Moissonneuse is among Bouguereau's most sophisticated and elegant single-figure compositions. The rich hues of the model’s costume and formality of the composition suggest the influence of the Renaissance masters and particularly Raphael, whose work Bouguereau had greatly admired since his first trip to Italy after winning the coveted Prix de Rome in 1850. Throughout the 1850s and 1860s, many of Bouguereau’s paintings had religious overtones, most likely stemming from his devout Catholicism. However, following a suggestion from his then dealer, Durand-Ruel, Bouguereau began to secularize his compositions in order to appeal to a broader audience and taste (see lot 15). In Moissonneuse, he may be recalling compositions such as Raphael’s Madonna of the Meadow (1505, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) with the receding landscape and ordered compositional arrangement, or St. Catherine of Alexandria (1507, The National Gallery, London), whose breaking wheel has been replaced by the water pitcher.
In Bouguereau’s own records and when this painting was first sold by Goupil & Cie, it was titled Moissonneuse, broadly alluding to the subject’s identity as a harvester or peasant. In later literature and auction catalogues, she has been referred to as L’Italienne à la fontaine, or Jeune Bretonne à la fontaine. In the late 1860s, Bouguereau began moving from Italian subjects in favor of Breton scenes, likely inspired by three consecutive summers in Brittany from 1866 to 1868, where he explored the southern coast and ocean cliffs located in today’s departments of Morbihan and Finistère. Other works from the period, such as Faneuse (1869, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh) and L’Italienne à la fontaine (1869, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City), reveal that models and props were not necessarily chosen for their specificity.
Moissonneuse features a beautiful harvester in profile, standing against a seaside landscape with a crowd of workers resting beyond. With her head clad in a red scarf and framed by blue sky, the presentation is dramatic and striking. Bouguereau further demonstrates his unparalleled skill with the complicated pose of her intertwined arms and creates three-dimensionality in her profile with a gentle shadow cast across her face by her ear and earring: an example of Bouguereau’s artistic wizardry which would be a technical impossibility at the hands of almost any other painter.
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