Like many of his contemporaries, including Jules Breton and Léon-Augustin Lhermitte (see lots 48, 58, 60), Bouguereau adopted some of the themes that Realist artists exhibited at the Salon, drawing his best subjects from rural life. However, unlike the earthbound workers often depicted by his contemporaries, Bouguereau reaches for classical pastoral poetry and subjects the real to the ideal – a formula that brought him enormous commercial success. His peasant models, almost exclusively female, are pensive and seem to be unaffected by any social or economic injustice. According to Alfred Nettement, Bouguereau’s student at the Académie Julian, his teacher "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). In the nineteenth century, as more people relocated to industrialized cities, peasants provided popular subject matter for artists in the nineteenth century as urban audiences viewed their pastoral counterparts with fascination and probably envied what they perceived to be a humble, uncomplicated and more gratifying way of life.
Bouguereau's elevation of his sitter's individual feelings and experiences to a universal level may well be the singular achievement of the artist's long and illustrious career. While it might not be explicit in his paintings, he aimed to further the emerging values of an era of social change in France, and considered it his duty to protect and perpetuate the aims of liberty and human rights. Taking Bouguereau’s serene and bucolic oeuvre at face value, it appears unlikely that he would ever find himself embroiled in scandal, but in 1891 he participated in a controversial International art exhibition that had been organized in Berlin. Nearly every French artist boycotted the exhibition, with nationalist sentiments running strong after France’s defeat in the Franco Prussian war. Bouguereau found great acclaim at the exhibition in Germany, because of the fine paintings as well as his brave participation, but he was denigrated in French political circles. In a speech to the Fondation Taylor he said: “We should never forget that when the country suffers unspeakable anguish, Art still holds its head high and helps to maintain the honor of France” (as quoted in Ross and Bartoli, William Bouguereau, his life and works, p. 353).
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