Paris Comes to Pittsburgh

By Shaw, Kurt | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, July 5, 2007 | Go to article overview

Paris Comes to Pittsburgh


Shaw, Kurt, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


With her relaxed demeanor and calm expression, the fresh-faced girl looks as if she hasn't a care in the world. Captured midday above a low-mountain pasture, her flawless skin, smooth hands and feet, and soft, billowing hair belie the hardened peasant life that claims her.

She is "The Little Shepherdess," William-Adolphe Bouguereau's (1825-1905) most iconic painting, containing every element that made Bouguereau one of the most popular artists of the 19th century.

Bouguereau, of course, is long gone, but his 'Little Shepherdess' lives on. The painting is the centerpiece of "In the Studios of Paris: William Bouguereau & His American Students," an exhibition of 50 paintings, drawings and prints by Bouguereau and several of his prominent American students. The exhibit officially opens Friday at The Frick Art Museum in Point Breeze.

"It's the kind of painting that, when people walk into museum, it takes their breath away," says Sarah Hall, curator of exhibitions and registrar at The Frick Art Museum, about "The Little Shepherdess."

She takes her place in the exhibition's entrance gallery between two other paintings by Bouguereau -- "The Young Shepherdess" (1885) and "Young Girl" (1886) -- that are just as commanding, being magnificently rendered down to the details, from the buttons of a bodice to the buds on a nearby rosebush.

"It's impossible to imagine that a hand can render things that perfectly," Hall says about the pictures. "And often, in his lifetime, he was criticized for being too perfect, idealizing the subject too much, making everything beautiful."

Organized by the Philbrook Art Museum in Tulsa, Okla., The Frick Art Museum is the last stop on its national tour of these incredible paintings, as well as many more by prominent artists, Bouguereau's students all, such as Cecilia Beaux (1855-1942), Minerva Chapman (1858-1947), Eanger Irving Couse (1866-1936), Elizabeth Gardner (1837-1922), Robert Henri (1865-1929), and Anna Klumpke (1856- 1942).

A prolific perfectionist, Bouguereau created more than 800 paintings in his lifetime, all nearly as perfect as the next.

"He is so technically skilled on every level," Hall says. "When you look at his work you can see the underpinnings of academic drawing, this great line quality. He's known as a master of hands and feet, and he shows (this skill) off."

Hall points to the painting "Young Love" as a perfect example of his mastery of technique. Here, a young woman sits in a garden, an entranced look over her face as she stares toward the viewer. Over her left shoulder, she is visited by a cherub.

Dressed in a white gown full of lace, her arms fold neatly into her lap, forming a triangular shape the forces the eye to the subject's delicate, interlaced fingers, which are rendered in exact detail. So are her feet, the right one presented in forward position to that of the left, as if to show off the artist's skill in this area as well.

Bouguereau's perfectly finished, startlingly crisp renderings of idealized pastoral and mythological scenes were popular worldwide, and many crossed the Atlantic to join American collections. By 1895, nearly two dozen homes in Pittsburgh contained works by Bouguereau - - one of which was that of Henry Clay Frick -- and half a dozen of Bouguereau's paintings were included in the first Carnegie Annual Exhibition of 1896.

But Bouguereau also was a devoted teacher and mentor whose studio attracted thousands of aspiring artists. During the last quarter of the 19th century, any student-artist with drive made his or her way to Paris, then the center of the art world.

At Academie Julian in Paris, Bouguereau provided instruction and criticism to more than 200 American students. To train with Bouguereau was to receive a solid foundation in drawing and painting the figure from life, and also, if successful, to gain access to the higher levels of the art world.

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