La Jeunesse de Bacchus

W illiam Bouguereau's La Jeunesse de Bacchus is one of the highlights of the Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale in New York on 14 May. Measuring twenty feet in width, the monumental work will be on view at Sotheby's newly-renovated galleries from 3–14 May.

Bouguereau: An Artist in His Prime

I n the early 1880s, William Bouguereau (1825-1905) was at the height of his professional career. His increasing popularity and reputation resulted in a demanding exhibition schedule as well as several prestigious academic and administrative appointments. Bouguereau’s lifelong habit of devoting several hours a day to his painting, which he maintained was essential to the sense of harmony and balance in his life, had now to be combined with his stature as a major international artist and a prominent member of the French art establishment. In 1879, Bouguereau exhibited at the International Art Exposition in Munich, where he received a first-class medal. In 1880, his paintings could be seen at the XXXI Exposition Triennale de Gand in Ghent; he was appointed a Knight of the Order of Leopold by the King of Belgium a short time later. The following year, in 1881, Bouguereau was elected President of the Section Peinture at the annual Salon des artistes français. In addition, he regularly visited the Académie Julian, where he advised international students who had come to learn the fundamentals of their craft or to improve their skills. Finally, in 1883, Bouguereau was elected President of Association des artistes, peintres, sculpteurs, architectes, graveurs et dessinateurs, founded by Baron Taylor, a society to which he devoted much of his time.

William Bouguereau, La Jeunesse de Bacchus, 1884. Estimate $25,000,000–35,000,000.

While attempting to manage these new professional responsibilities, Bouguereau was also enduring one of the most difficult periods of his personal life. Within just two years, between July 1875 and June 1877, pulmonary tuberculosis took the lives of two of his sons and his beloved wife, Nelly, who was just forty years old. In the face of such crises, and concerned for the family’s well-being, Bouguereau’s mother stepped in to manage the artist’s household until her death in 1896. Despite these dire circumstances, Bouguereau continued to find inspiration and solace in his work. Indeed, it seems to have provided the artist with his sole motivation.

Between 1878 and 1884, Bouguereau produced approximately fifty paintings, including fourteen works over three meters high, which were exhibited at the Salon. He also executed fragments of two important mural commissions, the first for La Cathédrale Saint-Louis in La Rochelle, and the second for the Église Saint-Vincent-de- Paul in Paris. It was during this six year period of unprecedented activity that Bouguereau began to paint La Jeunesse de Bacchus, the most demanding and challenging work of his career. He titled it La Jeunesse de Bacchus (The Youth of Bacchus), though L’Enfance de Bacchus (The Childhood of Bacchus or The Education of Bacchus) might have been more appropriate.

La Jeunesse de Bacchus and the 1884 Salon

L a Jeunesse de Bacchus, completed in December 1883, was dated 1884 as the artist intended to present it at the Salon that year. As such, in 1884 it was hanging under no. 322, its panoramic format measuring 130⅜ by 240⅛ in. (331 by 610 cm), roughly the dimension of two adjoining squares. That had been the standard size for tapestry cartoons and was used frequently from the seventeenth century until around the mid-nineteenth century. The neoclassical painter Guillaume Guillon Lethière at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and later Gustave Courbet, with his Enterrement à Ornans (A Burial at Ornans) of 1849, used this large format to great effect. Enterrement à Ornans, now at the Musée d’Orsay, measures an impressive 124 by 263 in. (315 by 668 cm).

Featured on Bouguereau’s vast canvas are eleven life-size female and male figures, set against a wooded landscape. In the shadow on the left, two satyrs try to support Silenus who teeters precariously atop a donkey. In the shadow on the right, two centaurs are dancing to the sound of an aulos (double flute). Their animated movements provide a distant echo of what takes place in the center of the composition, where a group of sprightly dancers form a circle around a faun, who carries the child Bacchus on his shoulders.

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Le Bois sacré cher aux Arts et aux Muses, 1884

Although it was given pride of place in the Salon Carré at the annual Exposition of Living Artists – a location where one might reasonably have expected to see Pierre Puvis de Chavannes’ Le Bois sacré cher aux Arts et aux Muses, a monumental mural measuring 181 by 409.5 in. (460 by 1040 cm) and destined to decorate the staircase of the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon (1884, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon) – La Jeunesse de Bacchus did not win the médaille d’honneur du Salon, much to Bouguereau’s disappointment. That honor would have to wait until the following year, for his mural paintings commissioned for the Église Saint-Vincent-de-Paul, Paris in what must have seemed a belated form of recognition at best.

Italian Influences 1851-1854

F rom the earliest years of his artistic training, Bouguereau expressed an interest in Greco- Roman art. His success in the prestigious Prix de Rome competition (he shared the prize with the painter Paul Baudry) allowed him to travel to the Villa Medici in Rome in December 1850. In May 1851, he began a long journey throughout Italy, viewing what he had previously only seen through reproductions supplied to students at the École des Beaux Arts. His tireless pursuit of the masterpieces of classical art led him not to Tuscany, Emilia, or the Veneto, the homelands of Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Correggio, and Titian, the artists he so much admired and had copied at the Louvre, but to the south where he embarked on a personalized pilgrimage of approximately six months.

