Signed 'Elizabeth Gardner' bottom right, oil on canvas
39 1/2 x 29 1/4 in. (77.5 x 74.3cm)
Executed in 1888.
Private Collection, North Carolina.
Signed 'Elizabeth Gardner' bottom right, oil on canvas
39 1/2 x 29 1/4 in. (77.5 x 74.3cm)
Executed in 1888.
Private Collection, North Carolina.
"Salon de 1888," Palais des Champs-Élysées, Paris, 1888, no. 1071.
"North Carolina Collects: Traditional Fine Arts and Decorative Arts," Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte, North Carolina, July 9-September 18, 1994, no. 23.
Explication des Ouvrages de Peinture, Sculpture, Architecture, Gravure et Lithographie des Artistes Vivants Exposés au Palais des Champs-Élysées le 1er Mai 1888, Paul Dupont, Paris, 1888 (second edition), p. 87, no. 1071 (listed, not illustrated).
Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard, The Expanding Discourse: Feminism and art History, IconEditions, New York, 1992, no. 8 (illustrated).
Tamar Garb, Sisters of the Brush: Women's Artistic Culture in Late Nineteenth-Century Paris, Yale University Press, New Heaven, 1994, p. 157, no. 62.
Charles Pearo, Elizabeth Jane Gardner: Her Life, Her Work, Her Letters, MA Thesis, McGill University, 1997, p. 9, fig. 16 (illustrated).
Elizabeth Jane Gardner Bouguerau was one of the most famous and successful American artists in Paris at the end of the 19th century. Dubbed an honorary French woman through her marriage to William Bouguereau, she was one of the first expatriates to be exposed to the male-dominated Parisian art market, which she learned to infiltrate and eventually master throughout her impressive fifty-eight-year career in the French capital city.
Born in Exeter, New Hampshire into a family of merchants, Gardner graduated from the Lasell Seminary (now Lasell University) in Auburndale, Massachusetts in 1856. At first a French teacher, she sailed for France in the summer of 1864 along with a former teacher of hers, Imogene Robinson, and the two settled in a studio 2, rue Carnot, across the street from the highly revered and successful painter, William Bouguereau.
Contrary to another famous American expatriate who arrived in Paris two years after her, Mary Cassatt, Elizabeth Gardner could not count on any financial aid from her family, and therefore did not receive private tutoring from eminent masters. Instead, she trained and made a living by copying Old Masters at the Musée du Louvre, as well as the more contemporary artists in the nearby Musée du Luxembourg. She would then sell her work to American collectors travelling through Europe, recommended to her by her own family. Yearning life-drawing classes, but denied the access to them because of her gender, Gardner joined a collective studio of women, where she studied anatomy among her peers during evening sessions. In parallel, and at the recommendation of her friend Rosa Bonheur, a true “sister of the brush and long-time career counselor” according to Charles Pearo, Gardner also joined a sketching class at the Jardin des Plantes, Paris’ Botanical Gardens and Zoo, where she painted living animals alongside the animal sculptor Antoine Barye. There, she met the famous painter Hugues Merle, who would invite her to join his studio and acted as a constant support throughout Gardner’s life, even when she decided to rally the studio of Bouguereau, Merle’s longtime rival.
The life of Elizabeth Gardner is marked by a strong desire to fit in. As an American woman from the low middle-class with an everlasting sense of duty and even guilt for leaving her country, Gardner could not afford to experiment with modern trends and embrace a radical career in the form of Impressionism. Instead, she had to study the rules set by the Institution and learn to respect them to blend and succeed in a very competitive milieu. This explains the artist’s polished, impeccable style, the true expression of French Academism adopted by many other American expatriates at the time, and her association with France’s ultimate forum and official place of recognition: the Salon. Gardner participated in thirty Salons, showing thirty-six of her works between 1868 (her first try, marked by two entries) and 1914, the apex of her participations being in 1887, the year she received a bronze medal for La Fille du Jardinier, thus becoming the only American woman to ever receive a medal.
