At the close of the 1860s, Bouguereau's reputation had been secured by his masterful portrayals of peasant life in the French countryside. Yet the artist did not limit himself in sources of inspiration and, like many of his contemporaries, became interested in the people and culture of North Africa and the Middle East. In 1870 the artist completed Jeune fille orientale and five years later L'Orientale à la grenade, which, along with select other works (perhaps as few as six), comprise a rare group of Orientalist subjects within the artist's oeuvre. While Bouguereau did not travel to the region, numerous sources, books, exhibitions, and private collections of costume and artifacts could have helped inform his sensitive depiction of a young girl holding a pomegranate. Bouguereau seems to have been particularly fascinated by Egypt, and the girl's intricate silver jewelry is typical of North African design (similar pieces are worn by the fellahs in his compositions of 1876 and 1880). The gleaming red gems of her earrings complement the rich color of the pomegranate, its jewel-like seeds revealed by the girl's peeling of the fruit. Just as hands holding knitting or carrying a clay water pitcher are emblematic to Bouguereau's rural narratives, the inclusion of an exotic pomegranate may also reveal the artist's understanding of its long-standing symbolism of innocence (Thompson, p. 48). Though a departure in subject, L'Orientale à la grenade continues to demonstrate the artist's brilliant ability to record intricate, nearly illusionistic details — from the blue stitching of her sleeve, small gaps suggesting its well-worn cloth, to the white backdrop of roughly applied paint to suggest a sun-baked plaster wall (which would appear behind the same model sitting in a village in the Marchande de grenades, also of 1875).
As evidenced by a photograph taken for D. Appleton and Company's survey of Artistic Houses (fig 1.), eight years after leaving Bouguereau's studio, L'Orientale à la grenade was hanging in the picture gallery of Samuel Mayo Nickerson (1830-1914). Nickerson's massive fortune was built on the distilling business and later as a founder of the First National Bank (his sale of bank stock shares brought him $2 million by 1899), as well as his role as president of the Chicago City Railway company. In 1881 Nickerson employed the firm of Burling and Whitehouse to build his grand home, a "Marble Palace," on 40 East Erie Street in Chicago (now the Driehaus Museum), completed by 1883 for a staggering cost of $450,000. Nickerson filled its intricately decorated interiors with over sixty paintings by "modern" European artists including Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Eugene Verboeckhoven, Hugues Merle, Gustave Doré, and Jean-Léon Gérôme, along with the Americans Frederick Church, Thomas Cole, and Albert Bierstadt (Lewis, et al., p. 106). In addition to L'Orientale à la grenade, works by Frederick Arthur Bridgman and Rudolf Ernst confirmed Nickerson's interest in Orientalism.
The exotic subjects likely appealed to Nickerson and his wife Matilda (née Pinkham Crosby) who traveled extensively to India, Japan and China, amassing what was then considered the most extensive and valuable collections of jade, crystal and ivory objects along with jewelry, sculpture and other decorative arts in American private hands (interestingly, a turn of the century photograph shows L'Orientale à la grenade was moved to hang above a case filled with intricately carved ivories). Philanthropists and patrons of the arts, the Nickersons donated their collection to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1900, and L'Orientale à la grenade hung in its galleries until its deacquisition in 1917. In the decades following, the work entered another American private collection, passing through generations. Nearly a century after its last public viewing, and long known by a black and white photograph issued by Goupil in 1875, L'Orientale à la grenade has only recently reemerged, inviting a new exploration of Bouguereau's multifaceted and always brilliant production.
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