William-Adolphe Bouguereau (November 30, 1825 – August 19, 1905) was a French academic painter and traditionalist. In his realistic genre paintings he used mythological themes, making modern interpretations of classical subjects, with an emphasis on the female human body. During his life he enjoyed significant popularity in France and the United States, was given numerous official honors, and received top prices for his work. As the quintessential salon painter of his generation, he was reviled by the Impressionist avant-garde.
He was born in La Rochelle, France, into a family of wine and olive oil merchants. He seemed destined to join the family business but for the intervention of his uncle Eugène, a Roman Catholic priest, who taught him classical and Biblical subjects, and arranged for Bouguereau to go to high school, where he showed artistic talent.
Visitation, the visit of the Virgin Mary to her cousin St. Elizabeth soon after the Annunciation, is described by St. Luke (1:39-56). It was a meeting of mutual rejoicing: Mary had conceived and Elizabeth was in the sixth month of pregnancy with her future son, St. John the Baptist. When Elizabeth saw Mary and heard her greetings, 'the baby stirred in her womb.'
His father was convinced by a client to send him to the École des Beaux-Arts in Bordeaux, where he won first prize in figure painting for a depiction of Saint Roch. To earn extra money, he designed labels for jams and preserves.
Academic painting placed the highest status on historical and mythological subjects and Bouguereau won the coveted Prix de Rome at age 26 in 1850, with his Zenobia Found by Shepherds on the Banks of the Araxes.
Christ was commanded to carry His cross to the place of execution on the mount of Calvary.
His reward was a year at the Villa Medici in Rome, Italy, where in addition to formal lessons he was able to study first-hand the Renaissance artists and their masterpieces, as well as Greek, Etruscan, and Roman antiquities. He also studied classical literature, which influenced his subject choice for the rest of his career.
The Pietà, 1876, provides a very unique depiction of this most famous of imagery. The weeping Mary cloaked in a robe of black is mourning the death of her son whom she holds to her chest. The dead body of Jesus limply hangs in her arms while eight weeping angels surround them. The angels are clad in the colors of the rainbow and create an arc over Mary and Jesus. In the Old Testament, after the great flood had ended, Noah and his family saw an arcing rainbow, which was a sign from God that the flood was over and the world could be born anew. In Bouguereau's Pietà, 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. Mary looks out and up. It is intended to be unclear whether if from her seated position she is focused on the viewer or the heavens with her swollen red eyes, filled with sorrow and accusation. Most likely as a mother mourns the loss of her child, she is accusing both the heavens and the earth for the pain she and her son has suffered. This interpretation of Mary is different from Michelangelo's Pietà or many other versions, where Mary is offering her child to the world. Bouguereau's Mary clutches Christ, not offering him to a sinful world that required her son's sacrifice. At Jesus' feet lies the crown of thorns used to mock him during the Crucifixion; it lies on a white cloth covered in the blood of Christ, showing the torment Jesus went though in order that humanity could attain salvation. The white robe and pitcher of water represent the purity of Jesus' soul. Both Jesus and Mary are surrounded by a halo of light indicating their holiness. This painting was inspired by the death of Bouguereau's eldest son, George, who died directly before Bouguereau started work on this piece in 1875. Bouguereau had the grave misfortune to have lost 4 of his five children during his lifetime.
-by Kara Lysandra Ross
Raphael was a favorite of Bouguereau and he took this review as a high compliment. He had fulfilled one of the requirements of the Prix de Rome by completing an old-master copy of Raphael’s The Triumph of Galatea. In many of his works, he followed the same classical approach to composition, form, and subject matter. Bouguereau's graceful portraits of women were considered very charming, partly because he could beautify a sitter while also retaining her likeness.
In 1856, he married Marie-Nelly Monchablon and subsequently had five children. By the late 1850s, he had made strong connections with art dealers, particularly Paul Durand-Ruel (later the champion of the Impressionists), who helped clients buy paintings from artists who exhibited at the Salons. Thanks to Paul Durand-Ruel, Bouguereau met Hugues Merle, who later often was compared to Bouguereau. The Salons annually drew over 300,000 people, providing valuable exposure to exhibited artists] Bouguereau’s fame extended to England by the 1860s, and he bought a large house and studio in Montparnasse with his growing income.
