Bouguereau was a consummate painter and draftsman and he honed a reputation for unparalleled excellence in his workmanship. In discussing the artist’s process, an American columnist noted that "nothing does he do but paint from dawn until eve, winter and summer. Painting is his society, theatre, vacation. His canvases are his domestic pets. In becoming a master — in preparing to create a whole world of Bouguereau unreality — this gentle woodman starved in Paris in the approved art-student style" (Stuart Oliver Henry, Hours with Famous Parisians, Chicago, 1897, p. 213). The idiosyncratic "world of Bouguereau unreality" had a spectacular allure, particularly for American collectors, whose sustained interest was initially courted by Durand-Ruel, and then further entrenched by his competitor, 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. Americans 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.
Among Bouguereau’s devoted American collectors, and the first owner of The Newborn Lamb, was Alexander Turney Stewart, a model for the archetype of the ambitious, self-made American millionaire. Born in Ireland to a working class family, he came to New York City at the age of 20 and used a small inheritance from his grandfather to open a store selling Irish linen and lace. He grew this modest business into the world’s largest retail enterprise, and with personal income of nearly $2 million per year, his fortune positioned him to amass one of the greatest art collections of his time. Stewart sought out “world class” masterpieces, including such monumental and iconic nineteenth century masterpieces as Friedland, 1807 by Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier (circa 1864-75, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, gift of Henry Hilton, 1887), Rosa Bonheur’s The Horse Fair (1852-55, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, gift of Cornelius Vanderbilt, 1887) and Frederick Church’s Niagara Falls, from the American side (1866, National Galleries of Scotland, gift of John S. Kennedy, 1887). Among these masterpieces, Stewart owned three paintings by Bouguereau: Homer and his Guide (fig. 1, Layton Collection, Milwaukee Art Museum), Return from the Harvest (fig. 2, 1878, The Cummer Art Gallery, Jacksonville) and the present work, The Newborn Lamb, from 1873. As Edward Strahan writes in Art Treasures of America, “[Bouguereau] has never achieved greater elevation of quality than in his ‘Nouveau-Né,’ or ‘Newborn Lamb,’ a delicate subject of a sweet-faced shepherdess carrying a lamb, and turning to say soft, reassuring things to the ewe that trots apprehensively beside her” (Strahan, p. 43).
The Newborn Lamb hung prominently in the reception room of Stewart’s Marble Palace, a fifty-five room mansion at the corner of 5th Avenue and 34th Street which took 500 laborers five years to complete (fig. 3). According to Harper’s magazine, “the building, with scarcely an alteration in the arrangement of its rooms, could be transformed into a magnificent art gallery. It almost astonishes us to hear the architect speak of this as a reception room, of that as a breakfast room, and of another as a parlor. The beautiful wardrobe and bathrooms are the only portions of the house which distinctively suggest the idea of a private residence” (Harper’s Weekly, August 14, 1869, as quoted in Lewis, et al., p. 33). The degree of Stewart’s success in collecting was acknowledged by the Art Journal on the occasion of its sale (March 1887, American Art Galleries, New York) after his widow’s passing in 1886: “The dispersion of the Stewart Collection of pictures in New York brings to an end one of the most famous private galleries of the time. The fact that an American millionaire put it together is significant of a choice stimulated rather than restricted by huge prices, and also significant of a certain modernity of taste and an evident Gallicism” (The Art Journal, 1887, p. 153).
Painted as nearly life-size and set in this vertical picture space in front of a carefully rendered, lush forest, Bouguereau's models are iconic. At the same time, the composition's smooth brushwork erases the presence of the painter, and creates a balance between immobile, static form and rich surface details. The figure and animals in The Newborn Lamb seem to radiate light, for at Bouguereau's hand the secular subject is made sacred. He creates a dream-like universe of peace and serenity that is exquisite and transcendent. While there are no overt religious references in this painting, the image of the shepherdess conjures Mary, mother of Christ, the shepherd. The models face and hands are exquisitely painted, and her bare feet appear firmly planted in the cool earth. While it is not often recognized, Bouguereau is a superb painter of animals, and their expression here is as clearly rendered as their downy coats. Bonheur, who kept a farm’s worth of animal at her atelier in Paris, had lived just down the street from Bouguereau, before escaping the city to her Château de By, and it is possible that Bouguereau used them as models in other works.
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