Perrault received his early artistic education at the École des Beaux-Arts in the studios of François Picot and William Bouguereau. His academic training and talents as a portraitist brought him to the attention of many American clients and led to important commissions and inclusion in major collections. Perrault enjoyed enormous success in France during his lifetime, exhibiting at the Salon regularly and earning medals in 1864, 1867 and 1878 and he was named Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur in 1887. His works were envisioned with a deep awareness of the Academic canvases of his teachers, and paintings of children, putti and dreamy young maidens appealed to the Salon jury as well as art collectors both in Europe and the United States.
The importance of images of children in Perrault’s oeuvre cannot be underestimated. Whether his children are depicted simply against a background or set into a narrative, they exude qualities of beauty, innocence and vulnerability. ‘It is not extravagant to add that no painter of children from the time of Albano to the present day has more perfectly rendered the inner structure and subtle modeling of the surface, the particular quality and graceful action of a child, in perfect physical beauty and health, and all artists know that children are the most difficult of subjects’ (‘The Child in Art, Perrault’s Le Reveil d’Amour’, The Century, vol. 6, no. 6, p. A2).
Among the most popular of Perrault’s images of children are those that depict the plight of street children in urban settings. Like the work of his master Bouguereau, the present painting explores the vulnerability of peasant children when displaced into an urban setting. Two sisters, one almost a young woman and the other just barely older than a toddler, sit on the steps of what could possibly be a church, the older sister holding the younger one protectively on her lap. The older girl looks directly at the viewer while the younger, with eyes half closed, almost appears to doze in her lap. Like his teacher Bouguereau, Perrault sought to extol the virtues of the peasant class, and these two children are presented not as starving beggars; they are poignant rather than threatening, wistful rather than resentful.