In the last quarter of the 19th century, American collectors had an almost insatiable appetite for the work of William Bouguereau. Made up of entrepreneurs and tycoons, this group of millionaires was eager to decorate their new mansions with iconic compositions that demonstrated a high level of quality and artistic virtuosity. Their taste eventually laid the foundation for many American museum collections and forged a visual identity for America which was taken up by early cinematography, which relied on the work of many of the late 19th century painters and frequently turned to Bouguereau’s draped goddesses and peasant children for inspiration.
This sustained interest of American collectors was carefully nurtured by the French dealer Paul Durand-Ruel and then expanded by Adolphe Goupil, Durand-Ruel’s closest competitor in Paris. In the 1860s, at the encouragement of Durand-Ruel, Bouguereau made the fortuitous decision to shift his choice of subjects away from large religious commissions, and the artist moved toward a type of image more easily consumed by his American wealthy American collectors. In particular, he embraced the late 19th century fascination with rural life, concentrating on images of young girls depicted in the French countryside. Social accuracy was not his concern and the world presented in Bouguereau’s canvases was far rosier than the harsh realities of those who lived outside the cities. Fronia Wissman writes: ‘Bouguereau and the well-to-do collectors who acquired his paintings preferred to see these children as picturesque outsiders, facts of daily life perhaps, but poignant rather than threatening’ (F. Wissman, Bouguereau, San Francisco, 1996, p. 51).
Rêverie is a perfect illustration of the popular rustic scenes that appealed to Bouguereau throughout his long career. The 1899 date of the work attests to the artist’s lifelong interest in such subjects, and over and over, Bouguereau delighted in choosing contemporary genre subjects and his heroine became the humble peasant girl from the farm or countryside. This pastoral theme, almost always a single peasant girl in a landscape, became the subject matter for which the artist became most popular. It resulted in his commercial and financial success and Bouguereau died a very rich man in 1905.
In Rêverie, Bouguereau depicts a young girl, seated on rocky steps, barefooted and gazing directly at the viewer. Her hair is neatly tied up in a blue velvet ribbon, her dress is clean and like all of Bouguereau’s children, her perfectly painted, unsoiled feet are free from any signs of wear, symbols of her idealized existence. She is brought up close to the picture plane in full-length which, together with the size of the canvas itself, monumentalizes her figure. Rêverie is also one of a small group of pictures within the artist’s oeuvre that features a vast landscape behind the imagery of the young peasant girl. The atmospheric beauty of the mountains and sky showcases the virtuosity of the artist; his use of light and shadow accurately captures the dramatic recession into space. She dominates both the picture plane and the landscape behind her and idealization of her humble existence is typical of Bouguereau’s most marture and sought-after work.