Marchande de Grenades (Seller of Pomegrenates) 1875
signed and dated 'W. BOUGUEREAU 1875' (upper right)
oil on canvas
45½ x 35 in. (115.6 x 88.9 cm.)
In the 1870s, Bouguereau painted a small number of Orientalist works of which the present lot is arguably the most sophisticated example. Having already made a name for himself with his poignant portraits of the French peasantry, Bouguereau began experimenting with Eastern subjects in 1870 with Jeune fille orientale (fig. 1). Bouguereau's careful attention to the young woman's gleaming jewelry, intricate vest, delicately tied sash and draped fabrics, shows the artist reveling in the possibilities offered by this new foreign subject. Yet, it would be another five years before Bouguereau returned to painting the East with L'Orientale à la grenade (fig. 2). In this later work, Bouguereau eliminated all contextual details and instead focused just on the figure of what is most likely an Egyptian girl. The girl's intended ethnicity is suggested only by her elaborate silver jewelry and zabut, the loose brown shirt she wears, both typical of North African design. Within months, Bouguereau again painted this same model in Marchande de grenades, this time clearly placing her on the streets of Cairo. The young pomegranate-seller sits on the ground near the distinctive Bab Zuwayla, the southern gate of the Fatimid city of al-Qahira built in Cairo in the late 11th century. The vantage point of the painting suggests that the girl is at the entrance of the Tentmakers Market, looking north along the side façade of the 15th century Zawiya-Sabil, built by the Sultan Farag ibn Barquq.
Given the specificity of Bouguereau's painting, it would seem that the artist had traveled to Cairo and familiarized himself with the city's people and architecture. Indeed, a finished drawing of Marchande de grenades at the Ashmolean Museum suggests that Bouguereau dedicated a great deal of time to ensuring that the painting was accurate (fig. 3). Yet, Bouguereau never ventured to the Orient, or what is today considered the Middle East and North Africa. Like many of his contemporaries, Bouguereau learned of these distant lands second-hand through exhibitions, photographs, illustrations and paintings by Eugène Delacroix, Jean-Léon Gérôme and others.
By 1875, the French taste for L'Orient was expansive. The growing demand for images of these tantalizing, far-off places led a variety of artists east and produced a still greater number of armchair-travelers. This new group of 'ethnographic' painters, as the French critic Charles Perrier had called them, came to prominence at the Salon of 1857 (C. Perrier, 'L'Art français au Salon de 1857,' Peinture, sculpture, architecture, Paris, 1857, p. 92). There Gérôme had shown his Egyptian Recruits Crossing the Desert that was inspired by the artist's first trip to Egypt in 1856. The painting made a profound impression upon visitors and critics and may have piqued the interest of a young Bouguereau who was himself exhibiting at the Salon. While Bouguereau was enjoying considerable success at the time for his portraits and mythological subjects (he in fact received the Medal of Honour at the Salon of 1857), one can imagine the enterprising artist taking note of those works that commanded the most attention.
If not Gérôme's Egyptian Recruits Crossing the Desert, there was no shortage of images of Egypt at the Salon and elsewhere that could have sparked Bouguereau's initial fascination with the country.
In lieu of traveling to Egypt, Bouguereau may have immersed himself in the writings and illustrations of William Henry Bartlett. Bartlett's popular On the Nile by Boat or Glimpses of the Land of Egypt first published in 1850 is a richly illustrated account of the author's adventures along the mighty river. Included in this text is Bartlett's description and depiction of the Bab Zuwayla. Bouguereau's interpretation of the formidable gate bears a striking resemblance to Bartlett's images. In fact, Bouguereau's rendering of the Bab Zuwayla is more like Bartlett's image than what the French artist would have found in Cairo had he ventured there in 1875 since the minarets crowning the gate had been damaged by an earthquake in 1863 and were not rebuilt until 1892.
Despite this discrepancy between reality and art, Bouguereau's painting manages a seemingly faithful representation of its subject. The brilliant sunlight striking the Bab Zuwayla and the bustling street below conveys an immediacy that is as fresh today as it would have been for the 19th century French viewer. The roughly-hewn, sun-bleached wall behind the young pomegranate-seller perfectly frames and contrasts with the girl's smooth-tanned face. Above all, however, the most arresting aspect of the work is the girl's penetrating gaze, which invites us into the painting and imploringly asks us to purchase her pomegranates. By presenting the girl with a basket of pomegranates, Bouguereau signals her position as a worker rather than one who simply enjoys the sweet fruit as seen in L'Orientale à la grenade.
