American collectors had an almost insatiable appetite for Bouguereau's work. Made up of entrepreneurs and tycoons, this group of millionaires was eager to decorate their new mansions with iconic compositions that showed a high level of quality and artistic virtuosity. Their taste effectively laid the foundation for museum collections and helped to develop a visual identity for the country as early cinematographers relied on nineteenth century painters, and frequently turned to Bouguereau's draped goddesses and peasant children for inspiration.
The sustained interest of American collectors was initially courted by the French art dealer Durand-Ruel, and then further entrenched by Durand-Ruel's competitior, Adolphe Goupil. Between 1866 and 1887, Bouguereau would sell ten to twelve works per year to Goupil for an agreed upon sum, and Goupil then sold approximately nine out of every ten to dealers outside of France, mostly to Wallis in London and Knoedler in New York. In fact, only eight works painted during this period are recorded by Goupil as having gone into French collections. Bouguereau sold La branche de cerisier to Goupil on July 28, 1881, shortly after its completion, for 12,000 francs. Just over a month later, on September 21, Goupil sold the painting to a second art dealer, Sécrétan & Co., for 25,000 francs. That same day, it is noted in their stockbooks that Goupil bought the work back from them for 35,000 francs and then finally sold it to an American collector, for 45,000 francs. The exact events that generated this trading frenzy are unknown, but it is clear that all of the parties involved recognized that this painting is among Bouguereau's most significant. It is a glorious and poetic work, produced at the height of the artist's career.
Peasants have long been popular subjects. While some artists of the nineteenth century, such as Jean-François Millet and Léon-Augustin Lhermitte and other Barbizon school painters sought to document the arduous lives of the working class, Bouguereau romanticized them. His peasants, almost exclusively female, are pensive and seem to be unaffected by any social or economic injustice. According to Alfred Nettement, a student at the Académie Julian, his teacher Bouguereau "had absolute horror of what we would call realism and he always said that reality is charming when it borrows a gleam of poetry from the imagination" (Alfred Nettement, "William Bouguereau", L'Academie Julian, January 1906., p. 3, as quoted in Mark Steven Walker, "Biography," William Bouguereau, exh. cat., Montreal, 1984, p. 57).
The two figures in the present work represent perfect examples of this tradition, which is further reinforced by the prominence of the cherry branch. In addition to his exceptional skill when rendering the human figure, Bouguereau did not shy away from botanical renderings. While he often uses dense foliage as a design element to direct the viewer's eye to the intended focal point, here the cherry branch is brought into focus while simultaneously acting as a poignant symbol and poetic gesture. In fact, Bouguereau had employed the same device in a composition 10 years earlier, titled Les cerises (1871, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore), where he has shown a young peasant girl reaching up into the branches of a cherry tree.
Between 1881, the year this painting was produced, and 1885, Bouguereau painted a number of works that featured young girls at play, such as Récolte des Noisettes (1883, whereabouts unknown) or Les Noisettes (1882, Detroit Institute of Arts), both of which feature the same models as La Branche de cerisier. These two girls first posed for Bouguereau in 1879, and were from La Rochelle, where Bouguereau was spending a few months every summer.
La branche de cerisier was purchased by Obed J. Wilson as he was assembling an impressive collection of European paintings by Bouguereau and his contemporaries. The painting made a grand statement within his collection and has remained the focal point for nearly a century.