William Bouguereau, Le Combat des Centaures et des Lapithes, 1852

Often returning to the same sites again and again, his mind stimulated as never before, Bouguereau studied the murals at Pompeii and Herculaneum, as well as bas-reliefs, ancient sarcophagi, and the statues and antique vases at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples. Hundreds of drawings from this period, all precisely dated with the sites carefully identified, testify to the feverish activity of the young artist, and his impassioned attempt to understand the genius of the many anonymous creators he encountered and whose works established the basic assumptions of Western civilization from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century.


L e Combat des Centaures et des Lapithes (1852, Virginia Museum of Arts, Richmond), painted in Rome in 1852, was the first of Bouguereau’s important compositions to demonstrate the profound effect that the study of antique models had on his art. Other examples drawn from classical motifs include: Apollon et les Muses, a ceiling painting executed for the Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux (1869, Concert Hall, Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux); Le Départ de Tobie (1860, The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg); Les Remords d’Oreste (detail), (1862, Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, Virginia); Faune et bacchante (1860, Private Collection); Nymphes et Satyre (1873, Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, see Eric M. Zafran); and Homère et son Guide (1874, Milwaukee Art Museum). These were inspired either by sculpture, bas-reliefs, mural paintings or vase decoration of the Greco-Roman period.

Images clockwise from upper left: William Bouguereau, Homère et son guide, 1874. William Bouguereau, Faune et bacchante, 1860. William Bouguereau, Faune et bacchante, 1860. William Bouguereau, Cartoon for Le Départ de Tobie, 1860.


S hortly after his return to France in April 1854, Bouguereau was commissioned by his relative Jeanne Louise Monlun to paint the ceiling of her private estate in Angoulins, near La Rochelle. The theme was to be the Four Seasons, carried out across four vaulted architectural devices filling the angle where the ceiling meets the wall. On one of the arches, in quintessential classical style, a group of young men and women dance in a circle to the sounds of a tambourine and a doubleflute, in an allegory of Spring (1855, Private Collection). Here, the subject may have been inspired by the seventeenth century French artist Nicolas Poussin’s Bacchanal before a Statue of Pan (1632-33, The National Gallery, London) and A Dance to the Music of Time (circa 1634-36, The Wallace Collection, London, shown above).

Nicolas Poussin, Bacchanal before a Statue of Pan, 1632-3

The Angoulins painting, with its striking central motif of a dance in the round, can be seen as the main idea which led to the 1884 composition. This was later followed by an unfinished work related to the theme of Bacchus, undated and, at 14½ by 60 in. (37 by 152 cm), substantially smaller than La Jeunesse de Bacchus. This composition is frieze-like rather than in perspective, with figures arranged across a single, shallow plane. The focus of this cortège, or formal procession, is a chariot pulled by two panthers in which a couple sits – possibly Bacchus and his wife Ariadne. The attendants around them, more animated than those who would appear in a classical relief, carry thyrsi, or staffs crowned with pinecones, the attribute of the god Dionysus (the Roman name for Bacchus). Bacchus’ association with exuberance and the renewal of life makes him the perfect subject for this spirited work, and its subtle references to the inherent qualities of the plant and natural worlds. Other preparatory drawings contain additional motifs that would continue to be developed in La Jeunesse de Bacchus, among them Silenus riding a donkey, a cymbal player, and a bacchante collapsed on the ground in the forefront to the left (Private Collection).

William Bouguereau, Ariadne and Bacchus (unfinished cartoon), date unknown

It is not known how much time passed between Bouguereau’s first rendition of a bacchanal and La Jeunesse de Bacchus, the magnum opus of his career. Nevertheless, it is clear that from its earliest conception to its final iteration, a very different approach had developed. In the series of preparatory studies for the 1884 painting, the processional aspect of the composition disappears and groupings of men and women are formulated. This deepens the sense of space and the composition increasingly takes on the appearance of a triptych (Private Collection, see fig. 13). So too, the neutral background of the first version gives way in the later work to an abundant and verdant grove, an environment much more conducive to the festive ritual that Bouguereau portrays.

La Jeunesse de Bacchus is the result of long and careful work. A letter from Bouguereau to his daughter, dated December 1, 1881, describes the often trying circumstances surrounding this important project, and Bouguereau’s determination to see it through:

William Bouguereau, Study for La Jeunesse de Bacchus, circa 1883

“As for my Jeunesse de Bacchus, I have put it aside after having worked on it for almost a month since my return. I would have had the time to finish it but I did not want to eat my wheat before it is sown and, besides, the days have been so bad that I could only work in the studio 2 or 3 hours a day, and angrily at that. So I settled in my greenhouse where I can paint from 8 to 4 o’clock. This is better for me.”

