William-Adolphe Bouguereau, France
40.25 in. x 51.4 in.
Gift of the Lawrence C. Phipps Foundation, 1958.115
Photograph © Denver Art Museum 2009. All Rights Reserved.
Born in La Rochelle, France, William-Adolphe Bouguereau [BOO-guhr-oh] is often thought of as the typical French academic painter. After many years of studying, painting, and teaching in France and Italy, Bouguereau rose to prominence as the most famous French painter of his day. His combination of realism and idealism attracted many admirers. He cast many of his compositions in “ideal” ways, with figures based in part on classical statues as models. As one of the key supporters of the Salon (the official exhibition of contemporary art in Paris), Bouguereau showed his work there regularly for several decades. Although he lived during a time when artists were exploring new ways of painting, he never strayed from the conservative, academic style of painting he learned during his formative years. The response to his works was mixed: some found his work impressive for his technical skill, while others thought that the subjects were sappy and old-fashioned. Regardless, he is thought of as the European artist who set the academic standard for painting in the 1800s.
An idyll is a poem, prose piece, or event depicting a rural and tranquil scene, usually in idealized terms. The girls in this painting are images of idyllic innocence. Bouguereau probably created this painting during one of his frequent trips to La Rochelle, modeling it after local peasant children. Childhood Idyll reflects the classicism of academic painting in the late 1800s, which referred back to the art of ancient Greece and Rome. Bouguereau made his paintings look timeless: instead of portraying the girls in the latest fashions, he paints them wearing peasant-type clothing that could belong to several different centuries. Bouguereau’s painting process was long and painstaking; this painting is the result of months of dedicated research, sketching, and careful planning.
The artist’s brushwork is virtually invisible. The figures are painted with thin layers of paint and almost no texture, leaving a smooth, glossy finish. There are only a few spots where you can see big fanned brushstrokes in the clouds, and short, wispy brushstrokes in the shrubs.
The perception of depth in nature can be enhanced with the use of atmospheric haze. This effect is achieved by using less focus and dull, blue hues for distant objects. The haze in this painting represents cloudiness, but can also indicate humidity, rain, snow, or smoke.
Foreshortening is a technique artists use to create an illusion of depth, either by pushing an object forward or sending it back into space. Look at how much larger the older girl’s feet are compared to her head, for example. The difference in scale between the two anatomical parts suggests that the feet are closer to the viewer than her head.
Composition is the arrangement of elements in a painting. The three main elements in this painting are the girls, the background, and the foreground grasses and shrubs. Bouguereau places his subjects in a space that’s rather like a stage. The two girls are seated center stage, facing the audience at a comfortable distance. The flat landscape and empty sky create a sense of expansiveness, dividing the background into two distinct spaces—the top and the bottom. Although one has the impression that this artwork was painted out of doors, it was actually a very planned and deliberate composition that the artist worked out in his studio.
Bouguereau gives his painting a rosy glow by using pinks and flesh tones to warm the otherwise cool whites and blues. Even the ground seems reddish. Bouguereau adds white and gray to his colors to give the work its soft, pastel effect.
Except for the dark outlines of the girls’ heads against the light sky, there are no strong lines in the painting. Boundaries are merely implied by subtle color shifts. Soft edges and interwoven colors allow our eyes to flow freely across the painting.
The sunlight in this painting is diffused through the overcast sky, softening and muting the colors.
Essay, "The Salon and the Royal Academy," from the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, with accompanying images.
Ayton, Nicola. Nineteenth Century Paintings. London: Richard Green at Three London Galleries, 1989.
Provides broader context for Bouguereau’s work and includes a short biography.
Boime, Albert. The Academy and French Painting in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Phaidon Press, 1970.
Outlines the general principals of Academic painting and touches on Bouguereau’s place in the Academic school.
Cardoso, Rafael C., and Colin Trodd, eds. Art and the Academy in the Nineteenth Century. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000.
Collections of essays that discuss the institutional structures and artistic practices of academies.
Peck, James Frederick, ed. In the Studios of Paris: William Bouguereau and his American Students. Tulsa: The Philbrook Museum of Art, 2006.
Focuses exclusively on Bouguereau, his American pupils, and the history of Parisian art education.
Wissman, Fronia E. Bouguereau. Rohnert Park, CA: Pomegranate Art Books, 1996.
The book explores in-depth the art, career, and family life of the artist.
Funding for object education resources provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.
The images on this page are intended for classroom use only and may not be reproduced for other reasons without the permission of the Denver Art Museum. This object may not currently be on display at the museum.