In this ongoing series for Fine Art Today, we take a longer look at the history and features of a soon-to-be-available artwork of note. This week: William Adolphe Bouguereau, “Prayer to the Virgin.”
Until recently, the name William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) had been all but forgotten and disregarded in the annals of history. A subject of vexed opinion and debate, Bouguereau suffered a fate similar to Rembrandt’s during the hundred years following his death in 1905: “ridiculed and banished from museums and official art circles,” as biographers Damien Bartoli and Frederick Ross put it. Bouguereau’s masterful paintings could be had for an average of $500 to $1,500 in 1960 — undoubtedly a consequence of the rapidly shifting views and definitions of art during the 20th century.
As one of history’s greatest painters of the figure, it seems opinions — and the market — for Bouguereau’s gorgeous pictures was bound to shift, and indeed, 1960 appears to have been rock bottom. Since the “swinging ’60s,” the value of Bouguereau’s paintings has exploded, doubling on average every four years. In fact, Bartoli and Ross document that in 1979 alone, prices for Bouguereau’s work quadrupled. By 2000, Bouguereau’s canvases were regularly commanding seven figures, and the desire for his works has only continued to increase.
As one of France’s preeminent academic and traditionalist painters, Bouguereau executed some 822 known paintings during his storied career, often portraying quintessential classical and mythological subjects. Bouguereau frequently depicted the figure, and his ability to render the human form is unparalleled; his knowledge of anatomy and physiology surfaces with remarkable clarity, craftsmanship, and skill. Bartoli and Ross write, “Bouguereau caught the very souls and spirits of his subjects much like Rembrandt. Rembrandt is said to have captured the soul of age. Bouguereau captured the soul of youth. Considering his consummate level of skill and craft, and the fact that the great preponderance of his works are life-size, it is one of the largest bodies of work ever produced by any artist. Add to that the fact that fully half of these paintings are great masterpieces, and we have the picture of an artist who belongs, like Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Caravaggio, in the top ranks of only a handful of masters in the entire history of western art.”
Heading to the auction block via Stefek’s Auctions on March 24 in Michigan, “Prayer to the Virgin” is a brilliant Bouguereau original. The viewer is presented with a somber subject, a desperate mother who kneels and holds her child in her arms. Michelangelo’s famed “Pietá” undoubtedly inspires the figures, but here they are decidedly human. Flashes of brilliant red in the mother’s dress and the Rosary delicately hanging from her finders provide points of focus and vibrancy to the image as well. Auction estimates are between $300,000 and $400,000.
To view the full catalogue, visit Stefek’s Auctions.
This article was featured in Fine Art Today, a weekly e-newsletter from Fine Art Connoisseur magazine. To start receiving Fine Art Today for free, click here.

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Andrew Webster is the former Editor of Fine Art Today and worked as an editorial and creative marketing assistant for Streamline Publishing. Andrew graduated from The University of North Carolina at Asheville with a B.A. in Art History and Ceramics. He then moved on to the University of Oregon, where he completed an M.A. in Art History. Studying under scholar Kathleen Nicholson, he completed a thesis project that investigated the peculiar practice of embedded self-portraiture within Christian imagery during the 15th and early 16th centuries in Italy.


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