In May 1879, the chronicler Adrien Désamy noted in his review, Contemporary Art, "No one on earth writes of women and children better than Victor Hugo, and one could say of Mr. Bouguereau that no one of our time paints women and children better than he!”
While the present work represents a simple and straightforward portrait, it wins the viewer over with its ingenuous charm and simplicity. Bouguereau always knew how to imbue the most modest scenes with a nearly celestial light. His art could transform the most common Cinderella into a radiant princess. One might even compare Bouguereau with the composer Marie-Joseph Canteloube de Malaret, who was able to turn the humble songs of the Auvergne into musical masterpieces.
The elevation of all mankind is elemental to Bouguereau’s work, and this little peasant girl knitting is amongst his finest examples. Our sitter may be a humble member of society, but even when portraying peasants or gypsies, Bouguereau used his prodigious painterly gifts to further the emerging values of an era of social change and enlightenment in France, with an emphasis upon equality, liberty and fraternity. As writers such as Emile Zola and Victor Hugo labored to expose the ills of society, Bouguereau too considered it his duty to codify, describe, protect and perpetuate these aims of liberty and human rights through his paintings.
From the 1870s onward, Bouguereau devoted an increasingly significant portion of his activity to this type of genre subject, addressing the sweet young girls of his hometown of La Rochelle with the same passion he brought to his other more monumental history subjects. In the present work, the little knitter’s eyes are demurely averted, suggesting far off thoughts, perhaps centered on her passage into adulthood, with her childhood left behind. Bouguereau’s elevation of his sitters’ individual feelings and experiences to a universal level may well be the singular achievement of the artist’s oeuvre; indeed, an overview of his work affords us a complete understanding of womanhood, from infancy, through childhood, and into adulthood.
The present work was conceived at La Rochelle during the summer of 1884 while Bouguereau was there on holiday, residing in a house on Rue Verdière. This property contained a small orangerie in the garden, which Bouguereau transformed into a temporary studio, thereby allowing him to paint incessantly. He also painted in the open air when weather permitted, taking particular delight in his garden, the nearby fields, and the seashore, where he could incorporate the distinctive local flora into his canvases.
As he himself recounted to Marius Vachon, the pictures Bouguereau painted while at La Rochelle, which he called his “holiday labors”, were just as dear to him as the grand compositions of his Parisian workshop, claiming, "no painting left his workshop unless he had put into it everything he possibly could."
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