Adolphe-William Bouguereau’s Virgin of the Angels

Bouguereau was the most popular French artist of the late 1800s. His technical perfection was foreign to the sensibility of younger artists such as the Impressionists, who shocked Bouguereau’s public with their spontaneous technique and visible brushstroke.

As France was descending into chaos in 1848, he wrote in his journal

Can nothing restrain the masses? Alas no! Faith does not exist or is rare, and strength is waning …. What can anyone depend on? Oh, how dark is the horizon! Paris, France, can it be that your life is finished? I am fearful. Corruption is widespread. The philosophers and socialists have warped the minds of the masses. Decadence is imminent. Signs like this have always proceeded the fall of empires.

Bouguereau avoided politics for the rest of his life. Instead, he sought inspiration from the spiritual, harmonic, moral order as the best way to benefit the arts and, consequently, civilization. It would take some time before he developed the skills and iconography to express his philosophy.  But he dedicated himself to his painting, no one worked harder or more obsessively at his art. His schedule was to paint from dawn to dusk, six days a week.

He also read prodigiously. From the journal he maintained most of his life, we learn he read: Homer, Aeschylus, Virgil, Sophocles, Seneca, Ovid and many religious works, including Lives of the Saints and The Philosophy of Christianity.

He was a devout Catholic, who especially in his latter years as he suffered personal loss of the death of his wife and 4 of his 5 children, turned to religious subjects often to express his grief and faith.

Bouguereau died in 1905 at the age of eighty, having created over 700 paintings, some as large as murals, and several thousand drawings. His sales in America outnumbered his sales in France. He never wavered in his conviction that he was fighting a spiritual war with modernity. But he was also fighting a war against the breakdown of educational rigor. There is a general tendency to group all of his paintings together. Actually, there was a great break in the quality and thematic direction of his work. This shift in direction needs to be considered to evaluate this great artist’s lifetime achievement.

See here for an interesting commentary (from which the above comments were taken).

The piece you see here went on display at the Getty Museum which hosted an informative night which produced some interesting commentary on Bouguereau and his works.