In 1850, Bouguereau had achieved his first major piece of recognition, being awarded the Prix de Rome. Part of the prize was a three-year residency in Rome, at the Villa Medici. Although he continued his formal studies here, he also gained the experience of being able to see the great Renaissance masterpieces at close quarters. This influenced him to produce classically-inspired works such a Idylle, an approach he was to retain throughout his life.
One of Bouguereau's many genre paintings, Idylle focuses on a quiet woodland scene between two people – slightly unusually, these are a nude young man and a fully-clothed young woman. The woman, dressed in a style reminiscent of ancient Greece with a white robe tied with a simple string, contemplates her hand rather than the man seated at her feet. He, meanwhile, has his hands clasped around the woman's knees, demonstrating his affection for her. Even so, she is not paying open attention to his position, and there is the suggestion that his love for her is unrequited.
The man's figure is darkened by heavy shadows, and the woodland and sky of the background are similarly darkly tinged. In contrast, his companion's white robe shines with a light apparently out of keeping with the darkness of her forest surroundings. The effect of Bouguereau's striking use of colour and shade is to give the woman an almost mystical appearance, something which, again, is in keeping with the artist's interest in classical scenes.
Like many of Bouguereau's works, Idylle suffered from the decline in the artist's reputation in the early 20th century. Traditional painting came to be seen as outmoded and old-fashioned, especially given his dislike of the newly fashionable Impressionist movement. Only in relatively recent times has the painting once more been considered a masterpiece. It should not be confused with Idylle: famille antique, also painted by Bouguereau.