Le Saintes Femmes au Tombeau, 1890, translated to The Holy Women at the Tomb, depicts the three Marys, Mary the Mother of James, Mary Magdalene and Mary of Cleophas, at the tomb of the resurrection. The viewer, compositionally, is placed in a prostrated position and looking up first notices the expressions of bewilderment on the central Mary's face before looking past the three women and into the tomb. The tomb is filled with light and the viewer can only catch a glimpse of the "angel of the resurrection" with his arm raised. This is a very clever arrangement. The viewer feels as though they are there with the Marys and that they have stumbled onto this event, bringing it into the present. This painting was first exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1890, and though a critic after viewing the piece at that time said that Bouguereau "always showed the same thing", the perspective used in this painting and the overall composition is most original and was a tour de force of perspective and foreshortening; which can be clearly seen in the severe angle of the tomb entranceway. The painting now hangs in the collection of the Musée Royal des Beaux-Arts, Antwerp, Belgium. -by Kara Lysandra Ross
Bouguereau was a staunch traditionalist whose genre paintings and mythological themes were modern interpretations of Classical subjects, both pagan and Christian, with a concentration on the naked female human body. The idealized world of his paintings brought to life goddesses, nymphs, bathers, shepherdesses, and madonnas in a way that appealed to wealthy art patrons of the era.
Bouguereau received many commissions to decorate private houses, public buildings, and churches. As was typical of such commissions, Bouguereau would sometimes paint in his own style, and at other times conform to an existing group style. Early on, Bouguereau was commissioned in all three venues, which added enormously to his prestige and fame.
He also made reductions of his public paintings for sale to patrons, of which The Annunciation (1888) is an example. He was also a successful portrait painter and many of his paintings of wealthy patrons remain in private hands. He steadily gained the honors of the Academy, reaching Life Member in 1876, and Commander of the Legion of Honor and Grand Medal of Honor in 1885. He began to teach drawing at the Académie Julian in 1875, a co-ed art institution independent of the École des Beaux-Artss.
The Flagellation of Christ, 1880 is one of Bouguereau's masterpieces, and today hangs at the Baptistery of La Rochelle Cathedral, France. Christ, tied to a column, limply hangs, his feet dragging on the ground and head hung back, he submits to his fate. Two men stand in mid swing with their whipping ropes, with a third kneeling to the lower right fastening birch branches for the next stage of the torture. Unlike the two men who are whipping or the forth man standing behind with birch branches in the ready, the kneeling man tying the branches appears to show some remorse for his actions as his hand muscles loosen slightly with the pull of the string. The viewer can feel the pain of Christ's torment, though his eyes are vacant of expression as if his soul is in another place. The crowd surrounding this event is filled with curious spectators. To the left, a young boy shelters his eyes from the horrid sight by turning his back and pressing himself against his mother. To the right, just above Christ's head, a baby looks down at him sympathetically while hoisted up on his father's shoulders. Through the crowd, a bearded man looks directly at the viewer, thereby pulling the audience into the scene as if they are too part of the crowd. It is possible that this bearded man with furrowed brow is a self portrait, so both Bouguereau and the viewer are witnessing this scene. This life size capa d'opera is every bit as magnificent as any religious works done by Raphael, Caravaggio, or Velasquez. The harmonious interplay of drawing, paint handling, composition, perspective and emotional thrust are second to none in their expressive power. - -by Kara Lysandra Ross
In 1877, both his wife and infant son died. At a rather advanced age, Bouguereau was married for the second time in 1896, to fellow artist Elizabeth Jane Gardner Bouguereau, one of his pupils. He used his influence to open many French art institutions to women for the first time, including the Académie française.
