Sotheby’s is pleased to present Bouguereau and His Circle: Then and Now, a celebration of works realized and inspired by William Bouguereau, one of the leading Academic painters of the late-19th century. In addition to masterworks by the artist, the auction also includes several portrait and compositional studies from the artist’s studio that are fresh to the market.
These works are offered alongside paintings by Bouguereau’s students, chief among them his wife, Elizabeth Gardner Bouguereau, who during her 58-year career in Paris participated in thirty Salons with thirty-six works and was the only American woman to receive a medal, as well as contemporary artists working in the realist tradition across continents today, including Tina Garrett (American), Zachari Logan (Canadian), Katsu Nakajima (Japan), Kadir Nelson (American), Odd Nerdrum (Norwegian), Markus Schinwald (Austrian), and Han-Wu Shen (Chinese).
William Bouguereau was the most celebrated, influential, and successful Academic artist of the second half of the 19th century. Born in 1825 on the south west coast of France, he studied painting sporadically throughout his childhood before moving to Paris at the age of twenty to formally study under François-Édouard Picot, an established painter who worked in the neoclassical tradition. Later, he was admitted to the École Royale des Beaux-Arts, and by 1850, he was awarded the Grand Prix de Rome prize, which included a full scholarship to the French Academy in Rome, where he began studying the next year. Following his tenure in Rome, he returned to his hometown of La Rochelle where his career fully flourished. He earned consistent critical praise, was exhibited in numerous Salons, and accrued seemingly endless commissions. He maintained the Neoclassical style that he had developed through his years of training, which appealed to bourgeois patrons across the United States and Europe. His success was unremitting in his lifetime, and he was made a member of the French Academy in 1876, and a Commander of the Legion of Honor in 1885.
The auction includes several oil sketches and drawings by Bouguereau, realized to prepare some of his most important commissions and compositions, from La Rochelle Cathedral, in his hometown, to the Church of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul in Paris, and Biblis, the painting he claimed to love most.
Bouguereau’s winning the coveted Prix de Rome in 1850 confirmed and proclaimed his intentions to become a serious academic painter. After studying in Rome, he established his reputation in Paris as a premier history painter, portraitist, and decorator of churches during the 1850s and 1860s. He was elected to the Academie des Beaux-Arts in 1876 and remained a significant and influential member for thirty years alongside a prolific career at the Salon with consistent praise by critics and the French state as a steady patron. He garnered numerous awards from France and other European nations and was ultimately named a Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor in 1903, two years before his death—France’s highest official recognition given to artists.
In addition to his own success, Bouguereau was a committed instructor. He began his formal teaching career in 1882 at the Acadmie Julian, a private school comparable to the state-run Ecole des Beaux-Arts, which, unlike the official government-sponsored system, welcomed women who were excluded from the Ecole until 1897. He also taught drawing at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and accepted several private students, to whom his studio was always open. Among his first students was Pierre-Auguste Cot, Leon Pérrault, Gustave Jacquet, Victor Thirion, Emile Munier, Cécile Paul-Baudry, and many hundreds of others, at least 220 of which were American, including Elizabeth Jane Gardner, whom he would eventually marry.
Elizabeth Jane Gardner, an aspiring artist from Exeter, New Hampshire, arrived in Paris in the summer of 1864, at the age of twenty-six, to study art and make a career as a professional artist. Elizabeth was one of several expatriate women artists who arrived in Paris just before the end of the American Civil War to pursue professional artistic instruction and contend in an art market dominated by—and largely restricted to—men. Out of sheer necessity, ambition, determination, and ingenuity, Elizabeth’s early self-motivated success enabled her to sharpen her skills, exhibit her talents, and sell her works. During her 58-year career in Paris, Elizabeth participated in 30 Salons with 36 works and was the only American woman to receive a medal.
She first studied painting in Paris with Hugues Merle, having been rejected from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts where female students were banned until 1897, then Jules Joseph Lefebvre, and finally William Bouguereau, whom she married in 1896. Elizabeth’s studio served as a professional space where she could further her practice and host collectors, prospective patrons, and potential buyers. A substantial portion of her income in these early years came from copy commissions, ordered by American collectors traveling abroad, working alongside and competing against other aspiring artists at the Musée du Louvre and Luxembourg. Elizabeth maintained a copious correspondence with family back in the United States, today in the American Art Archives, which sheds light on her personal and professional activities, challenges, and triumphs. In a letter to her sister, Maria, early in 1865, Elizabeth explained:
I am painting at the Luxembourg on a picture which is ordered. It is very hard. One young man much my senior who has been several years at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts here is trying to do it too, he commenced two months since, but has not yet succeeded. If I make a good copy, and I am determined that I will, I shall feel encouraged, and it will keep me some time in pocket money.
In January 1873, Gardner applied for and was granted an official cross-dressing permit, permission de travestissement, like her mentor and fellow artist Rosa Bonheur had already done on three separate occasions, to disguise herself as a man and enroll in figure drawing classes not yet available to women, as she wrote to the police commissioner:
I need to undertake serious studies in courses where women are not yet admitted…I therefore implore you, monsieur le Préfet , to grant me the permission to disguise myself as a man for the unique purpose of following more freely my artistic studies.
From 1874 on, and possibly earlier, Elizabeth was a regular presence in Bouguereau’s studio. The two were secretly engaged in 1879, after the passing of Bouguereau’s first wife, Nelly, in 1877, and married seventeen years later.
When Bertha Palmer, President of the Board of Lady Managers in charge of the Woman’s Building at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, was on the search for a woman artist to paint a monumental mural commission, Elizabeth was the first choice, as she relayed to proto-curator and art agent Sara Tyson Hallowell: “Elizabeth Gardner is the one who should be selected as she has so many points in her favor to say nothing of the advantage of a very expert master” (Letter, Bertha Palmer to Sara Tyson Hallowell, February 24, 1892). Gardner, then in her mid-fifties, declined the offer which was ultimately taken up by Mary Cassatt.
Elizabeth’s compositions and smooth facture were modeled on her husband's successful style, which she mastered to such a degree that her work was often mistaken for his, a confusion she celebrated as a compliment: "I know I am censured for not more boldly asserting my individuality, but I would rather be known as the best imitator of Bouguereau than be a nobody!" She was recognized as a superb talent in her own time and today is considered to be among the greatest female academic painters of her generation.
Charles Pearo, “Elizabeth Jane Gardner and the American Colony in Paris: ‘Making Hay while the Sun Shines’ in the Business of Art,” Winterthur Portfolio, vol. 43, no. 4, Winter 2009, pp. 275–312.
Charles Pearo, "Elizabeth Jane Gardner, The Best Imitator of Bouguereau," In the Studios of Paris, William Bouguereau & His American Students, exh. cat., Tulsa, 2006, pp. 59–78.
Madeleine Fidell-Beaufort, “Elizabeth Jane Gardner Bouguereau: A Parisian Artist from New Hampshire,” Archives of American Art Journal, 1984, vol. 24, no. 2, 1984, pp. 2–9.Tiffany M. Reed, “Elizabeth Gardner: Passion, Pragmatism, and the Parisian Art Market,” Woman’s Art Journal, vol. 20, no. 2, Autumn, 1999 — Winter, 2000, pp. 7–12, 30.
The 19th-century tradition of academic figure painting championed by Bouguereau and his circle informs contemporary artists working globally today who engage with realism in a variety of media.
- Zacharie Logan
- Kadir Nelson
- Katsu Nakajima
- Mario Andres Robinson
- Cesar Santos
- Tina Garrett
- Shen Hanwu
- Markus Schinwald
- Odd Nerdrum