Saturday, January 22, 2011
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.
Bouguereau's parents, merchants first in wine and then in olive oil, initially wanted him to enter the family business by the early 1840s based in Bordeaux and he did so. A client of the elder Bouguereau convinced the father to allow the son to study at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Bordeaux for two years, an institution then headed by Jean Paul Alaux (1788-1858). As often happens, work and study had to make room for each other, and Bouguereau was able to study at the school only early in the morning and late at night. He earned extra money designing lithographic labels for jams and preserves. Nonetheless, in 1844, after only two years of part time study, Bouguereau won first prize in figure painting for a canvas representing Saint Roch. This prize was the catalyst for Bouguereau's future career.
The center of the art world, however, was in Paris, not Bordeaux, and Bouguereau's father could not afford to send his son to the capital. His mother earned extra money doing needlework, but that effort was of limited use. His uncle the curate stepped in once again, arranging for Bouguereau to paint the portraits of his parishioners at a fixed price, in exchange for room and board. Thirty three portraits sufficed for him to save nine hundred francs. An aunt matched this sum, which finally gave Bouguereau enough to go to Paris in 1846, at the age of twenty one. With the recommendation of Alaux from Bordeaux, Bouguereau was accepted into the studio of Francois Edouard Picot (1786-1868) and then at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, the latter the goal of all art students aspiring to official acceptance.
A brief discussion of the official art world in Paris in the mid nineteenth century might help to explain why Bouguereau chose the path he did, and why he was so successful once he had mastered its idiosyncrasies. The rulers of the strongly centralized government of France had, for centuries, embellished the state, and their person as an embodiment of that state, with art. From lavishly decorated royal palaces to the war booty Napoleon stole from Italy, art had been used as a political tool to demonstrate the strength and longevity of the French monarchy. The various regimes of the nineteenth century imperial, republican, monarchal were no different. They used the multilayered bureaucracy they had inherited to train artists, to provide public exhibitions, and to reward artists who met their criteria. In short, an artist, whether architect, engraver, sculptor, or painter whose works were deemed appropriate by government agencies, could hope for, and in many cases was assured of, a livelihood from commissions both from the government and its network of dependencies - the church, municipalities, institutions, and government agencies and from the public who saw the works displayed.
Training in Paris took place in the government sponsored art school, the Ecole des Beaux Arts, where the students were taught how to draw. At that time the craft of putting paint on canvas was taught elsewhere, that is, in the private studios of the school's professors. Rigorous hurdles, in the form of competitions of increasing difficulty, were placed before the students, the highest hurdle being the Prix de Rome. Only ten students each year competed for this coveted prize. The winner was sent to Rome, to stay for four years at the Villa Medici, the seat of the French Academy in Rome, to study classical art and the Italian Renaissance masters. This art training system, then, was oriented to the past, for it was predicated on the notion that no artist since the Renaissance had ever achieved the level of perfection reached by Raphael and Michelangelo. It was the duty, obligation, and responsibility of contemporary artists to embody in the present, and to carry into the future, that tradition.
Just as the training was regulated, so were the forms in which this tradition took shape. Paintings, for example, were ranked by their subject matter. History paintings, stories of noble or tragic acts drawn from history and myth, were accorded first rank. Then came portraits, worthy as likenesses of important personages, then landscapes, and at the bottom, still lifes. The latter two, according to academic theory, were only copies of what the artist could see, and could not carry a message of virtue or morality. Only history painting, with its emphasis on the human body, could properly reflect the training of the government schools and, with judicious choice of subject, glorify the state. Thus, the highest prize, the Prix de Rome, was given to the best history painting; the other genres, with the exception of a new category, historical landscape painting inaugurated in 1817 did not even have a prize.
The main event in the arts calendar of Paris was the Salon, a huge annual exhibition of contemporary art. As important as the government was in commissioning works of art, there was in fact a limit to the number of churches and governmental buildings needing new decorations and the number of official portraits required. In previous centuries the state, the church, and the aristocracy (an extension of the state) were, broadly speaking, the only institutions powerful and wealthy enough to commission works of art, and therefore to influence what forms art would take. In the nineteenth century, as these institutions began to lose power, they were overshadowed by the growing middle class, who wanted to hang fine art in their homes. Before dealers became established as buyers and sellers of art, which happened around mid-century, the Salon functioned as the supreme marketplace, where consumers could see, in one place, what artists were capable of producing. Success at the Salon, which was dependent on such factors as an advantageous placement of works and favorable reviews in the press, could guarantee for an artist a viable career.
Bouguereau's early artistic life began somewhat inauspiciously. Although he was accepted at the Ecole des Beaux Arts after only two months in Picot's studio, it was as the ninety-ninth of one hundred pupils accepted. He was chosen as a contestant for the Prix de Rome in 1848 (third of ten contestants), in 1849 (seventh of ten), and again in 1850, when he was the last of the ten competitors chosen. The Prix de Rome he was awarded in 1850, for his Zenobia Found by Shepherds on the Banks of the Araxes, was in fact a kind of second prize, as Paul Baudry (1828-1886) had won more votes. Bouguereau was accorded a trip to Rome in part because there was a vacancy at the Villa Medici; no prize had been awarded in 1848 because of the revolutionary turmoil in France that year.
Living in Italy, for Bouguereau, was a luxury; the prize was four thousand francs, in addition to the six hundred he was given by the Municipal Council of La Rochelle on his entry into the art school in Paris. While there he applied himself to such rigorous study that he earned the nickname of "Sisyphus." In addition to absorbing the lessons to be learned in Rome from antiquity and the work of Renaissance artists, he traveled throughout Italy to copy the masterpieces found in Orvieto, Assisi, Siena, Florence, Pisa, Ravenna, Venice, Parma, Naples, Pompeii, Capri, Bologna, Milan, and Verona. He also visited the hill towns and lakes around Rome Terni, Narni, Civita Castellana, Albano and Nemi, Castel Gandolfosites that had inspired landscapists since the seventeenth century. The things he saw during his sojourn in Italy would inform his art for the rest of his life.
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.