Petite fille tenant des pommes dans les mains is a three-quarter length portrait of one of Bouguereau’s favorite models, a little girl named Yvonne. She and her two sisters, Jeanne and Marguerite, who also modeled for the artist, lived in La Rochelle where Bouguereau spent most of his summers in the 1890s. Yvonne appears in many of the artist’s most charming paintings, including Les prunes, and Le goûter. La Rochelle had strong personal associations for Bouguereau, for not only was it where he was born, but also the place he chose to spend the last years of his life. Every summer, Bouguereau would depart Paris and travel to the country after months of relentless painting; La Rochelle, which provided him much needed solace and peace, also allowed him to work at leisure.
In the present work, Yvonne is depicted as a very young child, just past toddlerhood, clasping a group of three apples to her chest in her still chubby hands. Her hair still retains the silken softness of baby hair, and the artist’s ability to capture the texture of individual strands of hair is just one of his remarkable technical achievements. She is portrayed as both timid and mischievous; her eyes gaze straight at the viewer, her lips are parted in an almost-smile, as if she knows she might possibly have taken one apple too many.
The child is depicted on a path rather densely lined with trees, evoking the forests of fairy tales. This is a conceit that Bouguereau used in the later years of his career and appears in La liseuse, Les deux soeurs, La fleur preferée and La Bergère, all painted in the same year as the present work. The image of the blossoming flower also appears in several of the artist’s paintings of very young girls such as Espièglerie, En penience, La liseuse and Les prunes. The connotations of innocence and purity inherent in the delicate flowers would not have been lost on his audience.
In 1895, the year the present work was painted, Bouguereau described his process of transforming the every-day into the ideal in an interview with Eugene Tardieu, ‘In painting, I’m an idealist. I see only the beautiful in art and, for me art is beautiful. Why reproduce what is ugly in nature? I don’t see why it should be necessary’ (W. Bouguereau, interviewed by Tardieu in ‘La Peinture et les Peintres’, L’Écho de Paris, 8 May 1895, n.p.).
Petite fille tenant des pommes dans les mains is seemingly identical to a painting by the same title which is currently in the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, Maine. Although Bouguereau painted reductions of many of his most popular works, a painting executed on the same scale is unusual in his oeuvre. However, paintings depicting charming young children were among Bouguereau’s most commercial subjects and there was always a ready market, primarily in America, therefore it would not be out of the ordinary to find two identical paintings. The signature, while original to the painting, appears to be signed by another hand. One may speculate that after Bouguereau completed the painting, for reasons unknown, it was signed by a studio assistant. Frederick C. Ross has confirmed that the work is entirely by the hand of the artist.
We are grateful to Frederick C. Ross and Kara Lysandra Ross for confirming the authenticity of this work, which will be included in the third edition of their William Adolphe Bouguereau catalogue raisonné.