William Adolphe Bouguereau (French, 1825-1905)
Property from an Important Midwestern Collection
William Adolphe Bouguereau (French, 1825-1905)

Chansons de printemps

William Adolphe Bouguereau (French, 1825-1905)
Chansons de printemps
signed and dated 'W-BOVGVEREAV-1889' (lower right)
oil on canvas
58 ¼ x 39 in. (148 x 99 cm.)
The artist.
with M. Knoedler & Co., New York, acquired directly from the above during the Exposition universelle, delivered 12 December 1889, as Chansons d'Amour.
George S. Scott, New York, acquired directly from the above, 31 December 1889.
George B. Mathews (d. 1942) and Jenny R. Modisette Matthews (d. 1951), Buffalo, NY, by 1896.
By descent to their heirs, Charlotte, NC.
Their sale; Christie's, New York, 12 April 2007, lot 100.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
Braun & Clément, Oeuvres choisies des maîtres, no. 3225, illustrated.
M. Vachon, W. Bouguereau, Paris, 1900, p. 156.
'Buffalo Loan Exhibition,' The Art Interchange, vol. 36, no. 3, New York, March 1896, p. 69, as Songs of Spring and Whisperings of Love.
'Bouguereau,' Masters in Art: A Series of Illustrated Monographs, part 82, vol. 7, Boston, October 1906, p. 39, pl. IX, illustrated, as Songs of Spring.
Buffalo Sunday Times, 6 March 1927, p. 58.
M. S. Walker, 'A Summary Catalogue of the Paintings,' in William Bouguereau: l’art pompier, exh. cat., Borghi & Co., New York, 1991, p. 73.
D. Bartoli and F. Ross, William Bouguereau: His Life and Works, New York, 2010, p. 337, pl. 201, illustrated.
D. Bartoli and F. Ross, William Bouguereau: Catalogue Raisonné of his Painted Work, New York, 2010, p. 261, no. 1889/16, illustrated.
Paris, Exposition universelle, 1889, no. 161, as Chanson du printemps.
Buffalo, Fine Arts Academy, A Loan Collection of Paintings, February 1896, no. 29, as Songs of Spring.

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Lot Essay

William Bouguereau was awarded the Grand Prix de Rome in 1850, and he spent the next three years at the glorious Villa de Medicis, where the young artist spent his days immersed in the imagery of Classical Antiquity and the Renaissance. Chansons de printemps is a monumental and exquisite expression of a subject matter that would appear frequently through the master’s oeuvre. Coined tableaux de fantasie by the artist, these paintings provided the perfect vehicle for Bouguereau’s artistic dedication to the creation of beautiful forms and harmonious colors. Inspired by themes from Classical Antiquity, as well as images from the great masters of the Italian Renaissance such as Raphael (fig. 1), these paintings represent the artist’s response to his favorite classical poems and writings. Bouguereau kept copies of both Virgil and Ovid by his bedside, and works from this genre of his oeuvre must be viewed as manifestations of these particular reveries.
The Classical world and the academic tradition that evolved from the images and motifs of Antiquity offered Bouguereau a rich and varied pool of subjects for the expressions of his formidable talents. Bathers, nymphs, Venuses and allegories abound throughout his oeuvre. Bouguereau recognized the importance of drawing inspiration from Antiquity. In a lecture given at the Institut de France in 1885, the artist said, ‘Antiquity reveals what an inexhaustible source of variegated inspiration nature is. With a relatively restricted number of elements – a head, a bust, arms, a torso, legs, a stomach – how many masterpieces she has made! Then why seek out other things to paint or sculpt?’ (W. Bouguereau, 'Discours de M. Bouguereau', in ance publique annuelle des cinqs Academies du 24 Octobre 1885, Institut de France).
Bouguereau strove to achieve a vision of perfection in a less than perfect age. It has been argued by both contemporary and modern critics that Bouguereau’s art bears little or no relationship to the realities of political, industrial or urban life of 19th century France. But if Bouguereau’s art ignores this aspect of life in his times, it is because the artist deliberately chose to rise above the harsh truth of day-to-day existence and instead focus on the peace and serenity of an imagined Arcadia and exalt more pleasant possibilities. This is not an artistic falsehood, but rather an artistic choice.
The quality of reverie present in so many of the Bouguereau’s paintings demonstrates to what extent the artist’s romantic disposition prevailed in the rendering of his classical motifs. Bouguereau’s creation of a distant, archetypal and poetic world is an extension of a practice with a long academic tradition most famously articulated by Nicholas Poussin.
Bouguereau’s tableaux de fantasie are rarely narrative; they do not seek to tell a story or illustrate a moral. Literature is not the basis for these images. Rather, they are emotive and evocative; they aim to portray a feeling or mood. In Chansons de printemps or Songs of Spring, Bouguereau seeks to capture the essence of springtime in all its meanings. The beauty of the maiden, the early spring blossoms in her lap, the youth of the putti who sing into her ears, the flowers bursting from the ground beneath her feet all evoke the sights, sounds and smells of early spring in the countryside. The artist paints as though he is exaulting in the tenderness of flesh and the flowering of life. There is no narrative here, so Bouguereau can concentrate on the beauty of line and his flawless technique, much like Albert Moore and Frederick Lord Leighton in England.
Much has been written about Bouguereau’s meticulous technique, and it is well-known that he executed numerous drawings and studies for all of his paintings before actually setting brush to canvas. It is clear from extant studies for this particular composition that Bouguereau experimented with different positions of his figures for this work. In one preliminary drawing (fig. 2), the main figure is semi-nude and her arm is extended across her body to her knee rather than bent back to her shoulder. The putti on her right is also somewhat contorted and twists to whisper in her ear rather than gently touching her shoulder and leaning into her, which is a much more satisfying composition. Bouguereau used drawings to work out color harmonies as well. The artist used studies executed in vine charcoal to determine ‘spotting’ or the arrangement of light and dark masses. With vine charcoal, the artist could create rich blacks which could easily be erased or modulated.
Chansons de printemps represents the first appearance of Gabrielle Drunzer in a painting by Bouguereau. From this date forward, the actress would appear in numerous compositions, including Bouguereau’s masterpiece Le guepier (The Wasps Nest). At the time, Gabrielle was considered one of the most beautiful French actresses.
Bouguuereau chose Chansons de printemps as one of his entries in the Exposition universelle in Paris in 1889. The image also served as the inspiration to Louis Comfort Tiffany and became the motif for one of his most famous stained-glass windows (fig. 3).

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