by William Bouguereau
This person is associated with: Academism
French painter, leader of the Academic style.
After basic training in Bordeaux, Bouguereau moved to Paris in 1846 to study under Picot, a former pupil of David, who was influential in his acquiring a neoclassical taste. At the end of his training, Bouguereau competed for the Prix de Rome; he finished second in 1848 with Saint Peter, after his Delivery from Prison by the Angel, he failed the following year with Odysseus and Eurycleia (attributed to Gustave Boulanger), but won it together with Paul Baudry in 1850 for Zenobia Found by Shepherds on the Banks of the Araxes.
An ambitious artist, Bouguereau sought rapid success with provocative works in his youth, such as Equality before Death or Dante and Virgil in Hell. His fame established in the Salon, he rapidly became the most important exponent of the second half of the century and even the embodiment of the Academic style.
Indeed, Bouguereau abandoned the dark subjects of his younger years after having been advised by his agents (notably Paul Durand-Ruel) that he could gain more recognition with lighter compositions. Stylistically, Bouguereau continued the classical tradition started by David and continued by Ingres and painted many large pieces taken from the Greco-Roman Mythology, with an emphasis on naked allegories and goddesses, the most famous being The Birth of Venus and Nymphs and Satyr. His works were painted with dazzling accuracy and no apparent brush strokes, giving an impression of porcelain skin to his characters. However, contrary to David, he did not put any moral value in his art, preferring to focus instead on the beauty of his classical maidens.
Nevertheless, apart from his famous mythological nudes, Bouguereau also started at the end of the 1860s to paint many genre scenes depicting familial love of children of the lower classes, especially peasant girls. Contrary to Barbizon painters, who tried to show the harsh life of these people, Bouguereau romanticized them by painting perfect and clean beauties, who had nothing to do with the peasants of the time.
Bouguereau's works were immensely sought after and won countless prizes in exhibitions. Although he was from a humble background, he left a fortune of 7.000.000 Francs at his death.
He became a member of the French Academy in 1876 and professor in the School of Fine Arts in 1886.
Along with his main competitors, Gérôme and Cabanel, Bouguereau competed with other art movements he considered deviant, the Impressionists at first, then the other avant-garde groups at the turn of the century. Using their positions in the Academy of Fine Arts and several juries, they deprived them from any public recognition, especially the access to the Salon of Paris, which was the stronghold of Academism.
Eventually, after his death, the academic style quickly faded and suffered from a rejection which lasted 80 years. Critics condemned his statements against the celebrated impressionists and his accumulation of unrealistic female flesh (see for example The Oreads).
A prolific artist, Bouguereau produced at least 828 paintings, which are principally located in the USA, as American collectors have prized his works since the beginning of his career.
He was the master of Chabas, Collin, Delobbe, Doyen, Jacquet, Lenoir, Thirion, and Vernon. He also married his student Elisabeth Jane Gardner.