In the last quarter of the nineteenth-century, a very large number of American artists traveled to Paris to absorb its beauty, take advantage of the extensive artistic education available and all the opportunities that education offered. Most returned home after their studies but a few remained declaring Paris their home. Charles Sprague Pearce (1851-1914) was one of those that remained. (Click images to enlarge)
He lived only 63 years and for most of those years respiratory disease trouble him. He was 21 when he first arrived in Paris and entered the atelier of Leon Bonnat. By this time (1873), many artists in Paris were in hardcore rejection mode of the rigid program of the Ecole-des-Beaux-Arts.
Bonnat’s atelier was like so many independent studios that sprang up during that time. A group of students would come together and share the expense of studio accommodations and model costs. They would then invite a revered Salon master to head the studio. The position was honorary. The master would devote several hours per week critiquing students work. He wasn’t paid for his time but increased recognition was his reward when one of his students attained success. Pearce would become Bonnat’s most successful, and closest, American pupil. It’s easy to see Bonnat’s strong influence on Pearce’s work, as seen below.
Pearce, from his youth, wanted to be a painter of dramatic Biblical subjects. Bonnat already had established a strong reputation in that area, so it was a natural fit.
In the hierarchy of acceptable painting subjects, History Painting (historical, religious, and mythological subjects), were the most respected…and “of all the Salon subjects, they were the standard by which the French beaux-arts students were measured for the prestigious Prix de Rome.”
Upholding the historic Biblical account through art held an important place at the time because “late-nineteenth-century intellectuals consistently attempted to apply rational and technical analysis to spiritual concerns. The scientific investigations of men such as Charles Darwin undermined religious beliefs, shaking the very foundations of faith by questioning the story of creation recounted in the Book of Genesis. The truths discovered by archeology provided reassurance from the growing spiritual skepticism. Their proof of ancient cultures offered a verifiable testament to Biblical events, advancing the potential to reconcile science and religion.”
The year Pearce arrived in Paris (1873) was the year Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Cezanne, Morisot, and Degas founded the “Cooperative and Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers,” to exhibit artworks independently of the Salon. Each participant was required to give up any future participation in the Salon.
There was a lot going on in the world of art at this time. Just as Impressionism was a reaction to Romanticism and History painting, other art movements such as Realism and Naturalism, were as well.
The goal of all these “ism’s” was to create honest paintings…not the idealizations that had become so common. Artists of these new movements sought to depict “real life”…common laborers, ordinary people doing ordinary things in ordinary surroundings.
With his painting “Water Carrier”, Pearce moved away from the somber, limited palette of Bonnat, and became more closely identified with the Naturalists.
The Naturalists were considered a sub-movement of Realism, but without the political and social issues commentary.
The sole aim of the Naturalists was to “reproduce nature by carrying it to its maximum power and intensity.” The subject matter was similar to that of the Impressionists, but the style required a much higher degree of finish, tighter, more traditional brushwork, and highly refined drawing. It seems the Naturalists were still applying much of what was taught in the Ecole-des-Beaux-Arts, but they were more open to modern scientific discoveries, their paintings were more true to nature, and the subject matter was distinctly different. You may also notice that brilliant sunlight is mostly absent from their landscapes.
I am a great fan of the Naturalist movement. Unfortunately it was short-lived, lasting only about 20 years, only to be replaced by the next new thing.
My resource for this article was obtained from Google, but primarily from A Rare Elegance, The Paintings of Charles Sprague Pearce by Mary Lubin. It may be purchased HERE.
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