In another letter, dated December 30, 1883, the artist announces to his uncle, Eugène Bouguereau, that his painting is finally finished, a little more than two years from the struggle of the greenhouse days to the triumphant realization of this epic work.

William Bouguereau, Compositional study for La Jeunesse de Bacchus, circa 1883

A final point to be made in this discussion of the origins and evolution of La Jeunesse de Bacchus concerns Bouguereau’s use of models. As the artist’s detailed notations of names and addresses on the preparatory drawings indicate, the male figure in the painting can be identified as the Italian model Michel Massotti, and the female, Lucia Marentola. They were asked to pose nearly thirty times during the course of the picture’s creation, an unusually rigorous schedule for even the most demanding of academic artists. In addition to these professional models, Bouguereau included a very personal detail, the image of his grandson William. Born in June 1880, the first child of his daughter Henriette, with his charming blond hair and curls he would become the child-god Bacchus, the undoubted hero of Bouguereau’s fête.


I mages of Dionysus, a god from Thrace, began to appear in works of art from the sixth century B.C. onward. In ancient Rome Bacchus became the favorite subject for the decoration of vases, mosaics, and bas-relief carving adorning sarcophagi. There is a fine example in a Roman sarcophagus from the Antonine dynasty (138-193 A.D.) one side of which depicts a festive procession celebrating the marriage of Bacchus and Ariadne. Preserved for many years at the Villa Montalto, near Florence, this marble object was bought in 1786 by an amateur English archaeologist and art lover, given to the British Museum in 1805. The image of the drunken Silenus riding a donkey and supported by a satyr seen in the sarcophagus (and which would become a veritable cliché within later bacchanalian art), as well as of the bacchante with arms raised, immediately to his right, also appear in La Jeunesse de Bacchus, in tribute to antique Roman sources.

Front of a Roman sarcophagus featuring the marriage procession of Bacchus and Ariadne, 2nd Century A.D.

The exuberant nature of Bouguereau’s work is revealing. The worship of Bacchus in Classical Rome was thought to produce ecstasy in disciples, due in part to the unrestrained joie de vivre he embodied. This was especially true among women who, in their excitement, reputedly forsook their homes and domestic responsibilities in order to wander the countryside and engage in frenetic dances, twirling and shaking their staffs in libidinous abandon. The association of such revelry with drunkenness, and the connection between Bacchus and wine, was underscored by additional attributes of the god. According to Phrygian belief, the child Bacchus was chained or asleep during the winter months, but was liberated during the summer. Thus, his name became linked to the annual appearance of produce and vegetation, and especially the sweet delicacies of fruit trees and vines. As Bacchus’ qualities became more defined, he became exclusively the God of the vine, and a symbol of the abundance – and indulgences – of life.


B ouguereau’s decision to paint a bacchanal – a subject that was often used as a pretext for the depiction of the liberated female nude – set the artist on a path that came with its own set of conventions, expectations, and rules. For each of his figures, whether maenads and bacchantes or the males that accompanied them, the artist had to visually suggest a compelling dance-like movement that lifted them from the ground. He also had to impart a rhythm and a cadence to the composition as a whole, energizing it in broad as well as specific terms. Critics of the Salon of 1884 did not fail to point out Bouguereau’s perceived shortcomings in this regard, and in particular the absence of erotic tension and energy in a group of nymphs who appear closer in spirit to the works of Andrea Mantegna (Le Parnasse, 1496-97, Musée du Louvre), than to those of Titian, Carracci, or Poussin (see the latter’s Bacchanal before a Statue of Pan), which would otherwise appear to have inspired them. Indeed, the importance of draftsmanship in La Jeunesse de Bacchus, the fluidity of composition, and the palette, in which the tones are universally and harmoniously balanced, situate it firmly within the Neoclassical and decorative worlds rather than in only bacchanalian traditions. Yet, it is precisely in these departures and differences that the remarkable originality of the painting – and the artist himself – is best and most clearly understood.

Andrea Mantegna, Le Parnasse, circa 1496-97

The composition of La Jeunesse de Bacchus extends horizontally, with its central axis located in the figure of the child Bacchus, who balances atop the shoulders of one of the procession’s main protagonists. To draw attention to this important area, Bouguereau employs a range of compositional devices, each calculated to direct the eye back to Bacchus and his escort; the pair are, upon further examination, a kind of mesmeric pivot around whom the bacchantes turn counterclockwise, equidistant from this hub. So too, they occupy the painting’s foreground, whereas the other elements of the composition – Silenus on the donkey on the left, the two centaurs on the right – are relegated further back to a shaded wood. As a result of this disjunction, Bouguereau suggests a triptych, but one whose right-hand panel doesn’t mirror or match the left. This deliberate avoidance of strict symmetry allows the artist to lend more dynamism to the scene, and to invite the spectator to read the painting from left to right, engaging with the narrative as it unfolds. Bouguereau’s many detailed sketches for this work reveal the care he took in this endeavor and in the placement of his figures individually and in groups. Conventional attitudes and postures are interspersed with original solutions so that under his direction, exemplified by these two studies, this bacchanalian performance is both instantly recognizable and unmistakably unique).

