LA SOEUR AINÉE ("The Elder Sister" by William-Adolphe Bouguereau)

  1. Ngoại ngữ


This is one of my favorite paintings on display at the Museum of Fine Arts of Houston (MFAH). I never miss my chance of stopping by to admire this masterpiece whenever I have chance to visit the MFAH.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau was a French artist born in 1825. From an excerpt from the Biography of William Bouguereau by Damien Bartoli and Frederick C. Ross: “William Bouguereau is unquestionably one of history’s greatest artistic geniuses. […] Considering his consummate level of skill and craft, and the fact that the great preponderance of his works are life-size, it is one of the largest bodies of work ever produced by any artist.” La soeur aînée, or in English, The elder sister, was one a painting of his that was finished in 1869. The artist uses effective composition and vibrant colors in this painting, bringing it to perfection, both overall composition and all other details. This article is my brief description examining different aspects of the painting and how they contribute to make it a good painting.

           The two kids, which are in the middle of the foreground of the painting, are the main subject. More specifically, the elder sister herself is the primary entity of the whole painting, just as the name of the work suggests. It is an interesting fact that the actual models of this painting are the daughter and son of the painter.

           The piece strikes the audience with its exceptionally aesthetic and realistic quality. In this article, I will attempt to analyze some elements that I think make the painting so outstanding.

           La soeur aînée is an oil painting on canvas. Oil paint is a versatile medium that can aid the painters to achieve three-dimensional realistic effects and it can also manipulate light for some luminous effects. Perhaps one of the important features of oil paint is its drying time. With oil paint, an artist can work on a painting for a very long time, compared with, for instance, the fast-drying acrylic paint. And that, allows time for finest details in an artwork. (Although it is possible to manipulate the drying time of the paint by adding some solvents. For example, a retarder will increase the drying time.)

           The overall composition of the painting is a vital factor and it clearly shows the academic style of the painter’s skills. In a few words, the painting achieves great level of balance with just-right proportion! The girl at the center of the canvas is sitting in a comfortable position. One of the factors that makes her position so perfectly fit in the canvas is the crossing of her legs and the natural-looking position of her arms. Her body’s bending, though not as obvious, contributes to make the structure of the subjects in the painting well balanced. But the girl herself would not balance the whole painting. If we took out the little boy, the painting would lose its balance. Every single detail contributes to the balance of the painting.

           The girl’s facial expression is perhaps one of the point that the majority of viewers would examine first. It is something natural because human beings tend to pay attention to the face to read information from there. In this specific painting, its hyperrealism brings the audience even closer to subconsciously thinking that they are really observing the facial expressions of a person in real life. The little girl in the painting has an intent gaze straight out to meet the eyes of the beholders. But it is not uncomfortable because her face is angelic, plus her gentling holding her brother radiates warmness.

           Moving our attention to the background, we can see some lines used effectively. The horizontal line, which is the horizon itself, divides the painting into two almost equal rectangular areas: the sky and the land. This is a typical landscape in many paintings but for this one particularly, it is combined with the girl’s posture smoothly. We can feel that there is a line from her head to her vertically hanging left feet, and that creates a right angle with the horizon. And that makes the painting very stable, creating an atmosphere of security and calmness.

           In addition, William Bouguereau uses atmospheric perspective to give the landscape such a realistic look. We see the grass and the mountains becoming blurry as our look moves from the two kids out to the horizon (especially in the right part of the painting, or, the left part of the girl’s perspective). If we take a look closer at the blurry mountains farthest in the horizon, it is even possible to see clouds at the mountain tops. Or at least, it is a blurry effect caused by the reduction of contrast, just marking the maximum distance the eyes can see. Either way, it is a very careful detail that makes the painting more realistic.

           Also, there are some hills, humps, lakes (or river), trees and houses to break the monotonous feel of the landscape. Besides, the plants take an organic form and the soil right under the kids looks naturally chaotic, which adds up to the realistic quality of the painting.

           Furthermore, the artist achieves a perfect three-dimensional space. By using chiaroscuro, the viewers can feel the depth of the painting. For example, underneath the girl is a dark-colored spot, suggesting the hollow space of the rock that she is sitting on. Speaking of space, we also see the positive space (the girl) stands out really well, especially the upper half of the painting where the negative space has quite light colors. It also gives the girl an angelic look with her portrait surrounded by the colors of the clouds and the sky like that.

           Another very important element in any painting that has been used successfully in this painting is color. William Bouguereau employs a relatively small range of hues but he does it successfully for this painting. The values of the colors are relatively high, making the painting looks bright and suggest the daylight. But it is not that bright so the time in the painting is probably around afternoon. However, the intensity is not low but not that high, either. This somehow creates an atmosphere of a calm and relaxing cloudy afternoon. The painter’s skillful use of colors, values and intensity is another factor that makes the girl in the painting look so realistic. Her skin tone is just right. Her hair suggests the light from the sun somewhere up above. Then the kids’ clothes are another point worth talking about. The fabrics have depth and look natural with folds. The artist elaborates on very small details and makes sure the colors look right! Take this as an example: the neck of the girl’s clothes have very small folds and a small fabric lace. All those parts of her clothes have the same white color but different values. The difference in the values is not high but such little details bring the painting to perfection.

           La soeur aînée is indeed an extraordinary piece of art. William-Adolphe Bouguereau, with his great painterly skills, indeed has successfully combined all the elements into an eye-pleasing and life-like oil painting on canvas.


Bartoli, Damien, and Frederick C. Ross. William Bouguereau: His Life and Works. Woodbridge, NJ: Antique Collectors' Club in Cooperation with the Art Renewal Center, 2014. Print.

Từ khóa: 









formal analysis


ngoại ngữ

A famous painting of Realisme art movement

Trả lời

A famous painting of Realisme art movement

As a Classics student, my favorite part of the MFAH though is the Art of the Ancient World. I used to work for an Art History class as well: one of my responsibilities was to guide students at the museum. I loved it!