Rayon de Soleil (Sunbeam)
William Adolphe Bouguereau is regarded as the foremost representative of French academic art during the second half of the 19th century. He was a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts and exhibited his work at the Salon for most of his life.
This portrait is an exceptional example of Bouguereau’s work, showing unflinching attention to detail, and demonstrating lofty levels of technicality. While often described as a member of the Realist movement, Bouguereau in fact contributed to the development of a particular strand of realism combining the official style of the Academy, where classical themes and techniques tended to prevail, with a more socially concerned, relatively recent, form of artistic expression. Sunbeam is a superb illustration of this merging of meticulous composition and social commentary. The subject’s appearance – her bare feet, loosely tied hair, and relaxed posture – denote her modest origins, while the natural scenery, neoclassical banister and jardinière, all rendered in precise detail, suggest a deep commitment to a more academic mode of representation.
Sunbeam was completed in the spring of 1899 at the apex of the artist’s career. The painting was accomplished in Menton in the south of France, where Bouguereau had accompanied his son for a curative retreat. During his sojourn, the artist set up a makeshift studio at the Hôtel des Îles Britanniques where he completed six portraits of “a few little models,” including the young girl featured in Sunbeam.
Provenance and ownership history:
• Sold by Bouguereau to Tooth & Sons (London), for 15,000F, according to a payment letter dated October 23rd, 1899.
• Sold to Knoedler (New York), July 1899, stockbook no. 8824§
• Sold to Moulton & Ricketts (Chicago), July 1909
• Sold to Charles Gerald Conn of Elkhart, Indiana, between July, 1909 and July, 1910, and thence by descent in the family to the present owner.
According to a typed inventory from Charles Gerald Conn’s personal papers listing all of the paintings that he owned as of July 6th, 1910, he purchased Sunbeam from Moulton and Ricketts for $6,500 sometime between July, 1909 and July 6, 1910. Sunbeam (referred to as “Little Ray of Sunshine” in the inventory) is at the top of the list of works purchased from Moulton and Ricketts, among other masterpieces of Western art including paintings by Eugène Verboeckhoven, Adolphe Schreyer, Jules Breton, and others. This inventory is complemented by two undated transcripts of appraisals from Moulton and Ricketts for Mr. Conn, according to which the value of Sunbeam was estimated at $4,500. Based on Conn’s records, the painting has remained in his family since.
Conn was the founder of the C. G. Conn Band Instrument Company, which by the early 20th century was the largest manufacturer of brass and woodwind instruments in the world. Conn also distinguished himself as a politician, first serving as the mayor of Elkhart, Indiana, from 1880 to 1883, then as a member of the Indiana State House of Representatives in the late 1880s-early 1890s, before being elected as a Democrat to the Fifty-third Congress from 1893 to 1895. He is also known for establishing the Elkhart Daily Truth in 1890.
The painting is accompanied by the aforementioned documents as well as several letters and additional inventories, which confirm the breadth and quality of Conn’s personal art collection. The letters notably include extensive correspondence between Katherine Conn, C. G. Conn’s wife, and Bohumir Kryl, the well-known Chicago-based Czech cornetist who doubled as an art collector, regarding payments owed to the Conns for several paintings that Kryl purchased from them.
Remarkably, Sunbeam is in nearly untouched condition, and exceptionally well preserved. It was kept under glass until the 1970s, during which time the glass was removed and the painting cleaned professionally at Makielski Art Shop.
The surface shows some mild craquelure, but the canvas has not been relined, and the black light reveals only three minute retouches located in the lower left corner above the signature, towards the upper center, just left of the subject’s face, and in the background at top, above the subject's head (this is a minuscule dot of in-paint). Note that, importantly, both the signature and the figure look impeccably clean in the black light. The varnish is slightly discolored.
There is some very mild expected wear along the rabbet lines.
The frame shows wear and damage, including multiple cracks, splits, and touch-ups, as well as a few losses to the gesso ornaments.
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