William Adolphe Bouguereau (French, 1825-1905)
William Adolphe Bouguereau (French, 1825-1905)

La petite Esméralda

William Adolphe Bouguereau (French, 1825-1905)
La petite Esméralda
signed and dated ‘W BOUGUEREAU 1874’ (lower left)
oil on canvas
35 x 21 ½ in. (88.9 x 54.6 cm.)
The artist.
with Goupil & Cie., Paris, 1874.
with Wallis & Co., Paris, 1886.
with Goupil & Cie., New York, 1886.
with Knoedler & Co., New York, 1886.
Private Collection.
with Hammer Galleries, New York, 1946.
Anonymous sale; Christie’s, New York, 22 October 2008, lot 120.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
Goupil & Cie., Brouillards de vente, (titled L'enfant à la chèvre), inventory no. 9321.
C. Vendryes, Dictionnaire illustré des Beaux-Arts: Bouguereau, Paris, 1885, p. 51.
M. Vachon, W. Bouguereau, Paris, 1900, p. 152.
M. S. Walker, ‘A Summary Catalogue of the Paintings’, in William Bouguereau: l’art pompier, exh. cat., Borghi & Co., New York, 1991, p. 69.
D. Bartoli and F. Ross, William Bouguereau: Catalogue Raisonné of his Painted Work, New York, 2010, p. 159, pl. 127.

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Lot Essay

During his lifetime, William Bouguereau enjoyed an extraordinary level of commercial success, earning many devoted followers and wealthy patrons. This success was due not only to his exceptional skill as a draftsman and painter, but was also the product of his acumen in regard to the taste of his clientele. Early in his career, upon the advice of his dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, Bouguereau made the decision to turn away from large religious commissions and moved toward the type of image which appealed to his wealthy collectors. In particular, he embraced the late 19th Century fascination with peasant life, focusing on depicting beautiful young girls in the countryside. The world he presented in these paintings was far rosier than that embraced by the Social Realists earlier in the century. Social accuracy was not his intention in these paintings. Instead, they demonstrate his profound skill and are meant to suggest timeless ideals of simplicity and wholesomeness, even innocence.

La petite Esméralda certainly embodies all these elements of Bouguereau’s style at the height of his career. The work is a slight departure of subject matter for the artist, as the subject is Esméralda, the young gypsy girl who taught her goat tricks in order to earn her subsistence in Notre Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) by Victor Hugo. Bouguereau has chosen to depict the heroine of the story at a younger age than she is presented in the novel, at the time before her tragic story takes place. He has placed the young girl and her goat in a landscape in the countryside. She has clearly been out in the fresh air, her cheeks rosy with her exertions picking the grasses for her goat’s feed. Her young goat nibbles at the grasses in her arms, and she gazes down on him fondly. There is clearly a bond between the girl and her goat and the sweetness of the ties between a child and pet are captured in this charming painting. Unlike many of Bouguereau’s paintings of peasant girls, she is not gazing directly at the viewer but instead is wholly absorbed in her own thoughts. This introverted aspect of the painting, as well as the softened colors and diffuse light imbue the painting with an almost dreamlike quality.

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