William Adolphe Bougeureau, born in La Rochelle in 1825, trained at the School of Drawing in Bordeaux and then at the Academy of Fine Arts in Paris, where he was a pupil of François-Édouard Picot who welcomed him into his studio and introduced him to academic history painting.
From his very first works, one can see in the artist’s mind a desire for formal perfection, which stemmed from his participation in anatomy lessons, but also from his profound interest in ancient art, archaeology and classical literature. The reading of Homer, Virgil and Horace would be essential for his artistic developments, strongly linked to the historical and mythological genre.
Moving to Rome: the scholarship at Villa Medici
In 1849, Bougeureau made his debut at the Paris Salon with the famous painting Egalité, inaugurating a very rich exhibition season. The following year, with the presentation of Incrédulité de Thomas and Zénobie trouvée par des bergers sur le bord de l’Araxe, he won the Prix de Rome and then the Villa Medici boarding house. For the next four years, the painter completed his scholarship at the Academy of France.
Rome was a fundamental stage in William Adolphe Bougeureau’s education, not only because he considered it to be a base for visiting the entire peninsula, but because it gave him the opportunity to study ancient art and the masters of the Renaissance. His most significant works include L’Enfer de Dante, Idylle and above all Triomphe du martyr ouy le corps de sainte Cécilie apparté dans le catacombes, exhibited at the 1855 Universal Exhibition in Paris.
Academic painting with historical, mythological and literary subjects
Returning to Paris after his Italian experience, the painter continued to exhibit regularly at the Salon, ranging from historical subjects to allegories, which also returned in the fresco decorations of some of the palaces, such as the Pereire. Despite the fact that the 1855 Universal Exhibition was the basis for the spread of the naturalist aspirations of the Barbizon School, Bougeureau maintained his academicism almost until his death, without ever giving in to the Impressionist innovations of the 1860s and 1870s.
Greek mythological scenes, rural and bucolic subjects, as well as allegories with female protagonists, were all part of the French painter’s rich repertoire, on which he would build his long-lasting classical academic success, as testified by the painting Le Triomphe de Venus, from 1856, which definitively consecrated the artist. At the Salon of 1862, Napoleon III bought the Sainte Famille, exponentially increasing the artist’s fame, despite his undeniable tendency towards an academic style that had become anachronistic.
The muscular, nervous bodies, the precision of drawing and colour, the expressive and formal clarity, and the dramatic, theatrical tension in all his compositions made him a traditionalist artist right up to the end of his life, as can be seen from his many paintings in the Musée d’Orsay, including the youthful Dante and Virgile and Les Oréades, a painting from his very last phase in 1902.
Despite his late work, he did not renounce the mythological theme, with the famous procession of nymphs crowded together, creating a tangle of white, naked bodies. Once again, this allows him to demonstrate his technical skill and his faithful adherence to academic stylistic elements, even if with a slight concession to naturalism, created by the inclusion of the wood in the background with the symbolic crescent moon.
He did not, of course, participate in the Paris Commune, a conservative to the end. In the meantime, William Adolphe Bougeureau signed a contract with Adolphe Goupil which enabled him to support himself and be present in the aristocratic market until the nineties, when he stayed in London exhibiting at the Royal Academy. In 1903, he made his last trip to Italy, passing through Rome and Florence. He died in La Rochelle in 1905 at the age of eighty.