19th Century European Paintings

William Bouguereau’s Legacy in America

By Margaret Strode

W illiam Bouguereau has long been associated with the history of collecting in America. Since the Gilded Age, this titan of French Academic painting and central figure of nineteenth century art history has been represented in some of the most important collections in the United States. Sotheby’s auction of 19th Century European Art (22 May, New York) is pleased to present an important composition by Bouguereau entitled La paresseuse. Painted near the artist’s home in La Rochelle, this work is emblematic of the naturalism and sentimentality for which Bouguereau’s paintings of young peasant girls are celebrated. What is equally notable about this work is its illustrious American provenance. Shortly after it was completed, La paresseuse was bound for America by way of Bouguereau’s agent Arthur Tooth & Sons, and it has remained there for the last century.

It soon after entered the prestigious collection of John F. Dryden (1839-1911), the founder of Prudential Insurance Company and a United States Senator from New Jersey. Upon his death, his vast fortune was estimated to be as much as $50 million. The work hung at his sprawling estate, “Stronghold,” in Bernardsville, New Jersey alongside other prized canvases by Claude Monet, Jean-François Millet and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. After Dryden’s death, the work was auctioned by his estate in a 1939 American Art Association sale. It was subsequently purchased by the industrialist Richard L. Cawood, president of the Patterson Foundry, who housed his collection of European art in an impressive Italian Renaissance Revival home in East Liverpool, Ohio. In 1940, La paresseuse was gifted to his daughter Sarah Cawood Roberts and subsequently enjoyed by her family for nearly eighty years.

The artist’s American legacy continues to this day, as New York has become an important center of Bouguereau’s market. With the recent opening of Bouguereau & America at the Milwaukee Art Museum, there is a revived interest in the history of collecting Bouguereau, as the show explores the demand for the artist in the United States and how his American patrons shaped the trajectory of his highly successful career. The first major Bouguereau exhibition since 1985, Bouguereau & America features an impressive range of works from prominent American institutions as well as private collections.


From the 1860s through the early 1900s, American interest in Bouguereau soared to new heights. No other French painter had such popularity in the United States, particularly on the East Coast. In an 1895 article in the New York publication Current Literature, a critic wrote: “Americans own nearly one-half—and New Yorkers fully one-third—of the pictures that Bouguereau has painted. Yet he is perhaps the most prolific of the French painters of high reputation. We began buying Bouguereaus years ago, before the day of his greatness, and now no collector who pays more than $1,000 for a picture considers his gallery at all satisfactory until it contains a Bouguereau” (“Contemporary Celebrities: Home and Abroad,” Current Literature, New York, vol. XVIII, July-December 1895, p. 484).

Bouguereau’s name was synonymous with Gilded Age high society, status and luxury in cities all along the East Coast, from New York and Pennsylvania to Rhode Island and Massachusetts. This was thanks in large part to the dealers with whom Bouguereau worked closely who promoted his work in the United States: Jean-Marie-Fortuné Durand-Ruel, Goupil & Cie and M. Knoedler & Co., among others. Through these agents Bouguereau was connected to a network of collectors whose self-made wealth came primarily through trade and industry. This new industrial elite was buying art, particularly French art, not only to symbolize their newfound status but also to define their identity and class in this modern industrial world.

The picture gallery of Mrs. Alexander Turney Stewart at 34th St. and Fifth Avenue, featuring Bouguereau’s Return from the Harvest (1878) – shown at the center of the left wall, now in the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, Jacksonville, Florida.

Some of the most recognizable figures of Gilded Age America, most based in New York City, owned collections that featured a Bouguereau. The French painter could be found on Fifth Avenue in the grand mansions of Caroline Schermerhorn Astor and later her son John Jacob Astor, William H. Vanderbilt, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Mrs. Alexander Turney Stewart, the wife of the prominent merchant-turned-millionaire. Other notable New York collectors include William Rockefeller and Brooklyn-based George Ingraham Seney, president of the Metropolitan Bank of New York and financier of railroads.

The ballroom of Caroline Schermerhorn Astor at 34th St. and Fifth Avenue, photographed by the Pach Brothers circa 1887, featuring Bouguereau’s Winding Wool (1877) – shown in the upper right, now in a private collection.

The Bouguereau owned by Catharine Lorillard Wolfe, the first woman to make a significant bequest to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which formed the foundation of its collection, still hangs in the Museum today (Breton Brother and Sister, 1871). Bouguereau’s paintings even adorned public spaces, such as the (now demolished) Hoffman House hotel at Broadway and 25th St., where Nymphs and Satyr (1873, now in the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts) was prominently displayed in the hotel’s bar under a plush red canopy and crystal chandelier.

A chromolithograph of the bar of the Hoffman House at 25th St. and Broadway in 1890, featuring Bouguereau’s Nymphs and Satyr (1873), now in the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts.

Today Bouguereau’s legacy continues in America and he is well-known from paintings exhibited in prominent museums across the country, including the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Wadsworth Atheneum, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, J. Paul Getty Museum, Chrysler Museum of Fine Art, Museum of Fine Arts Houston, and the Joslyn Art Museum, to name a few.

To learn more, be sure to visit Bouguereau & America at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art from 22 June – 22 September and the San Diego Museum of Art from November 9, 2019-March 15, 2020.

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

More from Sotheby's