Biography Pays Tribute to Painter William Bouguereau

January 12, 2011 Updated: October 8, 2018

In defense of his good friend’s talent, architect Charles Garnier noted of William Bouguereau’s “Nymphes et Satyre (Nymphs and Satyr)”: “It is a Bouguereau! Better yet: it is the work of a true artist: industrious, enquiring, sustained by intense study, and who, if he is still controversial today, will eventually have the place he deserves … he has in word elevated art to its proper level, and those unable to admire the work will at least have to respect the talent of the artist who executed it.”

Regrettably, as Damien Bartoli (with help from Frederick C. Ross) recounts in his comprehensive biography, “William Bouguereau: His Life and Works,” in the years to come after his death, no artist in history would be so viciously maligned and attacked. His style was criticized as too clean and perfect, his execution too academic and full of “sugary preciosity and excessive refinement.” As Impressionism dominated the art world, Bouguereau’s artistry was called into question and was no longer valued in a society that began to favor innovation and experimentation.

Defending Bouguereau’s Name

Bartoli and Ross tell of myths like Bouguereau expelling Matisse out of his atelier for not holding a pencil correctly, and the efforts of the Academics to exclude Impressionist painters’ works from being displayed at the Salon, both of which they explain as unfounded rumors. Soon, the fine arts were swept by the wave of Modernism, and Bouguereau and his fellow Realist colleagues were quickly forgotten, their artistry belittled and ridiculed. Their affinity to the Academic tradition was considered lacking in creativity and self-expression.

But whether one’s preferences fall within the Realist or the Modernist paradigm, it is an undeniable fact that Bouguereau is one of the most important figures of art history. Harvard professor of aesthetics Elaine Scarry wrote of our perception of beauty in her book “On Beauty and Being Just”: “The first flash of the bird incites the desire to duplicate not by translating the glimpsed image into a drawing or a poem or a photograph but simply by continuing to see her five seconds, twenty-five seconds, forty-five seconds later—as long as the bird is there to be beheld.” Bouguereau’s paintings evoke the same kind of desire to look—one is enraptured by the colors and the beauty that inundates his subjects. The viewer’s eyes are involuntarily prompted to gaze at the painting. In that sense, then, Bouguereau’s works are a testament to the beauty we seek in nature.

Bartoli spends much of the book defending the artist, stating in his preface that it was his childhood ambition to compile a Catalogue Raisonné of Bouguereau’s works and do justice to his reputation. As Ross says in his introduction to the 600-plus-page biography, “There have been such a host of vociferous myths and lies about Bouguereau that it is incumbent on a publication of this magnitude to address and dispel these untruths. It is now time to finally set the record straight …”

Through the inclusion of luscious photographs of Bouguereau’s works, the reader is immediately able to set those myths aside, for in his paintings, one can clearly see the artist’s exceptional sensibility and versatility for portraying the range of emotion in humans, particularly women.

A New Style

Bartoli writes: “For the first time ever women were portrayed as complex beings with an array of emotional moments and diverse feelings, … all with a richness of character depicted in perfect synchrony to the moment or event or subject at hand. No men or women had ever before been painted more sympathetically or with more depth.” From paintings of peasants to elite-class mademoiselles and otherworldly nymphs, the women are painted with meticulous attention to each feature of their faces, their gestures, and postures. From their eyes, whether they are staring at the viewer or at something far away, one can see their happiness or sorrow, painted with painstaking effort to portray them in all their beauty.

Perhaps the most important observation Bartoli and Ross make is that every artist is a product of their time. Bouguereau was an artist of the 19th century, when Enlightenment values of reason, liberty, and universality were at their height. His paintings embraced these tenets—peasant girls and gypsies were depicted with a refined dignity that were previously only seen in the nobility. Through his paintings of women at different stages of womanhood, Bouguereau was celebrating humanity and the life journey of mankind. His subjects were painted with an idealized kind of beauty because perfection was the best form of praise for the common man

If this is the case, then Bouguereau’s unique portrayal of the peasant class was something innovative and never before seen. Then, the Academics, too, are “Modernists in their own right,” Ross argues. He cites other Academic artists like Jean-Geroge Vibert and Brunery Milton, who satirized the clergy in their work, and Honoré Daumier, who painted young children working in unfavorable conditions late into the night. Ross argues that these artists were the first ones to “break the rules,” paving the way for the Modernists later to really push the envelope. Then, contrary to what most believe today, the Academics and their work are of great value.

The Biography

Bartoli begins his biography with Bouguereau’s birthplace—La Rochelle in western France—a place the artist cherished dearly, no less because of the small city’s picturesque landscape. The book then takes the reader through all the important events of the artist’s life, from his childhood interest in drawing and his first art lessons at the College of Pons, to his attempts and eventual winning of the Grand Prix de Rome, a prize that bore witness to his talent and allowed him to study painting at the Villa Medici. As the master painter’s reputation grew, he became a member of the Académie de Beaux-Arts, and later served as president of the Institut de France (comprised of 5 academies, including the Beaux-Arts) and the Fondation Taylor.

The biography also documents Bouguereau’s evolving style through analyses of his important paintings and the major events in his life that may have prompted such changes in rendering and choice of subject. One instance is especially poignant. Following the death of his son Georges, Bouguereau began to work on a version of “Pietà.” Through this well-known biblical scene, the painter was able to masterfully portray grief and loss precisely because of his own personal experience: “… our artist’s version has the grief-stricken Mother of God angrily glaring at us all as if to say ‘why didn’t one of you do something to save my son?’ Bouguereau’s Mary is more like a real mother.”

In addition, Bartoli’s biography includes excerpts of journal entries, letters, and comments from his contemporary colleagues and critics, friends, and family. Their accounts testify to Bouguereau’s passion and love for his work. He was said to always be painting at his studio.

These accounts, along with Bouguereau’s own letters to his wife while he served in the National Guard during the Franco-Prussian War, provide a clearer picture of who the man was. Bouguereau, while often praised as a man of integrity and diligence by his fellow artists, was also a caring father and son. During the war, he often inquired about his children and wrote to his mother, Adeline, whom he respected and loved because his father had left the family when he was very young. To ensure his own family’s safety, Bouguereau arranged for them to leave Paris for Brittany, while he stayed behind and volunteered to serve in the National Guard.

For admirers of Bouguereau and painters of the Realist tradition, this Catalogue Raisonné and biography is a must-have. But any art connoisseur shall find this volume on one of the greatest masters of Western fine arts an eye-opening and invaluable addition to their library.

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