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A young woman sits with her violin tucked in her lap with the Notre Dame cathedral faint in the distance. The Bohemian by William-Adolphe Bouguereau is a striking image in muted tones, full of depth despite the stoic expression of the girl.
The Bohemian was completed in 1890 and is one of at least two paintings using this model; she can also be seen in The Shepherdess which was painted in 1889. Like in The Shepherdess, careful attention is given to the form of the young woman and the details in her clothing.
Bouguereau was fond of realism in his paintings, dedicating considerable talent and effort in making it seem as though the subject could almost speak to the viewer.
With bare feet and plain, unadorned clothes, it is possible this young woman is without much money to her name. It is easy to imagine her making a living through her music and taking a short break to sit down on the edge of the River Seine, fiddle carefully held away from harm as she rests for a moment.
Though in reality one knows she is a model, Bouguereau's careful attention to detail and ability to bring grace to even this simple scene can let you forget.
During Bouguereau's life his art was extremely popular. The elegance he brought to the figures he painting went down very well, and though he lost some popularity during the turn of the nineteenth century, his reputation has never wavered. He was a prolific painter; there are over eight hundred known works, many of them portraits or modern portrayals of classical scenes.
Bouguereau was a traditionalist from a young age and put a lot of effort into ensuring his paintings conformed to his very strict ideals. He would do both pencil and oil sketches before the final work, which meant that each figure was as accurate in form as possible and full of depth and accurate details.
In The Bohemian, the realism of the young woman shows this love and care very well. It helps to bring the painting to life that it is so easy to situate the scene in real life; the Notre Dame is a famous, beautiful building, and though it is in a haze in the background of this painting, it brings new layers to the focus of it.
Unfortunately it is not possible to see this beautiful painting on display in public at this time; it is currently in a private collection after being auctioned in 2004 for the acquisition fund of Minneapolis Institute of Art, where it hung before.
Despite this, viewing the painting as a print shows its depth almost as well as the real thing. The Bohemian's focal figure looks out of the frame but not, as with many portraits, at the viewer; instead her gaze is lifted above us.
With such a realistic scene it is almost tempting to turn and see what has caught her attention, but it would be a shame indeed to turn from a painting as beautiful as this.