The present, rediscovered work follows this immense success. Set against a homey kitchen interior marked by several utensils and a slowly burning fire, a young mother sits lovingly behind her toddler child. Next to her, in a cradle, sleeps her youngest. Playfully, she watches a family of chickens eating at her feet, thus creating a tender echo between her and the mother hen with her chicklets. The work bears close resemblance to the style of William Bouguereau, champion of the Art Pompier, and whom Gardner never felt embarrassed to channel as she proudly explained to an interviewer in 1910: “I would rather be known as the best imitator of Bouguereau than be nobody.” At the time, views of idealized peasantry untouched by modern life were popular among Victorian collectors. As Bouguereau was facing an impressive number of requests of that nature (having started the trend himself), Gardner must have understood the benefits, both academic and financial, to work within this niche market and emulate her famous master’s style to satisfy a hungry crowd. Here Gardner adopts a smooth brushwork, she creates solid lines heightened by soft glazes and soft colors. She frames her subjects in a way that makes them seem monumental and ennobling. Just like Bouguereau, she pays great attention to the rendering of the hands and feet, and depicts her peasant woman barefoot, a characteristic of the romanticized view of French peasantry outside of urban areas, and which American collectors were particularly fond of.
Despite the use of certain iconographic formulas however, one notes certain particularities that make the composition truly special, and which highlight Gardner’s very own artistic gifts. Contrary to Bouguereau’s figures, which are purposefully more static, Gardener’s mother and child interact with one another. They cuddle, and as such imply an inward movement which accentuates the intimacy of the moment. None of them are looking at us. On the contrary, they are so caught in the moment and display such a strong and natural bond that neither the artist nor the viewer can interrupt it. This feeling of a warm and pure love is further enhanced by the presence of the chickens. Traditionally seen as an element of femininity, they appear regularly in Gardner’s work, unlike Bouguereau’s (see for example La Fille du Jardinier -1887, Dans le Bois -1889, or La Captive -1883). The artist was fond of birds and owned herself an aviary of about 30 poultry in her studio.
Such iconography appealed to her prude, mostly feminine clientele. It also helped strengthen the moral undertones of family love and accentuate the irreplaceable nature of the mother figure in the patriarchal society. In this regard, the piece can be seen as a modern, secular version of a Madonna and Child. France’s Third Republic actively supported, and participated in broadcasting ideal representations of the good, loving mother as a pillar to a newfound, healthy society. Here, Gardner seems to respond directly to the official’s wishes: the woman is seen first and foremost as a young, beautiful mother, a caring educator as well as a loving housemaker judging from the kitchen equipment in the background. And she does so in the traditionally accepted academic manner, so the message is well-received. In Sisters of the Brush: Women's Artistic Culture in Late Nineteenth-Century Paris from 1994, Tamar Garb compares our work to Berthe Morisot’s Nourrice et Bébé of 1880 (also called La Nourrice, The Glyptotek, Copenhagen, Denmark) as she comes to discuss the pictorial representation of a natural link between mother and infant. According to her, contrary to Impressionism, the formal qualities of the Academic style were more in line with the ideals of purity en vogue at the time, and the strong “belief in the power of beauty and (…) respect for tradition and enduring values.”
Here, Gardner presents an ideal of domesticity and family bliss which could speak directly to her own life on some levels. Engaged to Bouguereau, the pair is not yet married as his mother opposes the union with an American, protestant woman. Gardner would need to wait until 1897 to finally tie the knot. While this delayed event showed her resilience and her loyalty to Bouguereau, it also meant that for another decade, Gardner would be viewed in a scandalous light as an unmarried woman in a highly patriarchal society. As such, paintings with a moral undertone such as ours also enabled the artist to keep her reputation intact and strengthen her contemporaries’ perception of her as a proper, respectable and sage woman worthy of the Academy’s honor.
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