William-Adolphe Bouguereau was born in La Rochelle, France, on 30 November 1825, into a family of wine and olive oil merchants. The son of Théodore Bouguereau (born 1800) and Marie Bonnin (1804), known as Adeline, William was brought up a Catholic. He had an elder brother, Alfred, and a younger sister, Marie (known as Hanna), who died when she was seven. The family moved to Saint-Martin-de-Ré in 1832. Another sibling was born in 1834, Kitty. At the age of 12, Bouguereau went to Mortagne to stay with his uncle Eugène, a priest, and developed a love of nature, religion and literature. In 1839, he was sent to study the priesthood at a Catholic college in Pons. Here he was taught to draw and paint by Louis Sage, who had studied under Ingres. Bouguereau reluctantly left his studies to return to his family, now residing in Bordeaux. There he met a local artist, Charles Marionneau, and commenced at the Municipal School of Drawing and Painting in November 1841. Bouguereau also worked as a shop assistant, hand-colouring lithographs and making small paintings that were reproduced using chromolithography. He was soon the best pupil in his class, and decided to become an artist in Paris. To fund the move, he sold portraits – 33 oils in three months. All were unsigned and only one has been traced. He arrived in Paris aged 20 in March 1846
Bouguereau became a student at the École des Beaux-Arts. To supplement his formal training in drawing, he attended anatomical dissections and studied historical costumes and archeology. He was admitted to the studio of François-Édouard Picot, where he studied painting in the academic style. Dante and Virgil in Hell (1850) was an early example of his neo-classical works. Academic painting placed the highest status on historical and mythological subjects, and Bouguereau won the coveted Prix de Rome in 1850, aged 26, with his Zenobia Found by Shepherds on the Banks of the Araxes. His reward was a three-year residence at the Villa Medici in Rome, Italy, where in addition to formal lessons he was able to study first-hand the Renaissance artists and their masterpieces, as well as Greek, Etruscan, and Roman antiquities. He also studied classical literature, which influenced his subject choice for the rest of his career.
Bouguereau, painting within the traditional academic style, exhibited at the annual exhibitions of the Paris Salon for his entire working life. An early reviewer stated, "M. Bouguereau has a natural instinct and knowledge of contour. The eurythmie of the human body preoccupies him, and in recalling the happy results which, in this genre, the ancients and the artists of the sixteenth century arrived at, one can only congratulate M. Bouguereau in attempting to follow in their footsteps ... Raphael was inspired by the ancients ... and no one accused him of not being original.