As an academically-trained artist, Bouguereau no doubt also knew of the pomegranate's symbolism in the canon of western painting. Renaissance masters Raphael, Botticelli and Filippino Lippi all painted the Virgin Mary holding an infant Christ clutching a pomegranate. In these iconic images, the vibrant fruit represents the Passion of Christ. Perhaps less well-known, however, is the pomegranate's association with the Virgin's chastity, as exemplified in The Unicorn Tapestries, now in The Cloisters at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
If Bouguereau intended for the pomegranates in Marchande de grenades to be symbolic, he most likely meant for them to signify the virtue of chastity. The selling of pomegranates would thus imply the loss of such a virtue in Bouguereau's young street worker. More simply, however, the basket of pomegranates may be Bouguereau's narrative nod to the bustling streets of Cairo as lively centers of commerce.
Shortly after completing the work, Bouguereau sold Marchande de grenades to his influential dealer Adolphe Goupil. A brilliant businessman, Goupil frequently promoted Bouguereau's paintings through the sale of prints and photographs. A print of Marchande de grenades, now in the Witt Library, indicates that the painting was one that Goupil choose to publicize. Goupil's strategy served him well as he sold the painting for the large sum of 10,000 francs to the prominent American dealer and collector Samuel Avery. Avery likely purchased the painting during one of his extensive buying trips to Europe where he acquired numerous contemporary works by some of the continent's greatest masters. According to the early writers on Bouguereau, Charles Vendryès and Marius Vachon, the painting later passed into the collection of William III, King of Holland and was placed on view in his royal palace at Loo. By the early 20th century, Marchande de grenades had made its public debut in the United States at the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy. There the painting would have been admired by what was already a large Bouguereau-loving American public. These visitors no doubt marveled, just as we do today, at Marchandes de grenades' intriguing narrative details and evocative portrait that places the work among the very best paintings in Bouguereau's oeuvre.
Deborah Coy, Senior Specialist in 19th Century European Art, New York
To hear Deborah Coy, Senior Specialist in 19th Century European Art, New York, discusses William-Adolphe Bouguereau's Marchande de grenades you can click this link
(it will download in mp3-format, but is harmless)
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William Adolphe Bouguereau was a French academic painter. He was a traditionalist; in his realistic genre paintings he used mythological themes, making modern interpretations of Classical subjects, with an emphasis on the female human body.
In his own time, Bouguereau was considered to be one of the greatest painters in the world by the Academic art community, and simultaneously he was reviled by the avant-garde. He also gained wide fame in Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, and in the United States, and commanded high prices. Bouguereau’s career was close to a direct ascent with hardly a setback. To many, he epitomized taste and refinement, and a respect for tradition. To others, he was a competent technician stuck in the past. Degas and his associates used the term “Bouguereauté” in a derogatory manner to describe any artistic style reliant on “slick and artificial surfaces”, also known as a licked finish. In an 1872 letter, Degas wrote that he strove to emulate Bouguereau’s ordered and productive working style, although with Degas' famous trenchant wit, and the aesthetic tendencies of the Impressionists, it is possible the statement was meant to be ironic.
Bouguereau’s works were eagerly bought by American millionaires who considered him the most important French artist of that time. But after 1920, Bouguereau fell into disrepute, due in part to changing tastes and partly to his staunch opposition to the Impressionists who were finally gaining acceptance. For decades following, his name was not even mentioned in encyclopedias.
Sources on his full name are contradictory: it is sometimes given as William-Adolphe Bouguereau (composed name), William Adolphe Bouguereau (usual and civil-only names according to the French tradition), while in other occasions it appears as Adolphe William Bouguereau (with Adolphe as the usual name). However, the artist used to sign his works simply as William Bouguereau (hinting "William" was his given name, whatever the order), or more precisely as "W.Bouguereau.date" (French alphabet) and later as "W-BOVGVEREAV-date" (Latin alphabet).