Gardner chose to compete in the male dominated domain of figure painting rather than more traditional female genres. Women and children were the core focus of her figural groupings, as they are in La captive, exhibited at the Salon of 1893 (no. 997). Anecdotal paintings, such as the present work, allowed Gardner to showcase her exceptional skills at painting the figure in a variety of settings, each with their own story line. The artist was a bird lover and kept parrots, doves and other species in her studio cages, while a number of local birds flocked to her windows for daily feedings, and they feature in a number of her compositions like La captive.
William Bouguereau, who Gardner would marry in 1896, called Arcadian works, such as La captive, "les fantasies," and encouraged her to paint them. The present work centers around a captive white dove, which two women, dressed in Classical attire of contrasting hues, gaze upon in a nostalgic, possibly questioning manner, as they contemplate its fate. The kneeling figure’s gaze searches that of her companion who, in turn, seems to contemplate the dove. The duality of the figures’ coloring and their positioning on the canvas is contrasted by the triangular interaction of their regards and the overall triangular, linear composition of the piece. The subdued, tasteful color palettes and the careful treatment of the figures, faces, hands, feet, and drapery, were central to the tenets of Academic art.
With La captive, Gardner acknowledges the viewer’s understanding of the white dove’s many symbolic attributes such as peace, love, purity, nobility, and freedom. While the painting’s title underlines a more traditional reading of the narrative, at the same time the dove’s uncertain release from its cage may also allude to the loss of innocence or the status of contemporary women in a time of transition. Beyond a didactic narrative, the expressive treatment of Gardner’s composition ultimately may have been best admired for its delicate and chaste subject placed in a nostalgic, timeless landscape.
Soon after it left the Salon, La captive was acquired by Josephine Mellen Southwick Ayer (1827-1898) who built an important collection first for the Lowell, Massachusetts home she shared with her husband Dr. James C. Ayer, and later her residences in New York and Paris. La captive was the perfect choice for Ayer who, as remembered by her biographer, “adorned her home with beautiful pictures and choice works of art, and showed… an instinctive and keen sense of harmony in color”(Josephine Mellen Ayer, a Memoir, Cassandra Southwick and Lawrence Southwick, New York, 1900, p. 53). After passing through generations of the Ayer’s family, La captive entered the collection of William Henry Haussner in 1954. Together with his wife Frances, William built a collection to display on the walls of their famous Baltimore restaurant. Surrounding the diners, every inch of wall space was covered with paintings, including William Bouguereau's Après le bain (1894) which features the same model as the standing figure in La Captive.
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