How William-Adolphe Bouguereau Dealt With Grief

The Story of Art: What we can learn from the lives of artists
June 5, 2021 Updated: June 7, 2021

As human beings, we try our best to deal with the pain of death. Today, we will look at how one of the greatest artists of the 19th century, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, dealt with death through his paintings.

Bouguereau’s Artistic Development

Bouguereau was born in 1825 in La Rochelle, France, and at a young age entered the local school, where he impressed his classmates with the drawings he did in his notebooks and school texts. However, his father’s business was failing, and their financial situation often led to arguments between his parents. It wasn’t long before Bouguereau’s parents sent their children to stay with relatives.

The young Bouguereau went to stay with his uncle, who showed him love and affection and encouraged the boy’s love of classical culture. In 1839, when Bouguereau was 14 years old, his uncle enrolled him in the college of Pons to study religion and classical literature, which would influence much of his later artwork.

 At Pons, Bouguereau received some of his first drawing lessons from a professor named Louis Sage, a pupil of the great neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.

After several years, Bouguereau’s father began trying his hand at the olive oil trade and wanted his son to help with the family business. Thus, at the age of 17, Bouguereau returned home, despite wanting to continue his art studies. 

Yet his artistic gift was undeniable, and his family and friends helped convince his father to enroll the boy in art courses at the municipal art school, where he won the Best Historical Painting Prize. Then, with his father’s blessing, Bouguereau decided to study art full-time.

Needing money to study in Paris, he earned his income by painting portraits, while his uncle provided him lodging.

In Paris, Bouguereau entered French artist François Picot’s studio. As the new student at the studio, he was hazed, forced to buy drinks, and made to complete menial tasks. These chores would be his responsibility until a new student arrived.

Bouguereau, however, loved Picot, and he endured to become the best artist he possibly could be under Picot’s tutelage. By 1846, Bouguereau was barely admitted to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, a prestigious school for learning traditional fine arts. 

In 1850, through hard work and perseverance, he was able to win the Grand Prix de Rome, which was the Ecole des Beaux-Arts’ highest competitive prize. Winning the Grand Prix allowed Bouguereau to enjoy a year-long trip to Rome, where he studied the art of the great masters.

Upon his return to France, he quickly became one of the most popular and sought-after painters. He settled down, got married in 1866, and had children. And this is where Bouguereau’s story becomes one of repeated loss. He had five children with his first wife, Marie-Nelly Monchablon; four of these children and his wife would die before him.

Painting the Pain Away

Painting became the way Bouguereau dealt with his losses. Creating brought him comfort. He said, “Each day I go to my studio full of joy; in the evening when obliged to stop because of darkness[,] I can scarcely wait for the next morning to come … if I cannot give myself to my dear painting[,] I am miserable.”

So what did he paint after his children died? How did he deal with his pain? How did he memorialize his children?

Several of his paintings give us insight into these questions.

According to “William Bouguereau: His Life and Works” by Damien Bartoli and Frederick Ross, Bouguereau “re-immersed himself in his art, his only effective palliative against grief.” After the death of his eldest son, George, “Bouguereau wished to complete a project that was now constantly on his mind, one in fact that haunted him, for he wanted dearly, by means of his art, to pay one final, sublime tribute to his unfortunate son George.”

This project would be his version of the “Pietà,” which is an Italian word meaning “pity” or “compassion.” In “Pietà,” Bouguereau depicts the Virgin Mary dressed in black to mourn her son’s death, whom she now holds tightly in her arms. 

The Virgin Mary seems to stare out at us directly, though she may be looking up. Either way, her stare asks us to share her loss. Both she and Jesus are adorned with a gilded halo, which suggests their divinity.

Nine angels surround the two central figures, and in contrast to the black worn by the Virgin and the white worn by Jesus, the nine angels wear the colors of the rainbow. Along with the black worn by the Virgin Mary and the white worn by Jesus, the rainbow represents all of the possible colors used to paint an image.

According to Kara Ross of the Art Renewal Center, in this painting “the rainbow symbolizes that the sacrifice of Jesus was complete and that the human soul can be born anew and ascend to God after death.”  

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“Pietà,” 1876, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. Oil on canvas, 87.7 inches by 58.7 inches. Private Collection. (Public Domain)

The Solace of Art

Did Bouguereau simply paint an image that he could relate to in his time of suffering? Or did he also ask the viewer to feel his pain? Or perhaps he believed that creating divine images could help ease his suffering and help his soul be born anew?

Shortly after the death of his son, Bouguereau’s wife, Nelly, became very ill. She had just given birth to a son they named Maurice. Within approximately two months, both Nelly and Maurice died.

This time, Bouguereau put his sorrow into two paintings: “The Virgin of Consolation” and “A Soul in Paradise.” 

“The Virgin of Consolation” depicts a sorrowful mother dressed in black who has thrown herself over the Virgin Mary’s lap because of the death of her son. The Virgin Mary sits on an elegant throne and has a halo of gold. She puts her hands up and looks up as if to say that these things are in the hands of God.  

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“The Virgin of Consolation,” 1877, by William Bouguereau. Oil on canvas, 80.3 inches by 57.8 inches. Strasbourg Museum of Fine Arts, France. (Public Domain)

“A Soul in Paradise” depicts two angels carrying a young woman from the darkness below to the yellow light of heaven, which the silhouetted angel at the top right of the composition represents.

Here again, Bouguereau used the creation of divine imagery to suggest that these painful circumstances in life are beyond our control, that they are in the hands of God, and that the divine light of heaven is potentially open to us all.

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“A Soul in Paradise,” 1878, by William Bouguereau. Oil on canvas, 70.8 inches by 108.2 inches. Museum of Art and Archeology of Périgord, France. (Public Domain)

Art can provide solace and comfort, not only for the artist but also for those who view it. Art can also encourage compassion. By showing the suffering of other human beings, works of art can invite us to share in this suffering. Finally, art can encourage us to reflect on what might be beyond our human lives. 

Art history is a story that forever unfolds. It is also our story, the story of the human race. Each generation of artists affects their respective cultures with their works of art and their decisions in life. This series will share stories from art history that encourage us to ask ourselves how we may be more sincere, caring, and patient human beings. 

Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist and is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).