French academic painter, William-Adolphe Bouguereau was born in La Rochelle, France, on 30 November 1825, into a family of wine and olive oil merchants. The family moved to Saint-Martin-de-Ré in 1832. At the age of twelve, Bouguereau went to Mortagne-sur-Gironde to stay with his uncle Eugène, a priest, and developed a love of nature, religion and literature. In 1839, he was sent to study for the priesthood at a Catholic college in Pons. Here he was taught to draw and paint by Louis Sage, who had studied under Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.
Bouguereau reluctantly left his studies to return to his family, now residing in Bordeaux. He commenced art studies at the Municipal School of Drawing and Painting in November 1841. Bouguereau also worked as a shop assistant, hand-colouring lithographs and making small paintings that were reproduced using chromolithography. He was soon the best pupil in his class, and decided to become an artist in Paris. To fund the move, he sold portraits, 33 oils in three months. All were unsigned and only one has been traced. In 1845, he returned to Mortagne to spend more time with his uncle. He arrived in Paris in March 1846, aged twenty.
Bouguereau became a student at the École des Beaux-Arts. To supplement his formal training in drawing, he attended anatomical dissections and studied historical costumes and archeology. He was admitted to the studio of François-Édouard Picot, where he studied painting in the academic style. Academic painting placed the highest status on historical and mythological subjects, and Bouguereau determined to win the Prix de Rome, which would gain him a three-year residence at the Villa Medici in Rome, Italy, where in addition to formal lessons he could study first-hand the Renaissance artists and their masterpieces, as well as Greek, Etruscan, and Roman antiquities.
In 1856, Bouguereau began living with one of his models, Nelly Monchablon, a 19-year-old from Lisle-en-Rigault. Living together out of wedlock, the pair kept their liaison a secret. Their first child, Henriette, was born in April 1857; Georges was born in January 1859. A third child, Jeanne, was born 25 December 1861. The couple married quietly (for many assumed they were already wed) on 24 May 1866. Eight days later, Jeanne died from tuberculosis. In mourning, the couple went to La Rochelle, and Bouguereau made a painting of her in 1868. A fourth child, Adolphe (known as Paul), was born in October 1868. Aged 15, Georges’ health suffered, and his mother took him away from the bad air of Paris. However, he died on 19 June 1875. Nelly had a fifth child in 1876, Maurice, but her health was declining and the doctors suspected that she had contracted tuberculosis. She died on 3 April 1877, and baby Maurice died two months later.
The artist planned to marry Elizabeth Jane Gardner, a pupil whom he had known for ten years, but his mother was opposed to the idea. Soon after Nelly’s death, she made Bouguereau swear he would not remarry within her lifetime. After his mother’s death, and after a nineteen-year engagement, he and Gardner married in Paris in June, 1896. His wife continued to work as his private secretary, and helped to organize the household staff. His son Paul contracted tuberculosis in early 1899; Paul, his stepmother, and Bouguereau went to Menton in the south. When the stay was prolonged, the artist found a room in which to paint. Paul died at his father’s house in April 1900, aged 32.
- By then, Bouguereau had outlived four of his five children, only Henriette outlived him. Elizabeth, who was with her husband to the end, died in Paris in January 1922.
Bouguereau was an assiduous painter, often completing twenty or more easel paintings in a single year. Even during the twilight years of his life, he would rise at dawn to work on his paintings six days a week and would continue painting until nightfall. Throughout the course of his lifetime, he is known to have painted at least 822 paintings. Many of these paintings have been lost.
- In the spring of 1905, Bouguereau’s house and studio in Paris were burgled. On 19 August, 1905, aged 79, Bouguereau died in La Rochelle from heart disease. There was an outpouring of grief in the town of his birth.
- After a Mass at the cathedral, his body was placed on a train to Paris for a second ceremony.
- Bouguereau was laid to rest with Nelly and his children at the family vault at Montparnasse Cemetery.
Images above: The Broken Pitcher (1891), The Virgin and Child (1888) and L’Innocence (1893)
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