Elizabeth Jane Gardner Bouguereau (American, 1851-1922)
Elizabeth Jane Gardner Bouguereau (American, 1851-1922)

Moses in the Bulrushes

Elizabeth Jane Gardner Bouguereau (American, 1851-1922)
Moses in the Bulrushes
signed 'Elizabeth Gardner' (lower right)
oil on canvas
49¼ x 34¾ in. (125 x 88.2 cm.)
Westerly Memorial Library Association, Westerly, Rhode Island.
Their sale; Sotheby Parke Bernet, New York, 7 October 1977, lot 217.
with Irvin Brenner Galleries, Ltd., New York.
New York Times, 'Famous Painters to be Married', 8 June 1896.
M. Fidell-Beaufort, 'Elizabeth Jane Gardner Bouguereau: A Parisian Artist from New Hampshire', Archives of American Art Journal, vol. 24, no. 2, 1984, p. 6.
Paris, Salon, 1878, no. 973.

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Lot Essay

As an academic painter and salon artist, Elizabeth Jane Gardner had one of the longest expatriate careers of any American artist living in Paris. Not having the independent means to fund her training in the capital, she initially made her living by doing portraits and painting copies of famous works. With time, arduous study and hard work, she became one of the earliest examples, in American art, of a woman artist living entirely off the sale of her work.

Her personal and professional relationship with the distinguished French painter William Bouguereau (1825-1905), whom she eventually married in 1896, was much discussed in the capital and abroad. As his fiancée, assistant and student for many years, she profited from his mentorship more than any of his students and was able to take her skills as a figure painter to a level that eventually rivaled his.

By 1878, when Moses in the Bulrushes was exhibited at the annual Paris Salon, Gardner's reputation as an artist was already well established. She had two other works on exhibit that year in the American section of the Universal Exposition, and was receiving a large number of notable visitors at her Left Bank studio. The American Register, a newspaper published by the American colony in Paris and catering to the colony and its visitors, reviewed the work:

'Miss E. J. Gardner has just completed her picture for the Salon, Moses in the Bulrushes. The subject is taken at the moment when Moses has just been placed amongst them, and his sister has parted the bulrushes to watch the approach of Pharaoh's daughter, who is seen in the distance. The expression of anguish in the mother's face is especially well rendered, and the coloring is remarkably fine' (American Register, April 6, 1878, p. 6).

In a letter to her brother in Exeter, New Hampshire, she described her progress on the painting:

'I have advanced my picture of little Moses a good bit this month. The canvas is now covered and now comes what is to me the hardest part. I have always ideas enough for nice subjects but it is so hard to make the reality come up to the dream. I get sometimes quite frantic over it' (Elizabeth Gardner to Jonny Gardner, 2 December 1877).

At the time, women were discouraged from attempting male-dominated genres such as history and religious paintings as these were considered a higher art form than portraiture or still life and, therefore, not appropriate to women's skills. By painting subjects such as Moses in the Bulrushes, the artist was placing herself in direct competition with her male counterparts. In addition, she chose to portray heroic women, as in this composition, where it was through acts of courage by the infant's mother and the Pharaoh's daughter that Moses' life was spared.

Gardner's ambitions were not limited to her paintings; she also focused on her reputation as a Salon artist, 'I must work to get a medal in Paris and not for money a while longer' (ibid.). Her choice of priorities proved worthwhile. The next year, 1879, Gardner received an 'honorable mention' for her Salon submission, À la fontaine. However, it would take nine more years for her to achieve her dream. In 1887, she was awarded the first and only medal that was ever bestowed on an American woman painter at the Paris Salon.

We would like to thank Dr. Charles Pearo for his assistance in cataloguing this work which will be included in his forthcoming Elizabeth Jane Gardner catalogue raisonné.

(fig. 1) Moses in the Bulrushes, Archives photographiques du Musée Goupil, Bordeaux, carte album, no. 67, 1878.

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