In February of 1896, Bouguereau’s mother died in her 92nd year. Elizabeth Gardner was New Hampshire, but she married William in his home parish in La Rochelle for he preferred at 71 years of age, not to undertake the lengthy trip to the U.S.A. Then that year when courses at the Julian and Beaux-Arts academies were over, the “young couple” made their way to La Rochelle on a kind of honeymoon.
In February of 1896, Bouguereau’s mother died in her 92nd year. Elizabeth Gardner was New Hampshire, but she married William in his home parish in La Rochelle for he preferred at 71 years of age, not to undertake the lengthy trip to the U.S.A. Then that year when courses at the Julian and Beaux-Arts academies were over, the “young couple” made their way to La Rochelle on a kind of honeymoon. For a while, Elizabeth Gardner-Bouguereau decided to put her own career as an artist on hold and dedicate her life to her husband. She was very devoted and was always at his side, acting as his secretary for the master’s voluminous correspondence, papers, and speeches.
In 1899, his son Paul, a lawyer who had become a well-regarded member of the Paris bar and an officer in the military reserve, contracted tuberculosis. On medical advice, Paul left in February for Menton in the south of France along with his father and stepmother who stayed with him until mid-May. The master profited from his time in the South by being able to paint long hours, seemingly without respite. Paul later went to Pau to convalesce, not returning to Paris until 1900 he was to soon die in the arms of his family. Thus Bouguereau was forced to suffer the ghastly tragedy of witnessing 4 of his 5 children dying before him, the heaviest of burdens that all his power, fame and fortune could do nothing to alleviate. By this time, Bouguereau was worn out by his duties relating to the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris but still he did not shirk any of his responsibilities and his work helped keep his mind otherwise occupied. Accompanied by his wife, Bouguereau attended a few dinners and receptions but most invitations were declined because the couple was in mourning.
To the overburdened father, the loss of Paul was a decidedly severe blow physically as well as to his spirit. He began to age very quickly; and his days now seemed to weigh upon him as never before. Moreover, Bouguereau had combined his life of hard work also with that of a bon vivant who loved to eat and drink heartily. Worst of all he was a chain smoker. In spite of a robust constitution, he began to have several serious health crises after Paul’s death. In 1902 there were cardiac problems and the first signs of arteriosclerosis.
But, there were also happy moments that comforted him. The paintings he chose to represent him at the World’s Fair were highly acclaimed. In his family life, his grandson William had been accepted in the prestigious École Polytechnique which was a source of great pride.
In 1903, he was made a Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor. Shortly afterward, he was invited to Rome to participate in the centenary of the Villa Medici. Bouguereau and Elizabeth made the trip to Italy and, after the official celebrations were over, they spent a romantic week in Florence. In the initial years of the 20th century, glittering invitations to the celebrated master poured in from all over Europe but Elizabeth, with the agreement of her husband, declined them routinely for she could see a rapid deterioration in his health. She cared for him and indulged him, but it was increasingly a burden for him even to walk. By the end of 1903, it proved too difficult for him to hold a pencil or a paintbrush and he found himself nearly unable to work.
It was a minor incident-an aborted break-in attempt at his home-that struck the final, fatal blow to his health and his decline started to accelerate daily. Ensuring that all of his affairs were in order, the old man - husband, father, and grandfather - sensing that the end was near, left Paris in the middle of the night on Monday, the 31st day of July 1905 to return to his beloved La Rochelle. A few days later, on the 19th of August, the great Master, William Adolphe Bouguereau, passed away quietly, surrounded by those he loved. A solemn funeral procession and service were arranged by the city of La Rochelle on August 23. The next day in Paris, a burial ceremony took place attended by family, friends, colleagues, and students.
One can suppose it best that he was not here to see the successful assault on traditional art that turned the art world upside down in the many decades that followed his death, and the temporary ruination of his reputation and life’s work even so far as to write him out of most of the history texts about the period. His fate was to be much like that of Rembrandt, whose work was also ridiculed and banished from museums and official art circles for the hundred years following his death too. Rembrandt’s reputation wasn’t resuscitated until the 1790’s due to the influence of the founder of the Royal Academy in London, Sir Joshua Reynolds. Even as recently as 1910, Reynolds paintings brought higher prices at auction than Rembrandt. Bouguereau’s reappreciation can rather accurately be tracked from 1979 when his prices at auction quadrupled, and then was further catapulted by the 1984 retrospective that traveled from the Petite Palais in Paris, to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in Canada and finally to the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. It was in fact a financial contribution by our current chairman of the Art Renewal center that made possible that exhibition. His values in the market place have literally exploded; from works selling for and average $500 to $1500 in the 1950’s, to in the last three years alone his auction records have been broken another 4 times. In 1998 The Hearts Awakening sold for $1,410,000 at Christie’s New York. In 1999 Cupid et Psyche, Enfants sold for $1,760,000 also at Christie’s to be surpassed the very next day at Sotheby’s when Alma Perens owned by Sylvester Stalone sold for $2,650,00. That record only lasted one year until May of 2000, when Charite sold $3,520,000 back at Christie’s. Over the last 20 years his paintings all over the world have been taken out of their crates, basements, storage rooms and attics, dusted off, many cleaned and expertly restored, and today over a hundred museums and institutions proudly have his works on permanent exhibit. Reproductions of paintings are selling by the millions in poster shops and gift stores world wide, and there is much evidence that they are even outselling the reproductions of paintings by the most famous of the modernists.