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My Favorite Artists and Their Art: William-Adolphe Bouguereau

  • Aug 22, 2011
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William-Adolphe Bouguereau is perhaps one of the great heroes of the Academic art movement. His works are vividly brought to life in a manner that is at once realistic and yet also idealized. While Bouguereau confined himself to the traditional Victorian values of Academicism and Realism, the images that he managed to create during his lifetime are iconic and timeless, though he has not been treated as kindly as his contemporaries by many art historians. Often drawing on themes of gentle eroticism, the juxtaposition of beautiful women with nature, and the bittersweet reminisces of childhood, Bougeureau painted in a way that could be emotionally evocative in its realistic depiction of everyday life, but also dreamily intoxicating in the way that he romanticized human sexuality and sexual innocence.
The Return of Spring
At once overtly sensual and also innocent, this painting is a perfect example of William-Adolphe Bouguereau's artwork and his themes. The female figure in this painting is at once very realistic and yet idealized in many respects. She represents curiosity, self-discovery, and the blossoming of sexual awareness. The color palette and the slightly out of focus haze over the scene really gives the painting a heightened sense of dreamy reality
The Birth of Venus
The birth of Venus has been an extremely popular and enduring theme within artwork over the centuries. Perhaps nowhere has it better been explored than in Botticelli's famous painting, but this Bouguereau painting from 1879 is quite beautiful and memorable as well. The lighting and the composition is similar to classical sculpture and reliefs found in Ancient Greece as well as later during the Italian Renaissance. I like the inclusion of the other mythical characters.
The image of the bathing woman has been a very common one in art as it displays a woman in the nude yet fully comfortable with herself and in this context in a non-sexual manner. However, as is often the case with male painters, Bouguereau can't help but give her a slightly coy expression and an alluring posture that suggests she is assertive of her feminine charms.
The Invasion
Not dissimilar to The Return of Spring in its mood, theme, and composition, yet a bit more graphically subtle. Whereas the former painting placed the female in the center as the focal point, this one shares the attention with the many cherubim. Again, the lighting, the soft focus, and delicate colors give the impression of a dream.
Evening Mood
I love this painting. It's certainly symbolic of Artemis, the Greek Goddess of the Hunt, of Virginity, and of the Moon. The color and texture of her cloak is very nice too as it looks a lot like the color of the darkening night sky.
This particular painting has some of the most unique lighting on it. There's a hazy quality around both the figure and the water that I really like. The juxtaposition of her with the rock on the left, the forest on the right, and the water below could almost be seen as a form of symbolism representing the potential for female strength, growth and progress, and fluidity and adaptation to nature.
The Wave
A beautiful image that just evokes the porcelain beauty of bourgeoisie society during Victorian times. There's a fragility to Bouguereau's women that is at once appealing and also subtly melancholic. The details of the wet sand and sea foam is pretty extraordinary. For that matter, the whole painting is very photo realistic.
Nymphs and a Satyr
A classical mythological motif is virtually brought to life in this painting as the playful and flirtatious nymphs of Greek legends frolic with a lustful satyr.
This one manages to walk a very fine line indeed, portraying childhood innocence, loneliness, vulnerability, and longing. It would have been very easy for this painting to come off as being exploitative of pre-adolescent sexuality, and yet I don't think it ever slips into that uncomfortable area of being gratuitous or degrading.
Another wonderful image that gracefully combines human eroticism and beauty with the purity of nature. The lighting and atmosphere here is also lovely as it perfectly captures the early light of sunrise at dawn.
L'Amour et Psyché, Enfants
Probably one of the most iconic images of young Cupid. The skin tones, the colors in the clouds, the texture of the fabric, and the details on the bird and butterfly wings are really stunning.
The Bohemian
Unlike many of Bouguereau's portraits, this one is more realistic in terms of content and yet it is just as idealized even in its depiction of melancholia. I love the look of simultaneous hope and sadness here.

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September 04, 2011
Bouguereau was at least so much an iconic credit to Pompier as Boucher to Rococo or Brancusi to representational abstraction. Nobody exploited Classical themes in a Romantic context with so much grace and skill, nor imparted such vitality to well-worn figurative subjects. Thanks for this reminder of his notable works; one need only spare a minute to Two Sisters or his Botticelli homage to feel at ease.

One quibble: where's La Danse?
September 04, 2011
You're going to laugh, but there's something about the color palette in that one that feels at odds to me. The juxtaposition of the blue, orange, and purple work well to contrast one another, but taken in with the soft lighting in that painting somehow ruins the mood for me. I find that use of blue and orange work well, as does blue and purple and blue and orange, but in order to make all three work in unison there has to be a certain degree of shadow or darkness and that painting fails to present the needed darkness in order to balance the tonalities. Silly, I know, but I tend to get caught up on details like that.
September 07, 2011
Actually, I don't think it silly at all; discernment of color balance is as important as that of chiaroscuro to any experienced aesthete. A second overview of your much more subdued selections only confirms the logic of its absence. All that aside, I do consider La Danse the best of his early works, but Catalan palates are acclimated to the excessive in all mediums.
August 26, 2011
There are similarities to Jean Batiste Tiepolo- generally number two to Michelangelo in artist ranking . (see below) http://www.alloilpaint.com/giovanni/
August 26, 2011
man....I have to say #'s 1-6 are my faves. But the other ones are just as stunning!
August 26, 2011
I figured you'd like 7 and 10 too.
August 26, 2011
you know me too well...LOL
August 26, 2011
Indeed. You're becoming predictable. LOL!
August 23, 2011
I so, so love Bouguereau's pieces. I had no idea that The Bohemian was done by him though. You're right, they really are different. Great list, Count!
August 23, 2011
Thanks Deb. I had this one drafted months ago and just needed to add the text. Doh! But it's finally up now. And yes, Bouguereau is great. I had intended to include some of his more realistic and pastoral paintings, but I couldn't find images of them as easily as the nudes. Imagine that. LOL!
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