Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Admiration | William Bouguereau

William Bouguereau (he did not use his first name, Adolphe) was born in La Rochelle, on the Atlantic coast of France, on November 30, 1825. In a manner similar to Mozart's display of innate musical skill, Bouguereau, at a very early age, demonstrated his uncanny ability to draw. His uncle Eugene, a curate, educated him, teaching him Latin, Greek myths, and the stories from the Old and New Testaments. This uncle played a crucial role in Bouguereau's life, for he arranged for the boy to go to high school (college) in Pons, where he took his first drawing lessons. His teacher, Louis Sage (1816-1888), is largely unknown to us today, although it is said that he had trained in the studio of Ingres. Whatever Sage's background, his instruction and Bouguereau's talent combined to produce a solid footing for the boy in the principles of drawing.

Oil on canvas
147.3 x 198.1 cm (58 x 78 in.)
San Antonio Museum of Art

Upon his return to Paris in early 1854 Bouguereau was awarded valuable commissions in two areas, portraiture and decorative cycles. These opportunities for work came from both Paris and his hometown of La Rochelle. Bouguereau continued to exhibit paintings (some of which had been painted in Rome) at the Salon, where they were received by the public with great favor. Because of his training at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, and that institution's emphasis on paintings with themes drawn from mythological, classical, and biblical history, the subjects of Bouguereau's early Salon submissions were mostly somber and serious. 

Titles such as Combat of the Lapiths and Centaurs (1852; private collection) and Le triomphe du martyre: Le corps de Sainte Cecile apporte dans les catacombes (The Triumph of the Martyr: The Body of Saint Cecilia Being Carried into the Catacombs) (1854) indicate that the young artist aspired to take his place in the tradition of grand history painting.

These pictures were not the kind, however, that had wide commercial appeal. His art began to move away from grandiose compositions to more genre-like scenes with fewer figures. Mothers and children, shepherdesses, and children playing were some of the themes that would find a place on the walls of middle class homes. Bouguereau was a canny businessman. In addition to exploiting the great marketplace of the Salon, he allied himself with dealers who could show his work to advantage and procure for him good prices. Toward the late 1850s his work was beginning to be handled by the dealer Paul Durand Ruel (1828-1922); after October 1866, Adolphe Goupil (1806-1893) was Bouguereau's exclusive dealer. Beginning in the 1860s Bouguereau's paintings were particularly popular in England and America, where the taste for scenes of domestic sentimentality ran high.

Throughout the course of his career, Bouguereau was in the habit of spending the summers in La Rochelle, painting in a studio he had constructed there. After several years of heart disease, he died in La Rochelle on August 19, 1905. It is thought that his condition was exacerbated by the burglary of his house and studio in Paris that spring, one of a string of robberies in the neighborhood. He is buried in the cemetery of Montparnasse, near the neighborhood where he had lived.


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