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The Rediscovery of Bouguereau

As we know, the value of art is subjective. Not everyone agrees on what is “good” art; it is a personal matter and often related to social and political forces of the times. Everybody knows the story of the artist who was dirt poor during his lifetime but whose artwork became wildly valuable at some period of time after his death. Public sentiment can be: those artists who bask in the sunshine of public favor could at any time fall from favor and remain obscure throughout history.

Such was the case of William Bouguereau, a French artist of the nineteenth century. Tutored in the classics and introduced to Biblical study by his uncle who also arranged for his drawing lessons, the talented Bouguereau experienced a rapid rise to fame as an artist, winning the coveted Prix de Rome at the age of 25 and going on to receive the highest honors an artist could achieve at that point in history. At once realistic and fanciful, Bouguereau’s art transcended the everyday world to a place of sublime beauty and grace. Originally a painter of historical subjects, Bouguereau later used his classical education to create scenes of mythological magic and populated his canvases with graceful female nudes. He was known for his highly finished style which required the utmost technical skill and effort. Bouguereau’s human figures are at times so lifelike, they almost appear photographic. He completed nearly 700 canvases during his lifetime, working tirelessly to achieve his ideal of perfection.

Bouguereau received both public and official recognition for his art. He was awarded an imperial commission and a Salon medal. He was made a knight and awarded the Legion of Honor. He also received several honorary memberships and won numerous art exhibitions. He was a teacher and a president of the Paris Salon. In his own lifetime, Bouguereau was considered to be one of the greatest painters in the world.

But as fate would have it, the latter half of Bouguereau’s career coincided with the rise of the Impressionist school of art. Toward the end of Bouguereau’s lifetime, he was criticized heavily for being inflexible and adhering to the traditional style. Assisted by the press and some wealthy patrons of the new art movement, a group of progressive artists began to infiltrate public art institutions and sway public opinion. After Bouguereau’s death and the advent of the First World War, Bouguereau and other academic artists came to be associated with the old regime and were therefore maligned. Within the next few decades, Bouguereau and his art were practically stricken from the record of art history. His name was rarely mentioned in encyclopedias and history texts and his works, banished from museums, remained hidden away under dust cloths in storage rooms.

It wasn’t until the early 1980s that the name of Bouguereau began to emerge again as a significant artistic force of the nineteenth century. Quite suddenly, Bouguereau‘s artwork was rediscovered and the price of his original paintings quadrupled at auction. As a result of this sudden interest, an exhibit of Bouguereau’s art that made its way from Paris to Canada to the United States was held, further catapulting the value of the artist’s work to unprecedented heights. Over the last two decades, owners of Bouguereau’s paintings have been dragging them out from storage so they can be restored and placed on exhibit. As a result, the permanent exhibits of over one hundred museums now contain the art of Bouguereau. Prints of his works are selling briskly in print shops and gift stores, providing stiff competition for the reproductions of more modern artists. At last, the work of this talented artist is receiving the praise and admiration it is so deserving of.

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Diana Blake is a professional artist and art history enthusiast. Her fascination with art history began when she encountered European art firsthand during several trips abroad as a young adult. As she began to compose a portfolio for her own art career, she called upon what she had seen in Europe and extended her knowledge to other styles of art through profuse reading and exhaustive research. As a result, Diana has written more than one hundred articles in which she delves into a variety of art history topics and she has compiled a list of links that she believes to be invaluable for art history enthusiasts. In addition, she also reviews books and movies on the topic of art history and has assembled an extensive list of online stores that sell books, movies and gift items related to art history.
   You can see Diana's own artwork by visiting her site at