L'Aurore (Dawn). William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1881. Oil on canvas. Bequest of Nelle H. Stringfellow, 2005.111.
L’Aurore (Dawn), William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1881
Dawn – early morning represented by a female figure reaching back to smell a blooming calla lily – exemplifies William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s standards of beauty and technical skill. His attention to detail and smooth finished surfaces produced human figures that are both lyrical and ideal.
Bouguereau studied painting at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and classical art at the Villa Medici in Rome, which gave him a chance to explore the human form in depth. Critics praised his images of nudes particularly for the meticulously detailed yet gentle rendering of skin.
Greco-Roman antiquities and Italian Renaissance sculpture often influenced Bouguereau’s later work. Frequently, he portrayed biblical, mythological, and allegorical figures like Dawn. A passage in Homer’s Odyssey that describes the breaking of day as a “rosy-fingered dawn, the child of the morning” inspired him to paint the figure’s fingers and toes with a pinker hue than the rest of her flesh.
Dawn is Bouguereau’s first artwork in a series of the times of day. Others include Dusk (1882; National Museum of Art, Havana); Night (1883; Hillwood Museum and Gardens, Washington, DC); and Day (1884; private collection, USA). Though each allegorical figure’s personality is as different from the others as night is to day, a continuity exists among them – in their poses, loosely draped garments, and the landscapes they occupy. The paintings, a study in complements and contrasts, share a harmony of line, form, and color. Although the artist exhibited each work at the Paris Salon, they never hung together; he sold them to his dealer Adolphe Goupil, who in turn placed them with American collectors.
Bouguereau’s polished academic style fell out of favor in the wake of looser, more expressive styles like Impressionism. Painting, however, was a labor of love for him; he said, "Each day I go to my studio full of joy; in the evening when obliged to stop because of darkness I can scarcely wait for the next morning to come... if I cannot give myself to my dear painting I am miserable."
—Tyler Pratt, education – visitor engagement intern 2013, with Jeannine O’Grody, deputy director and chief curator
Though not as much a household name today as other 19th-century French artists like Claude Monet, William-Adolphe Bouguereau was one of the foremost painters of his time. As styles like Impressionism and Post-Impressionism have gained prominence in the 20th century, more traditional artists like Bouguereau have fallen into obscurity.
What more would you like to know about the artist and his times? Academic art, training, or the Salon? Your questions and feedback will help us develop the BMA’s inaugural Museum Lab, opening this fall!