When one looks at The Compassion, 1897, at first glance the viewer may interpret this painting be simply a depiction of Christ on the Cross, with perhaps another saint, or victim. A depiction not too different from thousands of other paintings of the subject; but in fact, the subject of this painting is not simply the event, but the conversion to Christianity through the compassion for the sacrifice Jesus made. The man with his head on Jesus' chest is a representation of every man and mankind as a whole. The man in the painting shows the same empathy and bearing his own symbolic cross, has found his way to Jesus and his own redemption. Many Christians wear crosses around their necks to represent the same conviction, that they too have been sacrificed with Christ. In the bible, when Jesus fell on his way to Calvary, a man from the crowd, Simon of Cyrene, went to Jesus and carried the cross for him, which was the inspiration for this widely accepted symbol. The blood of Christ falls onto his hands, reiterating the blood sacrifice that was made for his benefit. On top of the cross a letter is posted which reads "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews" in three languages, Greek, Latin, and Aramaic. Although in many depictions, Christ is crucified at the top of a mountain, Bouguereau chooses to depict the savior on a barren wasteland, symbolic of the man"s spiritual life before finding his way to Christ. Bouguereau chose to keep this painting, which shows the importance his religion played in his own life, and it remained in his studio until its recent donation to the Musèe D'Orsay, Paris, France. - by Kara Lysandra Ross
Near the end of his life he described his love of his art: "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."
In the spring of 1905, Bouguereau's house and studio in Paris were burgled. On August 19, 1905, Bouguereau died in La Rochelle at the age of 79 from heart disease
Vierge Aux Anges, Song of Angels, 1881, hangs at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park, CA, USA. The serene Mary and baby Jesus sleep, surrounded by nature, as three angels play them a lullaby. All the figures are painted with beautiful, ethereal, perfection. When Bouguereau painted a series of angels, he usually used the same figure multiple times. In the Pieta, 1876, the eight angels are only two different individuals, and in Regina Angelorum, 1900, all twenty-one angels are the same girl. Song of Angels is no different. Bouguereau strived for perfection and would often use the hands of one model, the eyes of another, hair from yet a third, etc. In his religious works and his depictions of the holy, he took extra care in finding a compelling human image that could capture the divine, and once he found what he wanted, he did not stray. I believe this was also a statement on the nature of the divine; that a holy presence may feel as powerful as the souls of many, but in truth, it is one power. The three angels in Vierge Aux Anges are also a foreshadowing of the nature of the holy trinity, and are representative of the father, the son and the holy ghost. The mother and child sleep in peace unaware of the suffering that is destined to follow. -by Kara Lysandra Ross
Having died in 1905, we can suppose it best that he was not here to see the successful assault on traditional art that turned the art world inside out and upside down in the decades that followed his death. His fate was to be much like that of Rembrandt, whose work was also ridiculed and banished from museums and official art circles for the hundred years following his death.
Rembrandt's reputation wasn't resuscitated until the 1790's (he died in 1669) due to the influence of the founder of the Royal Academy in London, Sir Joshua Reynolds. Even as recently as 1910, Reynolds paintings brought higher prices at auction than Rembrandt. Bouguereau's re-appreciation can rather accurately be traced from about 1979 when his prices at auction quadrupled that year alone, and then was further catapulted by the 1984 retrospective that traveled from the Petite Palais in Paris, to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in Canada and finally to the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford. In 1980 The Metropolitan Museum in New York permanently hung two of his works that been left in storage from early in the century.
These are only a small portion of Bouguereau's religious paintings of which there are approximately 65 which makes up about eight percent of his total oeuvre. The recently published Catalogue Raisonné on the artist by Damien Bartoli and Fred Ross, clearly illustrates through over 760 examples of this artist's work, the tremendous fortitude of Bouguereau's prowess with the brush. Winning almost every award and accolade during his life, and residing as president of many institutions, Bouguereau's fame was equal to that of Victor Hugo, his contemporary, and as an artist, he was as well known then as Picasso is today. His death in 1905 was mourned throughout all of France, and by others around the world as well. More
Acknowledgement: Wikipedia, Olga's Gallery,