William-Adolphe Bouguereau ( 1825 – 1905 )

Study of the Head of a Woman for “Offering to Eros”

Oil on canvas, unlined – 18 5/16 x 14 15/16 inches, 46.5 x 38 cm


  • Mark Steven Walker, Georgia, until 1995; private collection, USA, until 2003;
  • Schloss Fuschl Collection, Hof near Salzburg, Austria.


  • Musée du Petit Palais, Paris; The Montréal Museum of Fine Arts, Canada; and The Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut, 1984–85, William Bouguereau, 1825–1905, p. 244, no. 128 ill.

This beautifully executed and realistic portrait study is for the woman standing beside a sheep in Bouguereau’s Offrande à l’Amour (Offering to Eros) exhibited at the Salon of 1893 (no. 221). This major work was destroyed by fire in 1953 while in the collection of the Jockey Club of Buenos Aires (see D. Bartoli & F. Ross, William Bouguereau. A catalogue raisonné of his Painted Work,New York, 2010, pp. 282-3). Bouguereau made head studies in oil for each of the figures in his important compositions. Separate studies were made for the feet and hands. According to Leandre Vaillat, Bouguereau would take only four hours to paint such a study – a phenomenal example of eye and hand coordination bordering on the miraculous. Having made them, the artist was often able to execute the relevant passages of the final painting directly from the thorough observed studies, without further recourse to the live model. In the present study, the model was Rosalia Tobia, a young Italian woman, who posed not only for a number of paintings by Bouguereau, but also inspired other Parisian artists at the end of the 19th century (see Bartoli & Ross, loc. cit.). A further study for the entire composition (oil on canvas; private collection) is known, although there are numerous differences between the sketch and the finished painting. The spotting of the background has been altered as well, and so have the gestures of the figures leading the sheep and the figure carrying the brazier. The finished painting also includes another figure at the far right which is not found in the sketch.

From 1838 to 1841 Bouguereau took drawing lessons from Louis Sage, a pupil of Ingres, while attending the collège at Pons. In 1841 the family moved to Bordeaux where in 1842 his father allowed him to attend the Ecole Municipale de Dessin et de Peinture part-time, under Jean-Paul Alaux. In 1844 he won the first prize for figure painting, a signal honour for a part-time student. As there were insufficient family funds to send him straight to Paris he painted portraits of the local gentry from 1845 to 1846 to earn money. In March 1846 he went to Paris and entered the atelier of François Edouard Picot (1786–1868), a history and landscape painter whose studio also attracted Alexandre Cabanel (1823–1889) and Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), and the following month he gained admittance to the École de Beaux-Arts. This was the beginning of the standard academic training of which he became so ardent a defender later in life.

After competing for the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1848 and 1849, a vacancy at the Villa Medici in 1850 gave the Academy the opportunity to select a second prize-winner for the year. Bouguereau won the three-year fellowship for his Zenobia found by Shepherds on the Shore of the Araxes. In December 1850 he left for Rome where he remained at the Villa Medici until 1854, working under Victor Schnetz and Jean Alaux (1786–1864). During this period he made an extensive study of Giotto’s work at Assisi and Padua and was also impressed by the works of other Renaissance masters and by Classical art. On his return to France he exhibited the Triumph of the Martyr (1853; Lunéville, Musee Lunéville) at the Salon of 1854; the high finish, restrained colour and classical poses of this work were to be constant features of his painting thereafter.

In 1855, he gained critical accolades for four works he submitted to the Exposition Universelle in Paris, marking him as a promising young artist. The Academy instructed the state to purchase one of these works, Triumphs of the Martyr. His achievement also attracted the notice of Jean-Marie-Fortuné Durand-Ruel, the art dealer, with whom he entered into an agreement to sell some of his canvases every year through his showroom. Success came quickly. In 1856, Bouguereau received a State commission to paint Napoleon III Visiting the Flood Victims of Tarascon. His relationship with Durand-Ruel lasted ten years and ended amicably in 1866, when he was courted by another dealer, Adolphe Goupil of Goupil and Co., with whom he negotiated an exclusive arrangement. Between 1866 and 1887, Bouguereau provided Goupil with ten to twelve paintings a year, most of which found their way into American, English or Belgian collections—nations in which Bouguereau’s work found its most enthusiastic audience.

In January 1876, Bouguereau was elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts of the Institut de France, the most meaningful honour of his lifetime. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century he assumed increasing prominence in the Parisian art world. In 1878 he received a medal of honor at the Exposition Universelle. His 1879 Salon picture, The Birth of Venus, was purchased by the state for the Luxembourg Museum, and in 1881, he was elected head of the painting section of the newly founded Societé des Artistes Français. In 1888, he was named a professor at the École des Beaux-Arts. Bouguereau was, by his students’ testimonies, a beloved teacher, generous with his time, tolerant of individual diversity among his students, and happy to teach both men and women. His public persona, however, was not as an apostle of tolerance, but as an embattled defender of academic tradition against the variety of modernist movements that marked the end of the century. He was opposed to the stylistic innovations of the Impressionists as well as the gritty subject matter of the so-called “realists.” He prized technical accomplishments in drawing, colour and finish. But above all he cast himself as the champion of beauty. In an 1891 interview he told a journalist, “In painting, I’m an idealist. I see only the beautiful in art and, for me, art is the beautiful” (Walker, op. cit., p. 53).