Elizabeth Jane Gardner was brought up in one of the leading connoisseur families in Boston society, who encouraged their daughter's interest in art. She probably met William Bouguereau as early as 1868 while a student at the Académie Julian in Paris under Jules Lefèbvre. Several years later, while a newspaper correspondent during the Franco-Prussian War, she took an apartment next to the Bouguereau family. After Bouguereau's first wife Nelly died in 1876 the couple's relationship became more serious and they married in 1896.
Gardner Bouguereau began exhibiting at the Paris Salon in 1872, recieved an honorable mention in 1879, and was the first American woman to receive a Medal (1887). The subject of her early Salon entries were primarily historical, and included David the Shepherd, Ruth and Naomi, and Daphnis and Chloe. She also painted innocent peasant girls in a style that consciously reflected Bouguereau's and, in fact, she often completed his paintings for him. Yet the similarity never bothered her, and in an obituary article, The New York Times Book Review and Magazine published her opinion that, "I know I am censured for not more boldly asserting my individuality, but I would rather be known as the best imitator of Bouguereau than be nobody!" (February 19, 1922, p.16)