William Adolphe Bouguereau (La Rochelle 1825-1905)
Property from a Private American Collection 
William Adolphe Bouguereau (La Rochelle 1825-1905)


William Adolphe Bouguereau (La Rochelle 1825-1905)
signed and dated 'W. BOUGUEREAU 1876' (lower center) and inscribed on the vase 'IN MEMORIAM DILECTI MEI FILII GEORGII DIE XIX JULII ANNO MDCCCLXXV'
oil on canvas
90½ x 58¾ in. (222.9 x 149.2 cm.)
Sold by the artist to Prince Demidoff 29 July 1876 (30,000 francs).
Sedelmeyer sale, 1877 (18,000 francs).
with Goupil & Cie., Paris.
Private collection, Spain, until circa 1941.
Albert Benamou, Paris.
with Stuart Pivar, New York, until 1982.
Sylvester Stallone, Los Angeles.
with Stuart Pivar, New York.
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, New York, 24 October 1996, lot 130.
with Hirschl & Adler Galleries, New York.
Parrish Collection, Texas.
V. de Swarte, Lettres sur le Salon de 1876, Paris, 1876, p. 40. Goupil & Cie, ed., Salon de 1876: Réproductions des principaux ouvrages accompagnées de sonnets par Adrien Dézamy, Paris, 1876, pl. II.
E. About,'Le Salon de 1876', La République de Montpellier, 30 May 1876.
M. Vachon, 'Avant Le Salon', La France, 1876, 'The Pietà was executed in two months; it is a real tour de force.'
M. Proth, Voyage au pays des peintres, Salon de 1876, Paris, 1876, pp. 35-36.
J. Prouvaise, 'Le Salon de 1876', La République des Lettres, Paris, 1876, p. 178.
C. Yriarte, 'Salon de 1876', Gazette des Beaux-Arts, series 2, vol. 13, 1876, pp. 707, 712.
C. Vendryès, Dictionnaire illustré des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1885, p. 53.
G. Marc, Les Beaux Arts en Auvergne et à Paris, Paris, 1889, p. 79.
Franqueville, William Bouguereau, Paris, 1895, p. 370.
M. Vachon, W. Bouguereau, Paris, 1900, p. 152.
J. Doucet, Les peintres francais, Paris, n.d., p. 164.
L. d'Argencourt and M.S. Walker, William Bouguereau, 1984, pp. 198-199, no. 68.
Borghi & Co., New York, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, "l'Art pompier", 1991, pp. 9-10, 32, 33, 70.
M.S. Walker, William Bouguereau: A Summary Catalogue of the Paintings, New York, 1991, p. 70.
F. Wissman, Bouguereau, San Francisco, 1996, pp. 74-75.
Paris, Salon de 1876, no. 240.
Paris, Exposition Universelle, 1878, no. 97.
Düsseldorf, Städtische Kunsthalle, Der Sehende. Das Sichtbare. Das Sehen, 1982.
Paris, Musée du Petit Palais, William Bouguereau, 9 February-6 May 1984, no. 68; also, Montreal, Museum of Fine Arts, 22 June-23 September 1984 and Hartford, Wadsworth Atheneum, 27 October 1984-13 January 1985.
New York, Borghi & Co., William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 'l'Art pompier', 14 November 1991-7 January 1992, s.n. (catalogue by R. Rosenblum).
Hastings on Hudson, Newington Cropsey Foundation, Virtue, Truth and the Glorious Infinity: Select Works of William A. Bouguereau, 1999.
Dallas Museum of Art, on loan.
San Francisco, Legion of Honor Museum, on loan.

If you wish to view the condition report of this lot, please sign in to your account.

Sign in
View condition report

Lot Essay

Upon its exhibition at the Paris Salon of 1876, William Bouguereau's monumental Pietà received unanimous praise from critics for its sincere emotion and poignant devotion (Doucet, Les peintres français, Paris, n.d., p. 164). More than a century later, the painting remains one of the most moving interpretations of, not only the Life of Christ, but of man's personal tragedy as well. The immediate inspiration for Pietà came not from Bouguereau's devout Christianity, but from the painful loss of his eldest son Georges who died on July 19, 1875 at the age of sixteen. After spending several months overwhelmed by grief, Bouguereau sought to lift his spirits by fully immersing himself in his art. For several weeks, he considered compositions that would permit him the fullest expression of his feelings while simultaneously commemorating his son's life and passing. His sketchbooks from this period show a flurry of excited and even angry passages, with dozens of drawings that illustrate his slow and deliberate plan to paint his version of a Pietà. After what must have been an uninterrupted period of compulsive work, Bouguereau appears to have completed this magnum opus in only two months (M. Vachon, 'Avant le Salon', La France, March 20, 1876).

Rendered on a grand scale, Bouguereau's Pietà depicts its timeless subject with individualized figures who elicit an emotional response from the viewer. Like the many angels who appear in images of the Lamentation throughout art history, Bouguereau's are demonstrative in their expressions of grief. By presenting the angels surrounding Mary and Christ as distinct individuals, however, Bouguereau creates a particularly compelling image that serves to personalize the story of the Life of Christ. Similarly, Mary, with her arresting gaze, appears foremost as a devastated mother of a mortal son rather than the Holy Virgin. The lifeless yet elegant body of Christ that she clutches in her arms shares many affinities with arguably the most famous Pietà in history-Michelangelo's sculptural version in Saint Peter's in Rome. In addition to the similar positioning of the torso and arms, in both works, Christ's head falls backwards, yet the viewer is still able to look into his face, allowing for a greater personal connection between the mortal and the divine. Bouguereau may have seen Michelangelo's Pietà during his many years in Rome where he competed for and won the Prix de Rome in 1850. By the 1870s, Bouguereau would have been able to study the famous sculpture in photographic reproductions as well, as affordable prints of well-known works of art were by then circulating widely throughout Europe (F. Wissman, Bouguereau, 1996, p. 74). Indeed, a photograph of the artist in his studio shows a reproduction of Michelangelo's Pietà hanging on the wall behind him (fig. 1).

Bouguereau's dedication to a sharp-focused realism has led to the artist's enduring popularity and more recently to critical praise. In Pietà, his "academic wizardry of drawing and perspective", as Robert Rosenblum termed it, is on full view. From the stunning foreshortening of the angel above to the gleaming gold bowl and vase below, Pietà is a tour-de-force of the artist's skill. Indeed, such exquisite details led Rosenblum to exclaim, "So intensely material and gravity-bound are the sacred still-life objects in the foreground-one could prick oneself on this crown of thorns!" (R. Rosenblum, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, l'Art pompier, New York, 1991, p. 9).

Bouguereau's Pietà displays at once grandeur, beauty and a noble restraint from the maudlin emotionalism seen in many works by lesser hands. A tribute to passionate parental love overwhelmed by despair, Pietà nevertheless retains its gravity and dignity thereby occupying a singular place in art history.

We are grateful to Fred Ross for his assistance in preparing this catalogue entry. This painting is due to be listed in the forthcoming William Bouguereau catalogue raisonné written by Damien Bartoli with Fred Ross, the Bouguereau Committee and the Art Renewal Center.

More from Old Masters & 19th Century Art Including Select Works From the Salander-O'Reilly Galleries

View All
View All