Bouguereau was enjoying unprecedented commercial success when La bourrique was painted in 1884. Somewhat unusually, he submitted only one painting to the Paris Salon that year, his monumental twenty-foot wide tour de force, La jeunesse de Bacchus, featuring nineteen figures rejoicing through the forest. With roaring complexity and verve, this composition advertised, indisputably, Bouguereau’s dominance of French Academic painting and drew gasps at the 1884 Salon, in London the following year, and at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889. While La jeunesse de Bacchus revels in its Dionysian pleasure of the body, Bouguereau remains best-known for intimate and inward-looking portrayals of children and young women. He frequently turned to peasant subjects, and in so doing he plays off of his urban audience's envy for what they perceived as an uncomplicated, simpler and more gratifying way of life, where children were free from the societal expectations that bound those of the city.
While their names are forgotten, the features of these two young girls are distinctly and affectionately rendered, making them easy to trace in a series of five paintings that Bouguereau sold between November 7 and December 5, 1884. In La leçon difficile (fig. 1, 1884, Private Collection, sold in these rooms, November 2, 2011, lot 112), the younger girl knowingly engages her mind and the viewer, while in Tricoteuse (fig. 2, 1884, Private Collection, sold in these rooms October 24, 2006, lot 87), the older girl’s attention is elsewhere and her hands are occupied – these characteristic distinctions are present over each of the works. They emote a sense of world-weariness, anticipating adulthood and departing the innocence of childhood. In Parure des champs (fig. 3, 1884, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts) and La Pluie (fig. 4, 1884, location unknown), the older girl is seen crowning the younger model with flowers or protecting her from the elements, while the younger girl continues to stare out from the canvas, engaging the viewer with regal, sphinx-like stoicism. By comparison, La bourrique is an energized romp and captures a fleeting moment of youth. The older girl’s hands, knees and toes firmly planted in the earth, appearing strong and stable, smiling as she supports her younger sister (this work was referred to as Les deux soeurs since 1902). Gripping the reins of her collar, the younger sister smiles gently with an expression that suggests her thoughts are elsewhere. Her body language confirms that she is turning away from play and towards the viewer, while looking distantly towards something ahead of her. Neither engages us directly, unaware of, or indifferent to, the presence of an outsider.
The young girls in La bourrique and the other paintings in this series were likely neighbors of Bouguereau’s in La Rochelle, where he purchased a summer retreat in 1882. He often worked outdoors in the gardens or in the small orangerie which was converted into a studio. As in Paris, he worked exclusively from live models, asking working mothers in his neighborhood to bring their children to his studio in order for him to more accurately study their behaviors and movements. While many of his contemporaries worked from photographs, Bouguereau did not. It is through this constant and focused observation, the wizardry of translating from three dimensions to two, that the depth of his model’s expression is captured. The complex composition highlights Bouguereau’s technical mastery, carefully differentiating soft skin, coarse linen and the foliage and wildflowers that recede to become a stage set.
Many of Bouguereau’s best paintings, like La bourrique, were promptly acquired by powerful American collectors. As Clarence Cook commented in his 1888 Art and Artists of Our Time, “Hardly any French painter can be named who is more widely popular in America than Bouguereau. His pictures always meet with a ready sale at large prices, and at the exhibitions they are sure of approval from the majority of the visitors, who would probably pass by Delacroix, Decamps, or Puvis de Chavannes, with small notice, or none at all” (as quoted in Fronia E. Wissman, Bouguereau, San Francisco, 1996, p. 108-9). In his 1880 Art Treasures of America, Edward Strahan lists sixty-nine paintings by Bouguereau in fifty-seven of the most prestigious collections in the United States, including those of Catharine Lorillard Wolfe, John Jacob Astor, Colis P. Huntington, William Rockefeller and William Vanderbilt. This American appetite was supported by Bouguereau’s first dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel and, after 1865, by Adolphe Goupil, who bought La bourrique for 12,000 francs in December 1884. Within a year, it was acquired for 20,160 francs by Theo Van Gogh (1857-1891), a Dutch art dealer based in The Hague. Van Gogh had joined Goupil’s Brussels office in January 1873, the youngest employee of the firm, and went on to open the offices of Goupil in the Netherlands. He was instrumental in both further promoting Bouguereau’s international reputation and, and the same time, persuading Goupil & Cie to exhibit and buy works by the Impressionists, including Claude Monet and Edgar Degas. Theo and his brother, Vincent Van Gogh, discussed the pulsing art market in their correspondence and recognized Bouguereau’s dominant and influential position. In 1889, Vincent wrote to Theo about his painting La Berceuse (Woman Rocking a Cradle; Augustine-Alix Pellicot Roulin, 1851–1930), now in The Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Today I started work on a third Berceuse. I do know that it’s neither drawn nor painted as correctly as a Bouguereau, which I almost regret, as I seriously have the desire to be correct — but although it isn’t therefore fated to be a Cabanel or a Bouguereau, I yet hope that it’s French” (January 30, 1889, letter 744, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, inv. no. b622 V/1962).
La bourrique was likely acquired directly from Van Gogh by Theron J. Blakeslee, proprietor of the Blakeslee Gallery at 353 Fifth Avenue and later of 665 Fifth Avenue. Blakeslee was enormously influential in cultivating American collecting tastes, combining works by the Old Masters and contemporary (nineteenth-century) masterpieces on the gilded walls of the country’s industrialists. In addition to promoting the works of Bouguereau, he exhibited works by the American artist Elizabeth Gardner, Bouguereau’s student and later his wife, as early as 1879. Blakeslee actively sourced for private collectors and institutional clients such as the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., among others.
La bourrique was the only Bouguereau included in Blakeslee’s two day sale in April 1902. It was noted in the sale catalog that the work was “carefully worked out in detail, and the flesh tones … particularly brilliant.” The New York Times reported that La bourrique sold for $4,400 to Arthur Tooth & Sons, a price surpassed only by portraits by Sir Thomas Lawrence and Sir Anthony van Dyck and a landscape by John Constable, adding that “there was a large attendance at the Blakeslee sales of pictures among the fashionable people, and the [salesroom] at Mendelssohn Hall resembled an opera night with women in pretty evening gowns and men in evening dress” (April 12, 1902). The painting was purchased by Winthrop M. Crane, then Governor of Massachusetts and an heir to the Crane Paper Company. His grandfather, Stephen Crane, had founded the Liberty Paper Mill in 1770, five miles outside of Boston, and sold bank note type paper to the engraver, Paul Revere, who used it to print the American colonies’ first paper money. Together with his brother, Zenas M. Crane, Winthrop grew the family’s highly successful enterprise and amassed an impressive collection of European and American masterpieces, which laid the foundation for the Berkshire Museum when it opened in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1903.
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