In April 1892, Bouguereau travelled to London to organize an exhibition of paintings by French artists at the Royal Academy. In addition to visiting museums, he inevitably frequented the galleries of Arthur Tooth (for whom Bouguereau painted this work) and Thomas McLean. The work of his English contemporaries must have made an impression upon him and particularly the iconic compositions of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema and John William Godward, whose meticulously researched depictions of the sun-drenched Mediterranean were populated by "Victorians in Togas." Trying his hand with the subject two years later in the present Bacchante, Bouguereau’s treatment is unmistakable. His naturalistic interpretation is rendered in heroic proportions, a secular goddess who implies an unbroken continuum of idealized women from antiquity to his own time.
The painting belongs to a series the artist referred to as "fantasy paintings," a theme that the artist established through earlier works that illustrate Classical narratives such as La jeunesse de Bacchus (1884, Private Collection, Paris) or Nymphes et Satyre (1873, Clark Art Institute, Williamstown). The model, an Italian girl who frequently appears in Bouguereau’s compositions between 1894 and 1895, posed for several such “fantasies” including a companion painting to the present lot, Prêtresse de Bacchus (1894, Private Collection), as well as Souvenir (1894, location unknown), and Le secret (1894, Private Collection, United States).
Bacchante was widely popularized in the form of four photographs published by Braun & Clément, and the painting was reproduced in outline for an amusing advertisement for Mariani wine. In it, the amphora has been replaced by a bottle, with the accompanying motto written in Bouguereau’s hand: “as pleasant as it is salutary, Mariani wine lends health to the body and cheerfulness to the spirit.”
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