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William Adolphe Bouguereau was born on November 30th 1825 in La Rochelle France in the Poitou Charente region.
Bouguereau's parents were merchants in the wine and olive oil business and wanted him to follow in their footsteps which he did for a short period until his uncle, Eugene Bouguereau who was a curate intervened and taught him classical and biblical subjects and arranged for him to attend school.
Bouguereau showed a natural talent and flare for art from an early age resulting in his father Theodore Bouguereau being convinced by a client to send William to École des Beaux-Arts in Bordeaux then headed by Jean Paul Alaux, where he studied for two years. It was there that he would win first prize in figure painting for a depiction of Saint Roch. To provide extra income Bouguereau also designed labels for jam and preserves.
To help him earn extra money Bouguereau was commissioned through his uncle to paint portraits of the local parishioners and when his aunt equalled the sum he had earned, he was able to go to Paris and become a student at the École des Beaux-Arts, in order to add to his formal training in drawing he also attended anatomical dissections and studied historical costumes and archaeology.
At 21 Bouguereau was admitted to the studio of François-Edouard Picot, a French historic painter. He studied painting in the academic style which meant that highest status was placed on historical and mythological subjects. After several previous attempts Bouguereau finally won the coveted Prix de Rome in 1850, with Zenobia Found by Shepherds on the Banks of the Araxes, which earned him a four-year stay at the Villa Medici in Rome, enabling him to study first-hand the Renaissance artists and their masterpieces. While in Italy he traveled extensively in order to copy and master the masterpieces, visiting Venice, Naples Verona, Milan, and Parma. He also visited the lakes and hill towns of Rome. An early reviewer stated Bouguereau has a natural instinct and knowledge of contour. The eurythmy of the human body preoccupies him, and in recalling the happy results which, in this genre, the ancients and the artists of the sixteenth century arrived at, one can only congratulate Bouguereau in attempting to follow in their footsteps. Raphael was inspired by the ancients, and no one accused him of not being original. Being an admirer of Raphael he took this as a great compliment.
In 1854 Bouguereau returned to Paris where he frequently showed his work at the Salon. He received many awards and commissions for portraits and other pieces. Two years later in 1856, he married Marie-Nelly Monchablon. Together they had three sons and two daughters. They set up home in Montparnasse, Paris. All three sons died. Georges died at the age of 16. Adolphe-Paul was said to have died of Tuberculosis when only 30. His third son, William-Maurice, died in his infancy shortly before his mother. One daughter, Jeanne-Léontine, also died while just an infant.
In 1857, his first child, Henriette was born,
By the end of the 1950's Bouguereau had become very well connected with art dealers, one in particular, being Paul Durand-Ruel a French art dealer who was associated with the Impressionists and who was one of the first modern art dealers to provide support to his painters with stipends and solo exhibitions. He would help clients buy paintings from artists who exhibited at the Salons. With a draw of over 300,000 people they provided valuable exposure to exhibited artists and by 1860 Bouguereau's fame had spread to England.
In 1859 he was made a chevalier ( meaning Horsemen. The English equivalent meaning knight) due to his increasing social status. It was during this year that he painted All souls day which was purchased by the city of Bordeaux. It was in this year also that his son George was born.
On Christmas Day, 1861 Bouguereau's second daughter, Jeanne, was born. The following years were less productive with Bouguereau only producing twelve paintings, one of which was purchased as a present by Napoleon for his wife.
In 1865 he was awarded a commission for the decoration of the ceiling and the tympanums of the concert hall of the Grand Theatre of Bordeaux.
Around 1866, Adolphe Goupil a leading art dealer of the nineteenth century became the exclusive dealer for Bouguereau.
Bouguereau steadily gained the honors of the Academy, reaching Life Member in 1876, and Commander of the Legion of Honour and Grand Medal of Honour in 1885.It was around this time that he also began teaching at Académie Julian where he taught drawing. In this year also his daughter Jeanne died.
In 1869 his son Adolphe Paul was born
In 1875, his son, Georges, became sick and died at the age of 16 at the home of the Seignacs. He had been sent there to escape the suffocating heat of the Parisian summer. His death, yet another blow to an already grief-stricken man contributed to the creation of two of his most beautiful religious works; The Pietà and The Comforting Virgin.
In 1876, Bouguereau was elected to the highest titular rank of the Institute’s Académie des Beaux-Arts, replacing Pils. It was in this year that his third son Maurice was born but he died that same year.
The following year in October 1877 after twenty-one years of marriage his wife Marie-Nelly Monchablon died from consumption. Despite his wife's death and the loss of his third son Maurice two months later he managed to complete fifty two pieces over the next three years.
In 1879 he secretly got engaged to Elizabeth Jane Gardener a woman twelve years his junior. Shortly after the death of his wife he announced to his family that he was thinking of remarrying. This news was not received well by his daughter or his mother and so Bouguereau was sworn to secrecy and defied to marry her before the death of his mother, which he upheld.
In 1885 he received the Legion of Honour and Grand Medal of Honour.
In 1899, his son Paul a well known and well regarded lawyer contracted tuberculosis. On the advice of his doctor he went to Menton in the south of France accompanied by his father and Elizabeth Gardener. They stayed with him until mid-May. Bouguereau made good use of his time in the South spending long hours painting. Paul later went to Pau to recover but following his return to Paris in 1900 he died at the age of thirty.
In 1896 following the death of his mother and after a long and not always approved courtship Bouguereau married American artist Elizabeth Jane Gardener. She was one of the first women artists who dared to invade the all male establishment of the French art academies. Some of her best-known works were Cinderella, Corinne, Maud Muller, Fortune Teller, Cornelia and her jewels, Daphne and Chloe, Ruth and Naomi, The Farmer's Daughter, The Breton Wedding, and some portraits. During his career William Bouguereau produced over seven hundred works, many of which were life size.
In 1905 Bouguereau died at the age of eighty from heart failure. He was Buried at Montparnasse Cemetery, France
In 1922 after out living her husband by eighteen years Elizabeth Jane Gardener died.