William Adolphe Bougereau Lot 42
William Adolphe Bouguereau (French, 1825-1905)
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William Adolphe Bouguereau (French, 1825-1905)

La perle

William Adolphe Bouguereau (French, 1825-1905)
La perle
signed and dated 'W-BOUGUEREAU-1894' (lower left)
oil on canvas
55 ½ x 29 ¾ in. (141 x 75.6 cm.)
Private collection, Athens, Greece.
Catalogue Braun & Clément, 1907, no. 4132.
M. S. Walker, William Bouguereau - A Summary Catalogue of the Paintings, Borghi & Co., New York, 1991, p. 74.
D. Bartoli and F. Ross, William Bouguereau: His Life and Works, New York, 2010, p. 356, illustrated pl. 217.
D. Bartoli and F. Ross, William Bouguereau: Catalogue Raisonne of his Painted Work, New York, 2010, p. 287, no. 1894/01, illustrated p. 286.
Paris, Salon, 1894, no. 248.
Sale room notice
Please note that the ownership did not change in 2008.

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Lot Essay

At the very end of the 19th Century and while in his seventies, William Bouguereau divided his time among teaching, his official functions and his own passion for painting to which he devoted time each day, as if aware of the limited time left to him. Despite his declining health, the artist is still driven by the pursuit of perfection as evident in La perle.
Even though painted towards the end of the artist's illustrious career, La perle most certainly belongs to the series of Les Baigneuses which appear regularly throughout his oeuvre beginning with Le Bain, painted in 1855 and culminating with l'Oceanide, executed in 1904, a year before his death and the last work by Bouguereau to be exhibited at the Salon.
Fronia Wissman writes: 'Bouguereau's bathers more often have shed along with their garments any exotic pretext for their nudity. In this matter-of-fact nakedness, the come closer to embodying the much-praised ideal of nudity that was thought to be the preserve of the ancient Greeks and Romans - and before them the lucky inhabitants of the Golden Age. Even Courbet's nudes retain hints of exoticism and narrative, hints that Bouguereau sometimes courageously does away with. It could be argued that Bouguereau's nudes are chaste' (F. Wissman, Bouguereau, 1996, San Francisco, p.87.).
This unabashed nudity is evident throughout Bouguereau's oeuvre, from complex compositions such as The Birth of Venus, 1879, Le crépuscule, 1882 (please see lot 46) and La vague, 1896. Bouguereau returns once more to the theme at the end of his life, this time incorporating all the elements of his previous work, as well as that of his illustrious predecessors, in this astounding masterwork.
La perle is a masterful representation of the theme of women in water that permeate the artist's oeuvre. This theme resonates throughout history, beginning with Sandro Botticelli's Birth of Venus (fig. 1) and reaches into Bouguereau's own time with Alexandre Cabanel's painting of the same title. Bouguereau would certainly have seen and admired Cabanel's canvas when it was exhibited in the Salon of 1863.
La perle is clearly more than just a bather, representing an allegory of the pearl. An enormous oyster shell fills the entire picture plane and at its center, kneeling at its heart, is a beautiful woman, the pearl-like quality of her flesh offset by the darkness of her tresses. At her feet, the artist has placed one perfect, enormous pearl. White water spills over the edge of the oyster shell, further enhancing the luminosity of the entire composition.
For centuries, artists have rendered the ocean as the center of the universe, from whence all life springs, and the beautiful embodiment of womanhood occupies the center of this universe, as the exquisite model does the canvas and the waves that surround her. The colors are as sumptuous as the model and the glazes so fine and expertly rendered that rarely has the feminine ideal been so perfectly represented. This is a real woman, so carefully and lovingly represented that the viewer can see the veins palpitating beneath her porcelain skin.

(fig. 1) William Adolphe Bouguereau, The Birth of Venus, 1879. Musée d'Orsay, Paris.

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