Bouguereau was born in the northwestern port city of La Rochelle. He studied first in Bordeaux at the Ecole Municipale de Dessin et de Peinture; in 1846, he enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, studying under François-Edouard Picot. He quickly became a star student and, in 1850, won the Prix de Rome.
Bouguereau debuted at the 1854 Salon with a painting of Saint Cecilia’s body being taken to the catacombs. Elements of this painting—the classical setting, the religious topic, the female form—would preoccupy Bouguereau for much of his studio life. His work often straddled realism and a romantic idealism, with carefully painted realistic forms set against romantic, idealized locales, often telling a sentimental story.
Bouguereau was awarded the Legion of Honor in 1859. State commissions to decorate government buildings followed, as did private commissions for paintings of churches. Bouguereau joined the faculty of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1888, and began teaching around that time at the Académie Julian as well.