Bouguereau was a precocious talent and showed enormous promise from his early childhood in La Rochelle. At the age of twelve he was sent to live with his uncle Eugène from whom he earned an appreciation of art and religion. He moved to Pons in 1839 to study the priesthood at a Catholic college, where he also had the chance to train in painting and drawing under Louis Sage, who had studied under Ingres. Young Bouguereau returned to his family in 1841, who were now living in Bordeaux, and after registering in the local art school was quickly recognized as a star pupil among his fellow aspiring artists. Enterprising and ambitious, he resolved to attend the Académie Julien and at the age of twenty he sold portraits, thirty three in all, to fund his move to Paris where joined the studio of François-Édouard Picot and honed his skills of Academic painting. 1850 marked a dramatic turning point for the intrepid artist, when he was awarded the coveted Prix de Rome, affording him three years at the Villa Medici. There he continued formal lessons and, perhaps more importantly, was granted first hand access to the works of the Renaissance masters, as well as Classical antiquities from the Greek and Etruscan eras. Bouguereau also took an interest in Classical literature, and this exposure would influence his artistic production, both technically and conceptually, for the rest of his career.
After three years in Italy, Bouguereau returned to France eager to find work to pay his debts and help his family. Before his departure he had firmly established his reputation by exhibiting Egalité devant la mort (1848, Musée d’Orsay, Paris) and his Neo-Classical masterpiece, Dante et Virgile (1850, Musée d’Orsay, Paris) at the Paris Salon. This success was followed by one of his first major commissions which came from his cousin, Jeanne Louise Seignette, who had married the wealthy banker and arts patron, Paul Monlun, in La Rochelle. Les quatre saisons was produced for their music pavilion, a freestanding octagon-shaped beaux-arts gazebo at their summer residence in nearby Angoulins (fig. 1). They also commissioned a series of four large encaustic murals, representing the times of day (Private Collection, France) and a portrait of Jeanne Louise and her 6-year-old daughter, Elisa (fig. 2, Private Collection, France). Her daughter would eventually inherit Les quatre saisons as a part of her dowry when she married a lieutenant dragoon returning from the war in Prussia, and moved to Ain, far from La Rochelle on the Swiss border, in 1871.
Les quatre saisons are Bouguereau’s earliest recorded gold ground decorations. Typically reserved for sacred subjects and devotional pieces, Bouguereau was conscious of the warm glittering effect that gold leaf would have amidst residential gas lighting (it is worth noting that the artist would continue to adapt sacred motifs to elevate secular subjects for the next fifty years, see lot 25). Bouguereau prepared his canvases with a thick coat of gesso, made up of gypsum and glue, in order to prepare a smooth surface. Onto this he would apply an earth toned medium called "bol" lending the gilded surface a warm glow. Once the gold was smoothly applied, he stenciled an elaborate geometric pattern across all of the canvases’ backgrounds, emulating a richly embroidered textile or tile mosaic. Les quatre saisons' radiance must have prompted other grand commissions, including decorations for the home of Anatole Bartholini, Rue de Verneuil, Paris (1855-56, three of which are now displayed in the residence of the American Ambassador in Paris) and the extensive murals in the Émile Pereire house, 35 rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré, Paris (1857-58, now the British Embassy, the decorations having joined various private collections). Bouguereau decorated two rooms for Pereire (and Alexandre Cabanel a third), repeating the convention of the four seasons on gold grounds seen in the present work. Upon seeing these, the contemporary critic, Clément de Ris, observed:
Bouguereau has a natural instinct and knowledge of contour. The eurythmie of the human body preoccupies him, and in recalling the happy results which, in this genre, the ancients and artists of the sixteenth century arrived at, one can only congratulate M. Bouguereau in attempting to follow in their footsteps… Raphael was inspired by the ancients when he drew the design in his room [reference to the Stanze in the Vatican], and no one accused him of not being original. In the same way, in taking Raphael as a point of departure, M. Bouguereau shows that modern sentiment could accommodate itself to an ancient form (as quoted in Wissman, p. 24-25).
De Ris could easily have been describing the Monlun’s Quatre saisons, for while their individual arrangement is wholly original, Bouguereau draws inspiration from the Antique. He was eager to employ the education and exposure that he had received abroad, and hovering figures, scantily clad in flowing robes, were a consistent element in Roman wall painting. However, it is the drawings he made while traveling throughout Italy that would have inspired the symbolism and specific configurations of each figure. The allegory of L'été (Summer), carrying the bountiful harvest of golden wheat, is likely derived from the comparable Roman sculpture in the Uffizi (fig. 3); the riotous maenad of L'automne (Autumn), seen in profile wielding a thyrsus, refer to ancient classical reliefs (fig. 4), with fluttering legs and leopard skin lifted from ancient representations of dancing satyrs; the tightly wrapped face of L'hiver (Winter) might have been borrowed from the mosaic tile pavements in the Bignor Roman Villa (fig. 5, now in West Sussex, United Kingdom), showing the four seasons personified as female busts; and with one arm dramatically raised and other holding her robe, Le printemps (Spring) combines two ancient Greek statue types, the Aphrodite Pontia-Euploia and Aphrodite Fréjus (fig. 6)
Bouguereau continued to win important public and private commissions throughout his long career, and Les quatre saisons, the earliest examples, provide rare insight into the foundation of his artistic vision and ongoing quest to create extraordinary objects of beauty.
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