After this period abroad, Bouguereau returned to Bordeaux he painted first a few portraits of his family. He then left for La Rochelle to decorate the villa of wealthy relatives, the Monlun family. At the end of 1854, he settled down in Paris again and undertook the decoration of two drawing rooms in the Hôtel Custine for Jean François Bartholoni.
After this period abroad, Bouguereau returned to Bordeaux he painted first a few portraits of his family. He then left for La Rochelle to decorate the villa of wealthy relatives, the Monlun family. At the end of 1854, he settled down in Paris again and undertook the decoration of two drawing rooms in the Hôtel Custine for Jean François Bartholoni. Bartholoni’s son, Anatole, struck by the beauty of the rooms Bouguereau had decorated, asked the young and now professional artist to decorate the drawing rooms of his own mansion in the rue de Verneuil as well. Théophile Gauthier, the great writer and poet, was dazzled by William’s decorative achievements and wrote about them in his art column, which helped to accelerate Bouguereau’s success. The Salon of 1857 bestowed the Medal of Honour on Bouguereau for his Bartholoni décor as well as for his painting, The Return of Tobias. The Emperor Napoleon III then commissioned him to paint his portrait as well as one of the Empress. Toward the end of the year, the Emperor asked him to ute a large historical painting to commemorate his visit to the flood victims of Tarascon.
From that point on, Bouguereau became one of the young painters that all of Paris was talking about. Another wealthy Parisian businessman, the banker Émile Pereire, asked him in 1857 for his assistance in decorating part of his mansion in Fanbourg Saint Honoré - a big commission which took the artist two years to complete. Also in 1857, his first child, Henriette was born. Bouguereau was living then in the Carnot where he had his studio and began teaching students of his own. In 1859, he painted one of his greatest canvases, All Souls Day, which was purchased by the city of Bordeaux. He then participated in the decoration of the St. Louis Chapel in the Church of St. Clotilde in Paris. In the same year he became a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour and father of a son, Georges.
A second daughter, Jeanne, was born on Christmas Day, 1861. Bouguereau was singularly unproductive in 1862 and 1863: two paintings finished in 1862 and ten in ’63, including the Holy Family, which Napoleon III bought as a gift for his wife, Eugénie. In those two years, Bouguereau was facing two daunting challenges: First, he totally altered his painting technique as he labored relentlessly, looking for new approaches in the use of color. Second, he was forced-reluctantly-to focus on public relations in an effort to earn the goodwill and support of the Academicians for, at the instigation of his friend, Francisque Duret, he had just applied a second time for membership in the Institute.
In 1865 he was awarded a commission for the decoration of the ceiling and the tympanums of the concert hall of the Grand Théâtre of Bordeaux. This project worried him a great deal since construction was not completed until 1869 and the decorating, in 1870.
Bouguereau’s daughter, Jeanne, passed away in 1866. It was to prove to be the first in a series of seemingly never-ending bereavements. That same year, he asked his friend and pupil, Jean Louis Pascal to draw up plans for his own home to be built on a lot he had purchased on Nortre-Dame-des-Champs. And so, in 1868, he was able to move in with his family and his mother, just in time for the birth of their fourth child, Paul. It was from this time forward that his greatest body of work commenced along with the style and subjects for which he is the most revered and well known.
Bouguereau was vacationing in Brittany when, on July 19, 1870, France declared war on Prussia. He returned to Paris alone, leaving his wife, Nelly, and the three children at Concarneau. On the 2nd of September, the Emperor capitulated at Sedan, but Paris refused to surrender. The siege of the city began and Bouguereau courageously decided to remain. Although exempt from military duty on account of his age, he nevertheless enrolled in the Garde Nationale, where he served as a simple soldier, standing guard on the fortifications and relieving other young soldiers on fatigue-duty. Paris was bombarded but fortunately, he and his own home were spared.
When the siege finally lifted, he left for La Rochelle where his family and his mother had taken up residence awaiting the end of the Commune. They all returned to the capital in September of 1871. Bouguereau made use of his stay in La Rochelle to cultivate ties with leaders of the community, both clerical and secular. Also while there, he painted the decorative elements of the Virgin’s chapel in the cathedral and the celebrated full-length portrait of the bishop, Monsignor Thomas. In 1872, Bouguereau secured a part-time teaching post at the Academy Julian, probably replacing some of the regular teaching staff on vacation leave. The following year, he participated in the World’s Fair in Vienna as a jury member and as an exhibitor with Seduction and The Spinning Maid. We also owe to those years some of his best work: Nymphs & Satyr; The Petty Thieves; The Reapers; Charity; Homer and his Guide; the portrait of the Boucicants; etc.
In 1875, his son, Georges, became sick and died at the age of 16 at the home of the Seignacs where they had sent him to escape the suffocating heat of the Parisian summer. This was a heavy blow to the family. This grief of the man who was now a master painter, inspired two of his most beautiful religious works; The Pietà and The Comforting Virgin. In the same year, Rodolphe Julian asked him to become part of the permanent staff of his world-renowned d institution.
At last, in 1876, Bouguereau was elected to the highest titular rank of the Institute’s Académie des Beaux-Arts, replacing Pils. This achievement, after twelve prior attempts, was the crowning success of his career to date. He himself admitted, “To be a member of the Institute is the only public honour I have sought passionately.” But even this was soon surpassed, for six months later he was named an Officer of the Legion of Honour.
In October, his wife Nelly gave birth to their third son, Maurice, but their joy was short lived. In April 1877, his beloved wife Nelly died from consumption and the complications of her difficult pregnancies. In June, the baby, too, died at the age of 7 months. Desolation again shook the household. Rarely has a life filled with so much tragedy been accompanied by such consummate achievement, as one masterpiece after another left his easel. He painted 12 oils in 1877, 17 in 1878 and 23 in 1879 including some of his greatest and most ambitious works.
By the end of 1877, Bouguereau began mentioning to his family the prospect of marriage to one of his students, Elizabeth Jane Gardner, an American 12 years his junior who had settled in Paris in 1865. But his daughter, and more particularly, his mother was so opposed to the idea that he decided to speak no more of it. In fact, his mother made him swear not to think of remarrying before her own death. Bouguereau kept his promise although he and Elizabeth were secretly engaged in May, 1879.