He learns drawing at the municipal school of drawings and paintings of Bordeaux. In 1846, he entered the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in the studio of François Édouard Picot. After he won the second prize of Rome, he was also ex æquo with Gustave Boulanger for his painting of Saint Peter after his release from prison comes to find the faithful at Mary's.
In 1866, the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel took charge of his career and allowed artist Camille Pissarro to sell several paintings. He was so successful with American buyers that in 1878 during an exhibition in Paris, the state could only collect twelve works, the rest located in the United States. Additionally, he signed a contract with the Goupil publishing house to market engraving reproductions of his works.
For several years, he lived with a model named Marie-Nelly Monchablon. She can be seen in many of his paintings since 1858. In 1866, they married. They already had three children: Henriette, born in 1857; Georges William, born in 1859; and Jeanne, who died at the age of five. Two others were born after the marriage: Paul in 1868 and William Maurice eight years later. Paul survived only a few months, and his mother died from tuberculosis when he was eight.
In 1876, he became a member of the Academy of Fine Arts, but the year 1877 was marked by successive bereavements with the death of two of his children, then of his wife.
In 1885, he was elected president of the Taylor Foundation and would hold this post for the rest of his life. That same year, he was awarded the medal of honor at the Salon.
In 1888, he became a professor at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and at the Académie Julian, and his genre paintings were exhibited annually at the Salon throughout his career. He also worked on large decorative works such as those he did for the hotel of François Bartholoni, and painted the ceiling of the Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux. He also created decorative works for the hotel of François Bartholoni, as well as painting the ceiling of the Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux.
His son, George William, who was 15 years old and on vacation in Écouen, died at Guillaume Seignac's house on July 19, 1875. Paul, his other son, died in 1900.
William Bouguereau died on August 19, 1905 in La Rochelle, leaving only his eldest daughter. The painter of these paintings is buried in Paris at the Montparnasse cemetery (12th division), next to his first wife.
His favorite theme is the depiction of the female body. Claude Lelouch, Jean-Léon Gérôme, Alexandre Cabanel and Jules Lefebvre are associated with the academic nude genre. His Birth of Venus (1879, Paris, Musée d'Orsay) is an emblematic painting deeply influenced by Ingres' Venuses. This painter is most successful with this particular style of painting, but he is also often criticized for it. Huysman once commented on his work by saying:"His paintings are not even porcelain anymore. They are like soft octopus flesh. Degas made an ironic reference to the action of melting and smoothing the pictorial rendering in this manner.
After a terrible tragedy in 1877, he turned to religious art, and gradually abandoned the ancient themes of his early years.
He created the painting The Elder Sister in 1869. He depicted his daughters Anna and Henriette. His son, Paul, is also portrayed in this painting. When he was in La Rochelle from 1893 onwards, he took as his recurring models three girls living near La Rochelle. Yvonne can be found in many settings, including intimate or country settings, most notably The Price Book, which has been invisible for years and was only discovered again recently.
His work was discredited in Europe shortly after his death and until the end of the 20th century, and only started to be rediscovered there. In the United States, Bouguereau's paintings from his lifetime were highly sought after by collectors who paid high prices for them, so much of his work left France.
In the context of the 20th century, academic art was rejected and devalued, severely criticized by a modernist thought in favor of avant-garde art and put on the index. For decades, the name of the painter has been removed from general encyclopedias and artistic teachings, or is mentioned as an example not to be followed. While other painters were opposed to the admission of works from the modern painting movements, such as Cézanne, many others such as Fritz Zuber-Bühler were influenced by them.
After the 1950s, surrealist Salvador Dalí expressed his admiration for Bouguereau's art, which he opposed to Picasso. In a book about old art , which willingly uses a paradoxical rhetoric , Dali writes: " Picasso , who is afraid of everything, made ugly by fear of Bouguereau. But he, unlike the others, intentionally made them, thus cuckolding these dithyrambic critics who claimed to find beauty in them.
Bouguereau's reputation has gradually improved against a backdrop of controversy between supporters and opponents of the return to grace of academic painting. When the Musée d'Orsay opened in Paris, it exhibited academic works, but they were severely criticized by a majority of art critics. In 2001, Fred Ross, President and CEO of the Art Renewal Center said: "The cold and relentless propaganda of modern art has led to the most oppressive and restrictive system of thought in the history of art." It publishes a catalog raisonné of Bouguereau's painted work.
In 2006-2007, an exhibition was held at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa dedicated to the painter and his American students. The paintings' high value reflects both the renewed interest of art collectors in his work and taste for his paintings in museums.
The Milwaukee Art Museum (Milwaukee, WI) recently presented an exhibition of over 40 paintings by Bouguereau, titled Bouguereau & America. Starting in May, there will be an exhibition in Memphis at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, then an exhibition in San Diego at the San Diego Museum of Art.