The young girl in this painting is Yvonne, one of Bouguereau’s favorite models. She and her two sisters, Jeanne and Marguerite, provided inspiration for many of the works painted in La Rochelle from 1893 on. While little is known about their personal biographies, their growth from infants to adolescents can be followed through a decade of compositions (as well as the occasional photograph taken in the artist's studio). From Yvonne’s first appearance in Allant à la fontaine (1893, J.B. Speed Museum, Louisville, Kentucky) to Les petites amies (1898, Collection of Fortnum & Mason) and the present work, it is clear that Bouguereau was sensitive to portraying her distinctive personality as much as her likeness. While many other sitters appear distracted by faraway thoughts, their gaze drifting beyond the picture plane, Yvonne is almost always portrayed with a direct stare that connects with the viewer and shows a clear expression of emotion and intelligence. Yvonne is about ten years old in Le livre de prix, and she appears to regard the viewer with the same curiosity that she has for the book she is reading. Other works from the period such as La Petite Maradeuse (1900, Private Collection, sold in these rooms, October 23, 2008, lot 64) and Yvonne sur la pas de la porte (1901, Private Collection, sold in these rooms, November 4, 2011, lot 39) share the same thoughtful expression, that of a sharp young mind becoming aware of the world around them.
The livre de prix refers to the often beautifully decorated red-jacketed "prize books" given to children as a reward, filled with stories of exotic adventure, illustrative etchings, and educational texts. In his 1681 Traité de l'éducation des filles (Treatise on the Education of Girls) the priest Fénelon suggested that beautiful books could be shared with well-deserving children, but it wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that the tradition was commonly adopted in French schools.
While the work displays many of the hallmarks of Bouguereau’s most iconic paintings, Le livre de prix is distinguished by unique characteristics that set it apart, most notably the spare background and limited color palette. In order to highlight the figure and convey depth, Bouguereau typically sets his models against a vast landscape or deep in a forest. Although beautifully rendered and carefully modeled, the expanse of wall seen here is uncharacteristically bare. The neatly squared horizontal lines of the floor and baseboard offer the only anchor and provide a stage that grounds the painting. Eschewing dramatic contrast, Le livre de prix is a near monochromatic opus, the background’s expanse of warm white pigments close in value to those of her cotton dress, skin and hair. The modern-looking tableau is punctuated only by the lines of the ebonized chair, and the brilliant scarlet red of the book, also used in her lips and skin.
Like many of Bouguereau’s paintings from the period, Le livre de prix was acquired by a wealthy American collector as soon as it came off of the easel. The first owner was Daniel G. Reid, the embodiment of the all-American “rags to riches” story. Raised by his widowed mother in rural Indiana, Reid started his career as a bank messenger boy making $12.50 per month. Over the following decades, he earned the moniker of “Tin Plate King” by consolidating an empire of manufacturers that J.P. Morgan acquired in 1901 for the astronomical sum of $18,000,000. Reid already had a reputation for lavishness, and with this newfound wealth he acquired a mansion on Fifth Avenue with a live-in staff of twenty and an extraordinary art collection to fill it, a 210 foot steam yacht named The Rheclair with a crew of thirty-five, a castle upstate, and built a three story carriage house (now the New York School of Interior Design at 170 East 70th Street) with space for fourteen cars or carriages and up to sixteen horses on the second floor, climbing an interior ramp. In its entire history, Le livre de prix traded hands only once in 1916, when the painting was sold to Henry May, Vice President and General Manager of the Pierce-Arrow Motor Company, makers of America’s finest automobiles. The painting was prominently hung at his gracious and stately home on Depew Avenue in Buffalo, New York, and has been passed down through succeeding generations. A testament to Bouguereau’s masterful studio practices and the family’s careful handling, the painting remains in an extraordinary state of preservation and is presented in its original gilt frame. Known only through a black and white photograph from Bouguereau’s studio, its presentation today marks an important and long-awaited rediscovery.
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