French academic painter. He won the Prix de Rome in 1850 and became extremely popular during the 1860s and 70s. He is famous for his nudes and for his historical and religious paintings. His La Jeunesse et l'Amour is in the Louvre.
Having died in 1905, we can suppose it best that he was not here to see the successful assault on traditional art that turned the art world inside out and upside down in the decades that followed his death. His fate was to be much like that of Rembrandt, whose work was also ridiculed and banished from museums and official art circles for the hundred years following his death. Rembrandt's reputation wasn't resuscitated until the 1790's (he died in 1669) due to the influence of the founder of the Royal Academy in London, Sir Joshua Reynolds. Even as recently as 1910, Reynolds paintings brought higher prices at auction than Rembrandt. Bouguereau's re-appreciation can rather accurately be traced from about 1979 when his prices at auction quadrupled in that year alone, and then was further catapulted by the 1984 retrospective that traveled from the Petite Palais in Paris, to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in Canada and finally to the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford. In 1980 The Metropolitan Museum in New York permanently hung two of his works that been left in storage from early in the century.
William Bouguereau is unquestionably one of history's greatest artistic geniuses. Yet in the past century, his reputation and unparalleled accomplishments have undergone a libelous, dishonest, relentless and systematic assault of immense proportions. His name was stricken from most history texts and when included it was only to blindly, degrade and disparage him and his artwork. Yet, as we shall see, it was he who single handedly opened the French academies to women, and it was he who was arguably the greatest painter of the human figure in all of art history. His figures come to life like no previous artist has ever before or ever since achieved. He wasn't just the best ever at painting human anatomy, more importantly he captured the tender and subtlest nuances of personality and mood. Bouguereau caught the very souls and spirits of his subjects much like Rembrandt is said to have captured the soul of age, Bouguereau captured the soul of youth.
Considering his consummate level of skill and craft, and the fact that the great preponderance of his works are life-size, it is one of the largest bodies of work ever produced by any artist. Add to that the fact that fully half of these oil paintings are great masterpieces, and we have the picture of an artist who belongs like Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Caravaggio, in the top ranks of only a handful of masters in the entire history of western art.