We would like to thank Damien Bartoli for kindly providing this catalogue note (translated from the French). This painting will be included in the forthcoming Bouguereau catalogue raisonné being prepared by Damien Bartoli with the assistance of Fred Ross, the Bouguereau Committee, and the Art Renewal Center, www.artrenewal.org.
Goupil & Cie., Paris
Thomas Walker, Minneapolis
Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (as Normandy Peasant Girls at Prayer)
Gimbels, Milwaukee (and sold to an anonymous collector on September 29, 1945)
Like many artists of the nineteenth century, Bouguereau frequently traveled to Brittany. And like so many of his contemporaries, he also succumbed to the charms, romantic beauty, and the soul of this then remote land which remained cloaked in a mysterious exoticism.
Despite the inconvenience of travel, he passed three consecutive summers in Brittany from 1866 to 1868, "exploring" the southern coast and the ocean cliffs, located in today's departments of Morbihan and Finistère. At this time in Bouguereau's career, one finds a notable reduction in Italian inspired works in favor of Breton subjects and scenes; the first of which to be brought back from Brittany, Yvonette, was painted during his first stay in 1866. Bouguereau also painted several landscapes of the region, inspired by his travels, some of which were exhibited in Lyon at the Palais St-Pierre in 1948.
At the end of 1869, an extremely productive year for Bouguereau, he started work on a theme which was both bucolic and religious in inspiration. The scene presents a fervent and somber tone and is set in the basilica of Sainte-Anne-d'Auray. It depicts two adolescent Breton girls dressed in traditional religious garments, bathed in a delicate, soft light emanating from the transom. They are shown praying, kneeling close to the devotional chapel of the patron saint of Brittany. In the background, hidden in shadow, an old woman recites her rosary, kneeling on the floor.
This painting, which measured 146 by 112 cm, was entitled Le voeu à Sainte-Anne-d'Auray, and was Bouguereau's entry to the Salon of 1870. Unfortunately, this tender, heartfelt depiction of prayer has been lost. The special appeal of this painting was noted by, the well-known art critic, Théophile Gautier, who exclaimed in his review of the 1870 Salon:
"Messr. Bouguereau did not want to display local color to any excess, he only sought, in a country where religious feeling persists, an expression of faith, pure and naive, and certainly, he could not have found a better example than these two charming faces of celestial candor which appear to be hiding haloes under their béguins of white toile. We very much like this picture depicting such purity - an execution so somber and yet so perfect. [The artist knew] to group the two together with emotion, and to put, beneath the beauty of the face, the beauty of the soul, like light which radiates gently through alabaster."
The present picture is a painting almost identical to that discussed above, a counterpart of sorts, where the only difference is that the old woman praying has been omitted. There is not, however, any doubt that we are in the presence of a painting carried out by Bouguereau. The characteristic line and pictorial workmanship alone are proof enough. However, the exact genesis of this version of the scene remains a matter of speculation. We can postulate, however, that a trusted devotee of the artist, visiting Bouguereau when he had completed the initial version, might have suggested he make a replica of the work. We may further speculate that this patron requested that the figure of the praying woman in the background be removed, thus rendering the painting more in the spirit of the work of the French Master, where hardship, misery and old age are seldom represented in his work.
The idea which, moreover, could have come from the Master himself, was apparently alluring enough to captivate his attention and result in the completion of the new work and its probable direct sale to a collector, which would explain its absence in the records of Goupil; one of the rare exceptions to the franchise agreement which then bound Bouguereau to the Parisian gallery.
Finally, and importantly, the two paintings were signed and dated in an identical way and in the same location on the painting, that is, as engraved on the stone where the "barreaudage" is anchored.
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