William Bouguereau, Study of Bacchus for La Jeunesse de Bacchus, circa 1883


A s part of their academic training, nineteenth- century French painters and sculptors from Jacques-Louis David and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres to Gustave Moreau and from Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux to Auguste Rodin copied the images they found on ancient vases, bas-reliefs, frescoes in the houses of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and in illustrated volumes. In Bouguereau’s own archives there is a drawing entitled Faune portant un chevreau (1847) based on a Roman copy (circa 130-150 A.D.) of a Hellenic original (circa 160-150 B.C.), discovered in 1675 and now at the Prado Museum in Madrid. Dated 1847, the drawing was made one year after the young artist had arrived in Paris to study at the École des Beaux-Arts, and at the same time that he had distinguished himself with awards for perspective, figure study and composition.

(left) William Bouguereau, Faune portant un chevreau, 1847. (right) Pierre Lepautre, Faune au chevreau, 1685.

The drawing was likely made from a marble replica of the Greek statue (see fig. 19), executed in 1685 by the French sculptor Pierre Lepautre (1660-1744), who was then residing at the Académie de France in Rome. It was brought to France in 1695, and, after many years in the Château de Marly gardens, was moved first to the Tuileries gardens in 1797 and eventually to the Louvre in 1872. By 1847, therefore, the date of Bouguereau’s sketch, Lepautre’s sculpture was easily accessible to the public and any artist seeking an ancient model could go to the Tuileries in order to copy it. Indeed, Faune portant un chevreau was so popular a subject that another French sculptor, Louis Desprez (1799- 1870), also made a copy of it in 1828.

Though clearly enamored of this work, which he chose as the central figure in his canvas, Bouguereau decided to reverse the pose, which better suited the balance of his composition. He even went to the trouble of redoing his drawing, using a live model whose name and address are inscribed at the left top of the sheet: Maniscalco/ rue Gracieuse 11 (Private Collection). Additional alterations were made as well: the man in Bouguereau’s painting is carrying the child Bacchus on his shoulders although, according to the classical myth, the child had been turned into a kid goat in order to escape the wrath of Jupiter’s wife Hera (the young Dionysus/Bacchus being the illegitimate child of Zeus/Jupiter and Semele.) Bouguereau’s confidence in his skill, as well as his academic obligations to pass down a repertoire of works to future generations, prevented such changes from looking like a way to dissimulate his sources of inspiration. Instead, they stand as testimony to his dual commitment to both artistic liberty and the possibility to have recourse to classical models – a principle that he would apply throughout his whole career.

William Bouguereau, Study for the central male figure in La Jeunesse de Bacchus, “Maniscalco”, date unknown

As for the maenads and bacchantes in La Jeunesse de Bacchus, they were the priestesses of the god. Wearing panther skins and writhing in the throes of Dionysian delirium, they escort him while playing the tambourine and shaking their staffs. All the bacchantes in Bouguereau’s painting appear to have been borrowed from figures decorating antique Greek or Roman painted pottery, yet another example of his commitment to the period. Bouguereau was able to study such works at leisure at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples, starting in the summer of 1851, and also at the Louvre with its Borghese and Campana collections. The first was donated by Napoleon I in 1807, the second by Napoleon III in 1863. This first-hand study also informed the centaurs leading the procession, on the far right of the painting. These half-human, half-animal beings, present in Dionysian cortèges, provide an extraordinarily expressive motif within the iconography of Greco- Roman art.


I t was amongst the Italian and French masters including Giovanni Bellini, Titian, and Poussin, that Bouguereau would find his deepest inspiration. Early in his artistic education he had copied Poussin’s Le Triomphe de Flore, part of the Louvre’s collections (1627-28). With no fewer than a dozen female and male figures accompanying a chariot carrying Flora, the goddess of spring, and as many putti alongside, its subject embraces the ambiance of La Jeunesse de Bacchus. Indeed, Bouguereau would recall the lessons of Le Triomphe de Flore when later faced with the task of organizing an equally large number of figures in motion – a rarity in his oeuvre (compare the latter with Bouguereau’s Ariadne and Bacchus).

Nicolas Poussin, The Triumph of Bacchus, 1635-36  

Other works by Poussin that Bouguereau may have known, whether as originals or through engravings, display affinities with La Jeunesse de Bacchus and suggest their importance as a source of instruction and inspiration. Besides Bacchanal before a Statue of Pan and A Dance to the Music of Time, Poussin also painted Triomphe de Bacchus (1635-36, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City). The bacchante dressed in white in La Jeunesse de Bacchus recalls the maenad at the extreme right of Poussin’s latter painting.

