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Au pied de la falaise (At the Foot of the Cliff), 1886

Artist: William-Adolphe Bouguereau, French, 1825 - 1905

Medium: Oil on canvas

Painting: 43 1/4 x 26 1/4 in. (109.9 x 66.7 cm)
Frame: 55 x 38 x 4 1/2 in. (139.7 x 96.5 x 11.4 cm)

Credit Line: Bequest of Morrie A. Moss

Object Number: 93.4

On View

Sold by the Artist, Oct 12, 1886; Boussod-Valadon & Cie, Paris, 1886; Blakeslee & Company, New York, New York; (Anonymous) Gallery or Collection, New York, New York, 1952; Hammer Galleries, New York, New York, 1953; Morrie A. Moss, Memphis, Tennessee, 1993

In the last half of the 19th century, as the French art world was undergoing dynamic changes with the advent of Impressionism, William-Adolphe Bouguereau remained committed to traditional painting methods and aesthetics. After receiving his training at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris, he followed Michelangelo and Raphael in using the human figure as a means of expression. He was an exceptional draftsman, and his early canvases of historical, mythological, and biblical scenes consisted of highly finished figures set in classical compositions. These subjects brought him commissions from churches, government institutions, and private residences. When he later began to produce paintings of female peasants, mothers, and children, which had greater appeal in the public marketplace, his financial success was secured. Although he also accrued many state honors and international awards, and held prestigious positions in the Parisian art world, critics often condemned his work for being too sentimental and executed with an almost mechanical accuracy.

This painting of a seated young girl displays Bouguereau’s mastery of the human body and his unsurpassed ability to replicate textures. Typical of his work, the child is nearly life-size, sitting in a natural relaxed pose with eyes gazing to the left in a wistful or contemplative manner. Although he painted his peasant subjects with realistic precision, Bouguereau idealized them with flawless skin, spotless clothes, and perfect proportions. He saw art as a highly selective process whereby the artist improved on reality to create an image that was poetic and universal. Many of his peers viewed his work as empty perfection, but Bouguereau, whose passion for the figure was inexhaustible, continued painting in this style until his death in 1905.