Boulanger was born in Paris in 1824. I couldn’t find much about his parents except that they were born in the French colonies and were therefore Creole. Somehow Boulanger lost his parents in 1838, and was raised by his (unnamed) uncle. His uncle sent Boulanger to be the student of Paul Delaroche, from whom he learned traditional academic skills. Boulanger won the Grand Prix de Rome in 1849, at the age of 25.
Two years before he won the Prix de Rome Boulanger had visited Algeria, which was at that time slowly falling to French conquest and rule. His interest in Arabic and North African subjects influenced his art, and his influences were adopted by his friend Jean-Léon Gérôme.
While studying in Rome on his Grand Prix scholarship he become very knowledgeable of the ruins at Pompeii, and used his knowledge to create pseudo-Pompeian scenes with an Oriental flavor.
Boulanger taught at the Institut de France from the year 1882, and became an influential teacher.
Critics call Boulanger’s paintings “merely academic” and “cold”; which in critic-speak seems to mean that his work isn’t abstract enough. Boulanger would have been “cold” indeed towards his critics – he was an outspoken critic against Impressionism. I imagine he would not have taken the Abstract genre very seriously at all.
Boulanger died at the age of 64, possibly from a flu epidemic during October 1888. I have no idea if he married or had children.
I’m showing cropped details of two of my favorites from Boulanger. These two were completed the year of his death. The first is “A Woman with an Urn” and the second is “The Slave market”. This second work seems to copy the subject of slavery as shown the paintings of Boulanger’s friend, Gérôme. In fact, the slave auctioneer in this painting looks very similar to the auctioneer in Gérôme’s painting “Slave Auction”.
I think that the callous indifference presented by the auctioneer in “The Slave Market” is well done. Nothing is more evil than taking human lives for granted, so by showing this indifference Boulanger has shown that this man is evil better than if he had painted him as a devil.
As for the “Woman with an Urn”, I like the graceful opposition of the lines of her neck and left arm.
Boulanger’s works are not, in my opinion, as high in quality as Gérôme’s works. But still his works are excellent, and well worth anyone’s time.