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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
Email: [email protected] / Phone: +44 7429 011000

William-Adolphe Bouguereau is a famous French artist who was prominent within the realism art movement and was at his peak during the late 19th century.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau was particularly appreciated by the academic art scene right across Europe who approved of both his own technical skills as well as the traditional approach that he used at a time when new, innovative art movements had started appearing all over Europe.

For a period within the 20th century Bouguereau paintings were seen by many as being too traditional and his career received less exposure.

The artist then gained popularity in recent years with those who appreciated his mythological paintings as modern interpretations of classical style scenes, frequently including women and children that in recent years has become more popular with the larger number of women who are now part of the world art public.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau built an impressive career which lasted as long as 50 years across the mid to late 19th century and the painting above is typical of his work, featuring mythical babies in Bouguereau's preferred technical style which most have labelled as realism.

It is unsurprising to learn of the artist's traditional style when you consider that early on in his life he was tutored in classical subjects by his uncle who was keen to encourage William-Adolphe into becoming enthusiastic about old-fashioned and conservative principles.

Bouguereau, as typical for classical painters, featured nudists within several of his paintings, such as The Wave (1896) and The Birth of Venus (1879).

These genres offered the artist an opportunity to underline his great skills with regards accurate reproduction of the human body and this was a topic which greatily inspired him, as well as suiting his approach to art.

Bouguereau as a Tutor

'...Rembrandt is said to have captured the sole of the aged, where as Bouguereau would capture the soul of the youth...'

Whilst for many years his reputation had been stained, even forgotten by many, it was more recent academic studies which aimed to restore his reputation. Authors such as Damien Bartoli and Frederick C. Ross in William Bouguereau - His Life and Works have proclaimed his career to in fact have been on a par with masters such as Caravaggio.

As a teacher, Bouguereau would extend his legacy. Household names such as Henri Matisse would take advantage of his open nature and willingness to encourage and improve others. His own level of artistic skill has never really been in question, more the merits of his academic style.

Some have previously complained of a lack of flexibility from Bouguereau and a willingness to embrace more modern artists. In truth, he was a positive and helpful tutor who did not desire to create only artists who produced academically-approved work.

A careful study of the students who had been taken under his wing unveils virtually no criticism of Bouguereau's methods nor his artistic outlook. Even the likes of Matisse who would take their own work into a very different direction were only full of praise for their experiences with William-Adolphe.

Art historians have commonly seen Bouguereau as a member of the establishment and therefore anti-modernist. In truth, this is not an accurate account as he retained a relative level of independence throughout his life, despite holding many key positions in art establishments.

It was perhaps his students who kept him in touch with the new styles appearing at that time.

At his peak Bouguereau was considered a creative, highly skilled artist. He shared that position with other notable academic artists such as Jean-Leon Gerome, Lawrence Alma Tadema and Meissonier.

Their era was undeniably inventive, yet soon after Bouguereau's death in 1905, tastes would start to change.

Famous Realist Artists Over-Shadowed by Impressionists

Bouguereau's style required huge amounts of time and dedication to produce each of his 822 paintings.

The realist artists were no-longer suited to rising demand from the United States, and so impressionists were promoted instead.

Dealers such as Paul Durand-Ruel would go to extreme lengths to blacken the reputations of these previously highly-regarded artists.

It was only in recent years that several art historians with a passion for realism would re-establish this art movement with the public.

For respected art dealers to deliberately destroy the careers of fine artists in order to line their own pockets seems far fetched, but it precisely what occured during this key period in French and European art.

During several stages in his career Bouguereau would slightly alter elements of his style in order to ensure that his work would continue to attract buyers from the United States. This would not have been an easy choice for a proud artist to make, but clearly he felt it necessary at that time in order to keep up with changing demand.

Bouguereau's Influences and Legacy

Bouguereau was an artist who worked hard throughout his career, perhaps inspired by the likes of Michelangelo who were always active.

Rembrandt and Titian were also known to be highly influential on the style developed by this skilled Frenchman. His work served as a link between the of previous centuries and all that followed.

