extracting key features and relations from a concrete situation, discarding others. If also means abstract concepts that can represent many different concrete instances, as in mathematics. But “abstract expressionism” does not represent any idea or reality, even in a symbolic form, it is just meaningless. Jackson Pollock creates his paintings by just randomly dribbling, spraying and splashing paint on a canvas.

Moreover, the word “art” usually implies skill and craftsmanship. But no skills are necessary here. The post “The Blind Art Collector” by Ron presents a 4-year-old girl named Marla Olmstead who spontaneously paints in the “abstract expressionist” style. It has also a link to a 2014 YouTube video devoted to Aelita Andre, a girl who at age 5, without any formal training, painted in the manner of Jackson Pollock, her works selling for thousands of dollars; in it, she called her style “abstract,” and she made a live painting performance in front of an audience of 20,000. She has her own official YouTube channel and website, in which a former director of an academy is quoted saying “Aelita Andre is Modern Art.”

To me, this does not represent real child prodigies—although these girls have a gift—but the infantilisation of art. No child, even with intensive training, ever painted like Rembrandt at age 5. In fact, such an art does not even require a human being to be created, indeed great apes have painted in the “abstract expressionist” style: the chimpanzee Congo, and orangutans in several zoos, in particular the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo and the New Mexico BioPark Society, where several other animal species, in particular gorillas, created “abstract” art. Primate art is sold at charities in order to raise funds for wildlife conservation projects.

Non-figurative painting has inspired several hoaxes. The most famous one is the 1910 painting Et le soleil s’endormit sur l’Adriatique (“And the sun fell asleep over the Adriatic sea”) attributed to an unknown artist named Joachim-Raphaël Boronali. In fact, it had been made by attaching a paintbrush to the tail of an ass named Lolo, and Boronali is an anagram of Aliboron, the ass in a poem by Jean de La Fontaine. In February 1964, four paintings by a previously unknown avant-garde French artist named Pierre Brassau were exhibited at an art show in Göteborg, Sweden. Many critics praised them, but they were in fact the works of a chimpanzee named Peter from Sweden’s Boras zoo.

It is time to forget caricatures of art and to return to the two ideals revered by Bouguereau: truth and beauty. And as his life shows, achieving them requires discipline and hard work.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau - Une petite fille

William-Adolphe Bouguereau – Une petite fille (1886)

Note on the sources: I downloaded from the website of the Art Renewal Center the painting by Elizabeth Gardner and the first two by William Bouguereau. Saving images there at their original size (1000 pixels in the highest dimension) requires careful use of Firefox tools. High-definition images are available to subscribers. Generally, their images have a soft aspect, which reminds of the technique of glazing. All other Bouguereau images used here come from The Athenaeum. In that site, they are generally larger, with bright colours and a vivid contrast. Many images are also available on WikiArt, but the references given there are not always accurate. Bouguereau’s paintings are often given titles in English, but the French title of many of them can be found on the French Wikipedia.

For the artist’s life, I followed mainly the article “Biography of William Bouguereau” by Damien Bartoli with Fred Ross. Complementary information was found in the English and French Wikipedia pages on Bouguereau.

Readers interested in Bouguereau’s technique may consult the article “Bouguereau at Work” by Mark Walker. I did not use it.

For Dali’s pamphlet, I used the 2013 reprint by Grasset. All quotes by him were in French, I translated them into English myself. The drawing from Picasso was downloaded from artnet.

4 thoughts on “William-Adolphe Bouguereau, the pinnacle of the realistic depiction of human form

  1. Good God! Let us cease this retrospective lachrymosity! Get a grip! Dali was an appalling unreconstructed fascist whose opinions shifted with the political wind at his back (had he lived in Germany in the 1930s he would have led the SS to the refuges of his Jewish neighbours; he would have happily set the torch to the crematoria in Belsen or Auschwitz. He didn’t think twice when he sold out out all his ‘friends’ with left-wing sympathies in the US to HUAC in the 1950s (thinking it a ‘magnificent joke’ and ‘his patriotic duty’) and shortly before his death urged Spain to unite behind King Juan Carlos – because Franco wished the monarch to continue his vile, brutal, dictatorship. He was a fraud, a trickster, a con-artist. Those who sympathise in any way with Dali clearly seek to align themselves with contemporary neo-fascist autocrats – the same figures who seek daily to crush political and artistic freedoms, including this blog. And yet, and yet, you have only to read the weak-lipped simpering of those rushing to kiss the hem of his burial shroud here (including the moderators and founders of this blog) to realise how people continue to be seduced by his vile imagery and incipient nationalism. If you wish to walk in the footsteps of an artist who understands contemporary Spain (and by extension Europe) then descend to the depths of the Prado and see Goya’s ‘Dark Paintings.’ Europe’s past, present and future are there for you to see: it is ugly and terrifying. Appalling and wretched. Messy and sublime. Brutal and brilliant. And magnificent. In this instance your preferred photo-realistic art, my dears, has a wealth of evil incorporated into it. I’m truly disappointed to realise you aren’t clever enough to appreciate that. Honestly, your laughable philistine arguments against contemporary art (which seem to have been clipped from MailOnline) have me confused. Are you really so reactionary? Could it really be true you’re just a bunch of conservative (in all senses of the word) pederast-apologists after all? Have you just unwittingly unmasked yourselves, revealing you to be agents of the Trump/Johnson/Bannon axis? Should we all be burning our hard drives and waiting for the knock on the door in the night?

    • In my article, I clearly stated that I usually don’t like the pronouncements by Dali, in particular that “they usually consist of a mixture of narcissism and purposeful extravagance.” I was then talking about his general pronouncements about art and culture, and I did not mention his political or religious “opinions” (if they really are opinions rather than just a provocative posture). I was only agreeing with his appreciation of Bouguereau and his criticism of the ugliness in much of “contemporary art,” in particular with Picasso.
      Dali, like Wagner before him, was a great artist despite his gross personality defects.
      Indeed, I reject “abstract expressionism” and ugly art as much as any other form of “post-modernism,” in particular in social sciences and humanities. I approve all hoaxes that expose the fraud of post-modernism, such as the Sokal paper, and more recently the series of “grievance studies.”

  2. Personally I love Bouguereau’s paintings very much. Actually there is at least a Facebook page devoted to Bouguereau’s works which often posts some of them.
    Also, I remember that Conan Doyle mentions Bouguereau’s works in one of his Sherlock Holmes’ stories called “The Valley of Fear”. Holmes points out that his archenemy Moriarty should not be able to own a Bouguereau which has got a value so higher than his annual earnings unless Moriarty had got an additional – and presumably illegal- source of money.
    P.S. Dalí have not been a favourite painter of mine at all, but I agree him too.

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