Equally important as Poussin’s paintings in establishing an artistic lineage for La Jeunesse de Bacchus is L’Âge d’or, a work created thirty-five years earlier in 1849 by Ingres. The composition was one of two murals commissioned by the Duke of Luynes in 1839 for his Château at Dampierre. Ingres set to work in 1843 but stopped four years later, leaving the project unfinished. The importance of this painting for Bouguereau may be gauged through a reduction that Ingres painted in 1862, now in the collection of the Harvard Art Museums, Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts (1862).

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, L’Âge d’or, 1862

The iconography of L’Âge d’or is in some ways more complex than that of La Jeunesse de Bacchus, but nevertheless similarly expansive in width and scope. The mural painting was described by contemporaries as being “twenty feet wide;” these dimensions match Bouguereau’s canvas to within a few centimeters. The work depicts a large number of carefully arranged figures and, as the diagram on the image below reveals, a composition designed as a triptych. At its center is a large group of women, turning around an axial pivot along which the major figure appears. The alternations between background and foreground elements, movements and pauses, and lights and darks reveal a harmony and a rhythm to the composition that strongly parallels Bouguereau’s later work.

Though it is impossible to know whether Bouguereau saw Ingres’s panels while they were being painted at Dampierre, it is clear that he instinctively followed in the footsteps of the older master by also adhering to the Académie’s rules regarding decorative painting. In La Jeunesse de Bacchus there is the same clear enunciation of the subject, unfettered by any extraneous compositional elements; a similar organization of shallow space; and a comparable emphasis placed on the role of drawing, based both on the study of ancient art and the use of living models. With regard to color, both artists accorded it a secondary position.

Bouguereau’s painting features a limited palette of muted red and blue that provides a subtle contrast to the whites, grays, yellows, and rosy-pink shades elsewhere in the picture. Thus, the composition does not look like an array of painted fragments arranged across the canvas like a mosaic. Rather, the discriminately selected tones, orchestrated like the arrangement of notes on an inspired musical score, offer the viewer the impression of a whole, to be seized at once.

William Bouguereau, Égalité devant la mort, 1848 Patrice Schmidt

In 1849, at the same time that an anxious and ailing Ingres was abandoning L’Âge d’or before it’s completion, Bouguereau’s career took an important turn. Paris was devastated the year before by violent uprisings and unrest, and the Salon had been disastrous. The success of the subsequent May Salon, now more democratic and controlled, seemed a sign of hope for young artists. For Bouguereau, the change in spirit was both visible and profound. Not only was his Égalité devant la mort accepted to the Salon (no. 201), but it received favorable reviews. The artist also learned that he was a candidate for the Prix de Rome, one of the country’s most prestigious competitions.

At this time, Bouguereau saw Charles Gleyre’s La Danse des Bacchantes at the 1849 Salon (1849, Musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts, Lausanne, Switzerland) The energetic choreography of the central group in this work must have made a lasting impression on the young artist, as it was clearly in his mind when he embarked upon his own Bacchus thirty years later. A comparison between the two works, in fact, reveals numerous similarities: a tripartite composition, with the brightly lit protagonists set against a relatively dark landscape; a sense of vibrancy and animation amongst the figures; and the presence of a fallen bacchante in the foreground, a motif Bouguereau replicated almost exactly in his later Ariadne and Bacchus (unfinished cartoon) .The conventional motifs of a bacchanal, apparent in both works, punctuate the composition with their distinctive shapes: animal hides, thyrses, tambourines, cymbals, and a double flute.

Charles Gleyre, La Danse des Bacchantes, 1849

In addition to the major innovations and achievements of contemporary painters, such as Gleyre, inspiration for Bouguereau’s Bacchus came from other sources. Early in his career, the painter had developed a particular interest in sculpture – both historical and modern – an interest that he maintained throughout his lifetime. Moreover, due to his later senior position at the Académie, Bouguereau was able to closely follow and evaluate the most significant artworks of his age, finding samples and motivation along the way. Two groups of figures sculpted by contemporaries appear in La Jeunesse de Bacchus, virtually unchanged from their original forms. The first is the spectacular Triomphe de Silène by Jules Dalou, whose original plaster is dated 1884 but on which the sculptor was working for some years. Its bronze version, cast much later, today stands in the Luxembourg gardens (1898), its general turn similar to that of the group seen in the shadows on the left of La Jeunesse de Bacchus. The second example is the famous group La Danse, carved between 1865 and 1869 by Carpeaux to decorate the façade of the new Paris opera house built by Charles Garnier, a close friend of Bouguereau’s (circa 1865-69, Musée d’Orsay, Paris). This grouping would answer the artist’s concern about how to occupy the center of his composition with a compelling motif.

Writing in 1877, the French journalist and author Émile Bergerat commented on Bouguereau’s creative and multi-referential approach. His words provide a fitting conclusion to this discussion of artistic influence, and the inspiration that other painters and sculptors might provide: “[Bouguereau] has deliberately sacrificed his ego on the altar to Raphael, and his only ambition is to restore the link to the traditions of the Roman school… With [his compositions] we view again the most famous works of classical art, and there is nothing to be feared in paying homage to works consecrated by the applause of three centuries and twelve generations.”


