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William Bouguereau | Tricoteuse Bretonne, 1871

Curious to experience the uniquely preserved language, religion, and traditions of Brittany’s sixth-century Celtic ancestors, crowds of cultural tourists travelled to this province in northwestern France in the late nineteenth century.
William Bouguereau made his first journey with his family in the summer of 1866 and found himself deeply moved by the region’s coastal landscape and distinctive people, leading him to return every summer until 1870, often vacationing in the small town of Douarnenez.
In July, their final visit was interrupted by the Franco-Prussian War prompting Bouguereau’s return to Paris in July to enlist in the National Guard, putting his artistic career on hiatus.

When the Treaty of Frankfurt was signed nearly one year later on May 10, 1871, he enthusiastically returned to his easel. After a yearlong absence, his works were met with high demand from dealers and collectors and Tricoteuse Bretonne was among the first of five paintings that Bouguereau sold to Goupil on June 26, 1871, suggesting that he revisited some incomplete canvases from his time in Douarnenez.

Bouguereau was not the only artist who responded to the rustic allure of Brittany, as many other nineteenth-century artists were inspired to document the province, including Jules Breton, who first visited Douarnenez in 1865 and then again in 1868.
Just as they did for Bouguereau, the rugged and rocky coast and its anachronistic culture captivated Breton, and he would find many of his favorite models here.
As Breton wrote of the women of Douarnenez,
there are those with straight profiles, prominent brows and chins, big lips, powerful square jaws, blue eyes and eyelids slit to the brow; these are the Gallo-Roman women so beloved of Michelangelo” - (as quoted in Annette Bourrut-Lacouture, Jules Breton, Painter of Peasant Life, Paris, 2002, p. 143).
Breton’s portrayals of the women from the region are striking, and his portrait of Jeanne Calvet (1865, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown), a sardine processor and his frequent model, shares a particular resonance with the present work.

The compositional similarities are immediately evident, and both figures are clothed in heavy brown cloak and the characteristic white cloth headdress of the laundresses of Douarnenez, posed in profile and gazing into the distance (Jules Breton, La Vie d’un artiste, Art et Nature, Paris, 1890, p. 300).

True to Bouguereau’s practice of subjecting the real to the ideal, his Tricoteuse maintains a serene expression, dreamily pausing from her knitting mid-stitch. In contrast, Breton’s Jeanne Calvet holds an expression that is taught, focused and stoic.

Both Bouguereau and Breton submitted paintings to the 1870 Salon inspired by scenes of Brittany. Bouguereau’s Le Voeu à Sainte-Anne d’Auray (sold in these rooms, October 23, 2007, lot 43), was well-received by critics. As Théophile Gaultier wrote of the painting:
M. Bouguereau did not want to take the local color too far, but merely attempted to express a pure, naïve faith in a region where religious feeling has survived. Indeed he could not have done better than the angelic innocence of these two charming countenances that seem to have haloes concealed beneath their white cloth caps” (as quoted in Bartoli and Ross, p. 192).

Breton’s submission, The Washerwomen of the Breton Coast (sold in these rooms, April 24, 2009, lot 85, fig. 2), features Jeanne Calvet as the central figure, surrounded by her fellow working women on the Pointe de la Vache.

Jules Breton (French painter, 1827-1906) The washerwomen of the Breton coast, 1870

Although Breton’s painting was not as well received at the Salon, its swift sale to the American businessman, politician and collector, Edwin Denison Morgan, demonstrates the appeal of this subject, and its exhibition may have inspired Bouguereau’s decision to complete the present work. | Sotheby's