Rivals and critics such as Edgar Degas and Paul Gauguin would deride Bouguereau's work, particularly his style of portraiture. The comments reflect the rivalry that existed between them as well as the polarised opinions which existed between members of different art movements.

This conflict between modern art movements and the more traditional methods has never really gone away, merely pushed ever onwards towards the truly abstract and expressionist work that is now growing in popularity.

Virgin with Angels

Virgin with Angels is one of Bouguereau's most finest creations and a highly complex work with a whole swathe of figures covering this inspired canvas painting.

The attention to detail on each of the many angels plus the charming manner in which the painting is held together with a focus on the virgin and child in the middle give it a great longevity.

This painting is currently amongst the most popular for reproduction from the whole career of Bouguereau thanks to the qualities discussed here. williambouguereau.org covers the life and career of this great painter in depth and features a large number of his most famous paintings.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau found his achievements of the early days of his career and acceptance by academics allowed opportunities to quickly arise all over France with many commissions offered to him with substantial rewards from those looking to add some decorative classto their private homes, churches and public buildings.

Someone with the respect, uncontroversial personality and underlying prestigious upbringing of Bouguereau would make them instantly palatable to the conservative French middle classes.

Birth of Venus

Birth of Venus follows a similar approach to Virgin with Angels and offers a beautiful central scene which has additional complentary figures who line the rest of the painting as inspired complentary characters.

The Birth of Venus has become one of his most respected paintings and frequently is mentioned whenever his name comes up in the modern media.

They both also use his much loved classical style that in the modern era has begun to reach a peak of appreciation with an art public across the world who now have an accepted diversity of tastes. In all, William-Adolphe Bouguereau has 826 oil paintings attributed to him up to now and Birth of Venus is amongst his finest of all.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau was an artist who polarised opinion with many during his lifetime finding his works as amongst the best in his genre of all time.

Conversely, more revolutionary-minded art fans despised everything that he stood for and would never back an artist who followed such a traditional approach at a time when French art was becoming renowned for being innovative and right on the edge of new contemporary art movements which were sprouting out across Europe, spearheaded by the Impressionists who included Claude Monet and a wealth of imaginative landscape painters.

Song of The Angels

Song of The Angels is another example of the artist's preference for the inclusion of women and children within his paintings and these feminine topics were always combined with classical scenes sich as the mythological angels used here.

For many, art is something which should continue along the same themes as brought about by the renaissance and baroque periods with religious scenes covered in traditional, realist painting techniques. William-Adolphe Bouguereau was certainly a great exponent of this, and his popularity shows no signs of waning over time.

Whilst thoroughly appreciated by the art academics, William-Adolphe was himself a teacher of art at the Académie Julian and gained great enjoyment from passing on his own knowledge onto others which was particularly common for talented artists all the way back to Italian renaissance artists who would produce further generations themselves with painstaking tutoring that helped Italy to retain it's artistic standards for several centuries.

List of Famous William-Adolphe Bouguereau

Please see below for a summarised list of the best Bouguereau paintings that are featured throughout this website.

  • Cupidon
  • Evening Mood
  • Cupid and Psyche
  • The Proposal
  • The Broken Pitcher
  • The First Kiss
  • Crown of Flowers
  • Nymphs and Satyr
  • The Abduction of Psyche
  • Innocence
  • The Bohemian
  • Young Girl Defending herself against Cupid
  • Temptation
  • The Bathers
  • Pieta
  • The Dance
  • The Little Shepherdess
  • Rest at Harvest
  • Fraternal Love
  • Spring
  • A Soul Brought to Heaven
  • Art and Literature
  • The Virgin with Angels
  • Self Portrait
  • The Birth of Venus
  • Tete d Etude l Oiseau
  • La Danse
  • Alone in the World
  • The Knitting Girl
  • The Birth of Venus
  • The Nut Gatherers
  • The Young Shepherdess
  • Le Printemps The Return of Spring
  • The First Mourning
  • Amour et Psyche Enfants