Lot 50
  • 50

William Bouguereau

900,000 - 1,200,000 USD
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  • William-Adolphe Bouguereau
  • Petite Bergère 
  • signed W-BOUGUEREAU and dated 1891 (lower left)
  • oil on canvas
  • 62.2 by 35 in.
  • 158 by 89 cm


Arthur Tooth & Sons, London (purchased from the artist, July 1890, as The Shepherdess, and sold March 1891)
Stephen Selby Pictures, London
Private collection, United Kingdom (and sold, Christie’s, London, November 30, 1984, lot 62, illustrated)
Pyms Gallery, London (acquired at the above sale)
Acquired from the above, circa 1985


Marius Vachon, W. Bouguereau, Paris, 1900, p. 157 (as under the year 1890)
Mark Steven Walker, “William-Adolphe Bouguereau: A Summary Catalogue of the Paintings,” William-Adolphe Bouguereau, L’Art Pompier, exh. cat., Borghi & Co., New York, 1991, p. 73
Damien Bartoli and Frederick C. Ross, William Bouguereau, his life and works, New York, 2010, p. 369, illustrated pl. 229; and in the revised 2014 edition, p. 369, illustrated pl. 229 
Damien Bartoli and Frederick C. Ross, William Bouguereau, New York, 2010, p. 271, no. 1891/03, illustrated (with location unknown); and in the revised 2014 edition, p. 271, no. 1891/03, illustrated (with location unknown) 


The following condition report was provided by Simon Parkes Art Conservation, Inc.: The work is in marvelous condition. The canvas has a thin glue lining, which is nicely stabilizing the paint layer without affecting the original texture. The varnish is slightly soft, but the work is very presentable as is. The paint layer is cleaned and varnished. There is no structural damage or abrasion. Very slight weakness has developed beneath the eye on the right, and there are retouches here. There are a few other tiny minor spots of retouching around the eyes, around the lips and beneath the chin. These thin shaded areas of glaze may have become weaker over time, or may have been slightly abraded during cleaning. There are also a couple of tiny retouches in a few of the folds of the blue dress. There are no retouches in the sky except to a few tiny cracks on the left side, and there are no retouches in the landscape. The varnish could be slightly adjusted, but otherwise, the work should be hung in its current state.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

From the 1870s onward, William Bouguereau increasingly devoted his oeuvre to the young peasant girls of his hometown of La Rochelle and the surrounding countryside with the same ambition and scale that he brought to his early, epic history paintings. Painted as a full-length portrait and set in front of a loosely painted landscape, this young shepherdess looks directly at the viewer with wide eyes and a faint air of melancholy. Bouguereau affords his model monumental stature, and a naturalistic truth to her representation, with loosely combed hair and roughly woven dress. In 1891, when Petite Bergère, was painted, Bouguereau had reached artistic maturity. Other works from this period featuring the same model, such as La cruche cassée (1891, Legion of Honor, San Francisco) and Petites mendiantes (1890, Syracuse University Art Collection), offer clear evidence of the artist’s technical expertise and his interest in creating subtle narratives while depicting peasants within the landscape.

Like many of his contemporaries, including Jules Breton and Léon-Augustin Lhermitte (see lots 48, 58, 60), Bouguereau adopted some of the themes that Realist artists exhibited at the Salon, drawing his best subjects from rural life. However, unlike the earthbound workers often depicted by his contemporaries, Bouguereau reaches for classical pastoral poetry and subjects the real to the ideal – a formula that brought him enormous commercial success. His peasant models, almost exclusively female, are pensive and seem to be unaffected by any social or economic injustice. According to Alfred Nettement, Bouguereau’s student at the Académie Julian, his teacher "had absolute horror of what we would call realism and he always said that reality is charming when it borrows a gleam of poetry from the imagination" (Alfred Nettement, "William Bouguereau," L'Academie Julian, January 1906, p. 3, as quoted in Mark Steven Walker, "Biography," William Bouguereau, exh. cat., Montreal, 1984, p. 57). In the nineteenth century, as more people relocated to industrialized cities, peasants provided popular subject matter for artists in the nineteenth century as urban audiences viewed their pastoral counterparts with fascination and probably envied what they perceived to be a humble, uncomplicated and more gratifying way of life.

Bouguereau's elevation of his sitter's individual feelings and experiences to a universal level may well be the singular achievement of the artist's long and illustrious career. While it might not be explicit in his paintings, he aimed to further the emerging values of an era of social change in France, and considered it his duty to protect and perpetuate the aims of liberty and human rights. Taking Bouguereau’s serene and bucolic oeuvre at face value, it appears unlikely that he would ever find himself embroiled in scandal, but in 1891 he participated in a controversial International art exhibition that had been organized in Berlin. Nearly every French artist boycotted the exhibition, with nationalist sentiments running strong after France’s defeat in the Franco Prussian war. Bouguereau found great acclaim at the exhibition in Germany, because of the fine paintings as well as his brave participation, but he was denigrated in French political circles. In a speech to the Fondation Taylor he said: “We should never forget that when the country suffers unspeakable anguish, Art still holds its head high and helps to maintain the honor of France” (as quoted in Ross and Bartoli, William Bouguereau, his life and works, p. 353).