T he profound impact of La Jeunesse de Bacchus on viewers, be they Bouguereau enthusiasts or dedicated art professionals, cannot be explained only by references to ancient art, classical seventeenth century French paintings and sculptures, or the works of the artist’s contemporaries. There is more to the painting’s enduring appeal. When La Jeunesse de Bacchus was exhibited publicly in the artist’s touring exhibition in 1984, it was assumed that its grand dimensions would overwhelm audiences, causing them to remain at a distance in order to better appreciate the composition and its inventiveness as a whole. And yet, it was discovered that the opposite was true: visitors came closer to the canvas, first to admire the artist’s technique, which gave the painting an impressive materiality, and next, because they identified so strongly with the life-size subjects within this massive work. It seems an immediate connection was made between the observer and those who were a part of Bouguereau’s fictional world. The man carrying Bacchus, for example, stands 5 ft., 7 in., the same height as his model and also that of the average man. It is also the height of the central figure in Carpeaux’s La Danse and more or less those in Dalou’s Triomphe de Silène, both of which were sculpted from studio models and reflect actual size. The figure of the fallen bacchante in the foreground of La Jeunesse de Bacchus is so close to the edge of the canvas that she seems to be exiting the space within the frame and entering that of the spectator, collapsing the division between art and life. In its ability to engage the viewer in this way, Bouguereau’s painting had a distinguished precedent, and one that the artist clearly must have known. Sandro Botticelli’s famous Primavera (circa 1480, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, see fig. 27), has held a similar fascination for viewers over the centuries, from the Renaissance period to the present day. Though the spirit of the picture is, at first glance, very different from that of La Jeunesse de Bacchus, its life-size female figures in movement bear some noteworthy resemblance to those in the later work. Draped in a cascade of transparent white veils, the women of Primavera dance against an idyllic wooded background, threatening to spill from the canvas’ edge. Other details, such as the man gathering fruit at the far left of the composition and the striking effect produced by the dark tree trunks against the light sky (see fig. 28), also suggest that Bouguereau had a storehouse of favored mental images as he conceived his La Jeunesse de Bacchus.

(left) Sandro Botticelli, Primavera, circa 1480, detail. (right) Detail of dancing maenads in La Jeunesse de Bacchus.

Botticelli’s work would have been known to Bouguereau from his first trip to Florence between June and July 1852, and probably revisited due to the revival of interest in the artist that took place throughout Europe between 1865 and 1910. In England, it was John Ruskin and Walter Pater who first led the charge to celebrate the Renaissance. Their aesthetic ideals were best represented by the works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and in particular Edward Burne-Jones, as well as other members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Later, during the last decade of the nineteenth century and until 1910, it was the French who kept the memory of the Italian master alive. In France, the major proponent of Botticelli and his work was Armand Point, who was connected to the Symbolist movement, and was one of the pillars of the Rose+Croix Salon. It may have been this revival of interest in the art of the Quattrocento, and in particular the rediscovery of Botticelli, that compelled the Louvre, at this time, to pursue two fresco panels painted by the artist for a villa near Florence. These had been hidden by a layer of whitewash until 1873, when they were cleaned and definitively attributed to Botticelli. The Louvre bought the works in 1882, just as Bouguereau was immersing himself into the creation of La Jeunesse de Bacchus. One of the two panels, Vénus et les trois Grâces oifrant des présents à une jeune fille, features four young women also painted life-size (circa 1483-85, Musée du Louvre, Paris). This would seem to confirm Botticelli as a reference and inspiration.

Sandro Botticelli, Venus and the Three Graces Presenting Gifts to a Young Woman, circa 1483-85  


L a Jeunesse de Bacchus was indisputably the single most important and masterly example of academic painting anywhere in the world at the time of its Salon debut. Bouguereau’s avowed desire was to “surpass Raphael;” here, obviously, the artist neglected nothing to achieve his ambition. And yet, incredibly, Bouguereau was not awarded the médaille d’honneur and the grand work was never purchased during the artist’s career.

How is it then that this acknowledged masterpiece of nineteenth century painting remained in the artist’s studio for nearly 135 years, essentially withheld from the market and the public alike? While he was under contract with Boussod, Valadon & Cie. who, in 1884, became the successors of Goupil & Cie., Bouguereau had himself set the painting’s value at 100,000 francs, a considerable. “I want this painting to bring me in honor what it has failed to bring me in money, and to be able to make it available for important exhibitions in France or abroad.” Bouguereau added that if the appropriate circumstances did not arise for the sale of the picture and he should retain it in his care, he intended “to eventually donate it to the Louvre.”

