William Bouguereau | Les oranges, 1865

The image of a mother and child is a symbol of universal relevance. It exists and is celebrated within every culture, throughout its respective history.
Through iconic works like Les Oranges, Bouguereau🎨 has made an enduring contribution to this fundamental canon of imagery and he continues to have a profound impact on how such images are produced and received to this day.
The present painting is among Bouguereau's greatest achievements. His virtuosity is apparent in every element of the painting, which was executed at the height of his genius.
His debt to the Renaissance masters🎨 is evident here and the religious overtones of this painting are subtly underlined by the inclusion of the oranges, recognized in symbolic terms as a substitute for the apple in the hand of the infant Christ.




In his biography on the artist, Marius Vachon discusses the artist's mother and child paintings, which are greatly instructed by the fifteenth-century Italian paintings of the Madonna and Child.
He writes: "From the outset, the paintings of the Italian masters revealed to the artist the beauty inherent in youth, the seduction in a smile, the grace in simplicity. Above all he paints young mothers, with their children. This theme, which had been interpreted in an inexhaustible variety of ways, and always with new eloquence, inspired him to paint works of an infinite charm, in the figure types were generally borrowed from the Italians" (as translated from Marius Vachon, W. Bouguereau, 1900, p. 90).

At Bouguereau's hand the sacred subject is secularized. He creates a dream-like universe of peace and serenity that is exquisite and transcendent in its beauty. The work is impeccable. Against the deep foliage behind them, the three figures who are shown here seem to radiate light. Bouguereau was a consummate painter and draftsman and he honed a reputation for unparalleled excellence in his workmanship.
An effusive American society columnist wrote that "Nothing does he but paint from dawn until eve, winter and summer. Painting is his society, theatre, vacation. His canvases are his domestic pets. In becoming a master - in preparing to create a whole world of Bouguereau unreality - this gentle woodman starved in Paris in the approved art-student style..." (Stuart Oliver Henry, Hours with Famous Parisians, Chicago, 1897, p. 213)
The idiosyncratic "world of Bouguereau unreality" had a spectacular allure, particularly for American collectors, and the artist's dealer at the time, the legendary Durand-Ruel, had been cultivating that interest and guiding his output.

Robert Isaacson writes that "Durand-Ruel introduced Bouguereau to one of his painters, Hugues Merle, who was having an enormous success with compositions of the mother and baby, brother and sister sort... Bouguereau was urged to try his hand at this genre, and his success with it is part of history" (Robert Isaacson, "Collecting Bouguereau in England an America" William Bouguereau: 1825 – 1905, exh. cat., Paris, 1984, p. 104).
As he grows into his artistic and commercial maturity, and because of the strength of these works, Bouguereau is persuaded to accept an exclusive and much more lucrative contract with Goupil, and he leaves Durand-Ruel. From that point on, Goupil began reclaiming those of Bouguereau's paintings still at their competitors, the present work among them, which was subsequently made popular through the widespread distribution of photographic reproductions.

Emilienne Cesil-Biegler, the girl who posed for this painting, was among Bouguereau's favorite models during this period and appeared in most of his works painted between 1865-1867, among them The Prayer, The Pet Bird, Blowing Bubbles, Awaking and Getting Up.
Born in 1859, she was the daughter of Bouguereau's housemaid and it is therefore likely that Emelienne's brother, born in 1863, may be the model for the infant boy.


One element of this painting that is easy to take for granted is the exquisite and saturated use of the color orange. Pigment has not always been easy to come by, especially brilliant hues of blue, yellow, red and orange.
It wasn't until the nineteenth century that large deposits of the element chromium were discovered in France, Britain and the Americas that the pigment "chrome orange" was developed and became commercially available to artists; it replaced the pigment realgar, which had been in use since antiquity. This lead to a sudden revolution in the availability of powerful hues, most wildly embraced by the Impressionists, and so elegantly and prominently showcased in this painting. | © Sotheby's


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