William-Adolphe Bouguereau: The Broken Pitcher

The Man
William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825 – 1905) was the scion of a moderately successful French merchant family. He was a prolific painter, leaving behind over 800 works, and is generally regarded as a model product of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, that bastion of the French academic tradition. According to Fred Ross of the Art Renewal Center, prices for Bouguereau paintings skyrocketed over the past twenty years. In 1998, L’Eveil du Coeur (The Heart's Awakening) sold, at Christie’s, for $1,410,000. A year after, Cupid et Psyche, Enfants (Cupid and Psyche as children) sold for $1,760,000 also at Christie's. The very next day, Sylvester Stallone sold Alma Parens (The Motherland), through Sotheby’s, for $2,650,000. And, in 2000, La Charité (Charity) changed hands at Christie’s for $3,528,000. All three of these are now in private collections.

The Artist
Bouguereau showed early promise and trained initially at École des Beaux-Arts in Bordeaux. According to Fronia Wissman in Bouguereau (1996), Bouguereau won first prize for a canvas representation of Saint Rochus in 1844 at the tender age of 19 after just two years of part-time study. His father, although happy to see his son’s rapid artistic development, could not support him financially and Bouguereau ‘earned extra money designing lithographic labels for jams and preserves.’ His mother attempted to raise funds by doing needlework. But it was through the initiative of an uncle, a curate, who arranged for Bouguereau to work on portraits for wealthy parishioners, that enough funds were garnered to raise the possibility of his going to Paris where, really, any aspiring artist had to be. Bouguereau joined the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and became a student of François-Edouard Picot. Under Picot’s direction, the young Bouguereau flowered. He went on to win the Grand Prix de Rome with his Zenobia Found by Shepherds on the Banks of the Araxes.

Bouguereau was greatly influenced by the Italian High Renaissance master Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, known as Raphael, and did a compelling copy of Raphael’s The Triumph of Galatea for the Prix de Rome. His career at the Académie followed an illustrious path with Bouguereau eventually becoming a life member in 1876 and President in 1885. He was also a recipient of France’s highest honour, the Ordre National de la Légion d’honneur (National Order of the Legion of Honour), known informally as the the Legion of Honour.

The Art
Bouguereau was an ‘academic’ painter, i.e. one who followed the guidelines set by the Académie des Beaux-Arts (French Academy). The French Academy was entrusted with the challenging task of defining what good French art was. The answer to that contentious question was to be found, mostly, it decided, in the works and styles of ancient Greece and Rome and, to a lesser extent, in human response to what was good. The first approach gave birth to Neoclassicism in the 18th-century. This was, essentially, art inspired by ancient classical (best) forms and subjects. At the heart of Neoclassicism was faith in the ability of man to find his way in the world by the use of reason. It was a turning away from the view that religious dogma had all the answers.

The second approach resulted, during the 19th-century, in Romanticism, in which the world was seen, not just as a separate object as in Neoclassicism but, as extending its influence into our hearts and minds. A great deal of the Romanticist impulse was expressed in landscapes, as in the works of Caspar David Friedrich, J M W Turner, and John Constable.

The Work
La Cruche Cassée or The Broken Pitcher is an oil on canvas work that Bouguereau completed in 1891. The subject is a young girl and, irresistibly, we are captured by her expression. There’s a feeling that something’s not quite right. Her look is one of discomposure that might be regret or embarrassment or perhaps shame. According to Wissman, a broken pitcher connotes innocence lost. This young maiden’s awakening might be a realisation of the ephemerality of love trysts or of their more damaging and lasting effects. See this thought-provoking piece on the sexualisation of children.

This work is now housed at the Fine Arts Museum Of San Francisco in California, USA. It is 53 x 33 inches.