Indeed, Bouguereau believed his monumental La Jeunesse de Bacchus should hang in the company of Titian, Correggio, Poussin, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Delacroix, the artists he admired so much and whose works he copied. Throughout his career there were those who tried to define his style: was it “Romantic,” “Realist,” “Impressionist” or “Idealist”? Bouguereau had nothing but disdain for these labels. Refusing to be confined to any single category, he believed that the highest expression of art must ultimately be separate from time and place, and that his artistic lineage must be drawn in terms as broad and sweeping as the surface of his greatest work itself, La Jeunesse de Bacchus.


I n the spring of 1846, William Bouguereau left the École Municipale de Dessin et de Peinture in Bordeaux, where he had been living with his family, to enroll at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Four years later, in December 1850, the young artist was off to the Villa Medici. Between these dates, a number of events rocked the Parisian art world, impacting the artist in profound and lasting ways. They occurred amid a climate of social and political unrest that would lead to Prince-President Louis- Napoleon Bonaparte’s appointment as head of state and, after the coup d’état of December 1852, as the newly crowned second emperor, Napoleon III.

Thomas Couture, Les Romains de la décadence, 1847

To begin, in 1847, the artist Thomas Couture, just nine years older than Bouguereau, had become an overnight sensation in Paris. At that year’s Salon, Couture exhibited his Les Romains de la décadence, a monumental painting featuring no less than thirty-four figures (1847, Musée d’Orsay, Paris). The picture had taken Couture three years to complete, but the effort was not in vain: he was awarded the first-class medal that year, a distinction that was widely applauded by critics and audiences. Couture’s arrival on the French art scene could not have been better timed. Since the early 1820s, the Romantic movement in literature and painting had encouraged subjectivity in all forms of artistic expression, espousing individualism, sentimentalism, exoticism, and mysticism, to name but a few. These new perspectives caused an enormous upheaval not merely in people’s way of thinking, but also in the practice of art. The conservative Académie, reeling in the wake of such a dramatically different course, was desperately looking for ways to maintain its power and hegemony. Couture, fortified by his recent triumph, thought that he could be the institution’s providential savior, a leader for a new generation of classically-trained artists, and an example of whata Salon artist could, after two glorious centuries in existence, still be. When some critics pointed out Les Romains de la décadence as the ultimate expression of reinterpreted classicism, the emotional Bouguereau could not but note with interest and maybe a certain discomfort these new tremors of the academic machine, as he pondered his own education and career.

In 1849, another momentous event occurred that may have also concerned Bouguereau. In his recent Salon de 1845, Charles Baudelaire had called for a painter who could portray man “just as he was,” directly and without the sentiment or emotion of Romanticism’s impassioned call to arms. Ironically, that painter already existed – Gustave Courbet, a twenty-six-year old giant of a man who would soon impose his encumbering personality in every art-related administrative office in France, overturning conventions of artistic conduct along the way. In 1849, Courbet began one of his most famous paintings, Un Enterrement à Ornans (circa 1849-50, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, see fig. 31). In order to gauge audience’s reaction to his latest works, Enterrement à Ornans being among them, Courbet had opened his Paris studio on rue Hautefeuille to visitors in the summer of 1850. The event attracted throngs, from the glitterati of Paris to the more modest aficionados of art, all of whom seemed to sense that a scandal was about to take place. “[My paintings’] fame is spreading throughout Paris,” Courbet would later write, “and people talk about them wherever I go.” These paintings were then exhibited in the 1850-51 Salon where they received much public attention.

Gustave Courbet, Un Enterrement à Ornans, circa 1849-50

It is not known whether Bouguereau saw all or some of Courbet’s works that summer. He left Paris for Rome in December of 1850 and missed the annual Salon that opened in January 1851. It is more likely that he saw Un Enterrement à Ornans upon his return to Paris, at the 1855 Exposition Universelle. It was displayed in a special Pavillon du Réalisme that Courbet had built at his own expense on avenue Montaigne, not far from the official Exposition buildings.

Whatever the circumstances, Courbet’s Enterrement à Ornans was a remarkable and unprecedented work and would surely have captured Bouguereau’s attention as he charted the course of his professional career. In explaining his approach, Courbet had claimed that in painting he never had teachers other than nature and tradition, a sentiment that the younger artist might have appreciated, except that Courbet was offering a program on the flip-side of Bouguereau’s genius. Courbet’s technique, closer in its coarseness to that of Rembrandt and Frans Hals rather than to the glossy slickness of the academic style, and the unapologetic banality of his subject matter, would seem to separate the works of these two men in profound and perhaps irreconcilable ways. However, Bouguereau’s choice of format for La Jeunesse de Bacchus virtually identical to that of Courbet’s Un Enterrement à Ornans and the use of life-size figures provided unexpected points of comparison between the two paintings. It is likely that Un Enterrement à Ornans, which was designated as “un exposé de principes” (a statement of principles) by its author himself and seen as a manifesto by visitors to the Pavillon du Réalisme, made a strong impression on the young Bouguereau even if he could not agree with this radical artistic proposal.

There is one final, extraordinary coincidence that must be mentioned regarding the connection between these two works. Courbet died in 1877 and, in December 1881, his sister Juliette donated Un Enterrement à Ornans to the French state. In 1882, it was exhibited at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris before moving to a gallery in the Louvre in 1888. Bouguereau, having seen the picture at a pivotal moment three decades before, now had the opportunity to see it again – just as his own tour de force painting was under way.

Given this context, is it possible that Bouguereau put forth with La Jeunesse de Bacchus another manifesto, his own, a perfect summation (at the mature age of 60) of the methods and processes that he had developed over the course of his storied career? And might that manifesto be called the proclamation of a “traditionalist,” the term preferred by the artist himself? It seems, at least, that one of the critics at the 1884 Salon felt that this was the case. “The truth,” wrote Gustave Geffroy, “is that the academician has composed, or rather filled his canvas with, all the vignettes and all the details he was able to copy in museums and collections and engravings.” Similarly, and representing the broader views of the Parisian intellectual and artistic élite, the critic Gustave Goetschy added the following commentary on Bouguereau’s work: “In both execution and subject matter, this vast painting[…] marks the apogee of M. Bouguereau’s art. He explains and summarizes it; [this painting is] its alpha and its omega. After La Jeunesse de Bacchus, M. Bouguereau . . . can confidently await the judgment of posterity.”


T he first North American exhibition of Bouguereau’s work was organized by Robert Isaacson for the New York Cultural Center and ran from December 13, 1974 to February 2, 1975. In 1984, an exhibition of forty of Bouguereau’s most important paintings, including La Jeunesse de Bacchus, was held in Paris, Montréal, and Hartford, Connecticut. Some 250,000 visitors attended the event, experiencing in person what had previously only been possible through photogravures or the black-and-white photographs published by Braun, Clément & Cie., rediscovering an artist who had been largely forgotten for more than eighty years.

Over the last twenty years, public sales attest to a dedicated and profound interest in Bouguereau among collectors, which seems only to be growing. As for La Jeunesse de Bacchus, it has received considerable modern attention; when it appeared in Paris in 1984 with other paintings in the rooms of the Petit-Palais, the renowned art critic for Le Monde, André Fermigier, concluded his review with the following evocative words: “The beautiful naked bodies of La Jeunesse de Bacchus, a painting that should be at the Musée d’Orsay, may speak to the end of a world, but it is a world that has had its greatness and which has disappeared without being disavowed.”


P erhaps no one has more precisely defined Bouguereau’s art than Pierre Sérié in his masterful contribution to the study of French history painting between 1860 and 1900. In his analysis, Sérié makes three key points:

  1. The artist’s lack of interest in the subject compared to the style and arrangement of the composition, which is largely decorative.

Here Sérié quotes Bouguereau biographer Marius Vachon, who, in 1900, wrote the following: “Unlike many painters of his time, Bouguereau starts with the form to arrive at the idea. Whether a painting is big or small, to him it’s only a theme with lines and colors. He often found himself stuck when he had to give a composition a title.” In fact, from the 1870s, Bouguereau gradually abandoned narrative to turn to the beauty of shapes and the harmony of colors in a space he was creating, in order to emphasize them above all else.

  1. The materiality of the artist’s painting.

Sérié writes: “Bouguereau seeks a compromise between the ideal nude and the living model. He manages the abstract character of the first and the tactile quality of the second… Dare we suggest that he invented a new kind of academic nude?”

And later: “Several art critics of the Salon have observed that no one had ever more readily struck the right balance between a living, throbbing body and an ideal, symbolic image . . . The pink-tinted flesh is alive; we can see blood flowing in the veins . . . Bouguereau brilliantly succeeds at reconciling plasticity and picturality,”19 thereby distinguishing himself from such rivals as Alexandre Cabanel and Jean-Léon Gérôme, and even his illustrious predecessor, Ingres.

  1. The importance of setting and context in appreciating a Bouguereau painting.

“The final indication of a painting’s eminent pictorial qualities, according to Bouguereau is its extreme sensitivity to the context in which it is placed. The frame in the strict sense (gilded wood), the frame in the larger sense (the colors of the wall on which the work hangs), and the intensity of the light can completely change the chromatic balance of a composition . . . A ‘Bouguereau’ never reveals itself once and for all; it is a perpetual rediscovery.”

Sérié concluded that: “If Bouguereau’s paintings are everything that modernity execrates -- flat images – they nevertheless don’t tell much of a story but are a total pleasure for the eyes . . . Bouguereau is a master of each stage of his art, from conception (the plastic) to execution (the materiality), brushing aside with very modern casualness any question of external order: argument, idea, or subject.”

Is Bouguereau modern in spite of himself? The following profession of faith by Bouguereau’s biographer Marius Vachon gives us every reason to think so:

There is no symbolic art, social art, religious art, or monumental art: there is just art, the representation of nature by an artist whose sole purpose is to express its truth. Antiquity shows what an inexhaustible source of inspiration nature is. With just a few elements – a head, bust, arms, torso, legs, belly – how many masterpieces have been created!

Breaking Ground

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