Drawing Basics: William-Adolphe Bouguereau, "A Girl in Peasant Costume"

American Artist looking at drawingsWilliam-Adolphe Bouguereau's drawing, A Girl in Peasant CostumeAnthony Panzera comments on William-Adolphe Bouguereau's A Girl in Peasant Costume, Seated, Arms Folded, Holding a Ball of Wool and Knitting Needles in her Right Hand.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau's drawing, A Girl in Peasant Costume
A Girl in Peasant Costume,
Seated, Arms Folded, Holding a
Ball of Wool and Knitting
Needles in her Right Hand

by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1875,
graphite drawing on cream-colored paper, 12½ x 9½.
Collection Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, England.

by Anthony Panzera

What do we see when we look at this narrative figure drawing by Bouguereau, or any drawing by almost any artist for that matter? The conventional list of questions posed by an art historian or connoisseur are the standard what, where, when, why, and how. What are we looking at, where does it take place, when was it done, why was it created, and how was it made? Invariably an artist or art student will change that order and begin by asking questions related to the last query: how was it made, what materials were used to make it, and what surface was used? So let's start with the how.

Bouguereau's drawing was made with a soft graphite pencil, modeled with a traditional stump, highlighted with white chalk, and drawn on a soft, warm cream-colored paper. The use of soft graphite on soft paper allows for a modeled, nuanced line, a line bold then delicate, a line that caresses the contours of the figure and the model's flowing headdress and skirts, allowing them to turn and blend into the space around her, rather than sharply carving them out of its space. The soft, darker, mellow tones that disappear behind her head and neck, and the delicate shadows cast on the wall and on the steps on which she sits allow the figure to gently emerge from those shadows.

The abundant cloth of her skirts and headdress are also softly modeled, with the added use of white chalk to emphasize the distinctive highlights. The folds in the fabric are carefully draped, orchestrated, and articulated around the body in a voluptuous array of dark, middle, and highlighted values. Separating the anatomy of the young girl from her clothing, we are immediately drawn to the beautifully and brilliantly foreshortened arm, the hand classically turned down from the wrist, the finely drawn and beautifully executed feet, and the perfectly oval-shaped face with its petulant gaze, which are all smoothly and softly modeled in complete contrast to the fabric. Bouguereau beautifully contrasts the soft and delicate flesh of the model's face and arms with the coarse peasantlike fabric she wears, a testament to his technical skill which makes the distinction so convincing and believable.

We are led by the exquisite technical qualities of the drawing–the how–into the first four questions traditionally asked. What the drawing is about is a young peasant girl who knits for a living; her traditional Breton costume reveals her home in northern France during the last half of the 19th century; and why it was made was to add to part of the great artist's oeuvre of glorifying the menial occupations of peasant life, for which he was richly awarded. But it all started with the how! As artists we should never forget the importance of the how.

Read more features from the Looking at Drawings series.

Anthony Panzera, NA, a member of The National Academy, in New York City, has been a professor of drawing at Hunter College, in Manhattan, since 1968. He also co-directed The Art in Florence and Rome Programs and taught a variety of courses at the New York Academy of Art and The National Academy School, both in Manhattan. He received his undergraduate degree from The State University of New York at New Paltz, and an M.F.A. degree from Southern Illinois University, in Carbondale, and studied independently in Florence, Italy.

Primarily a figurative painter, Panzera has studied and worked with the human form throughout his career. Greatly influenced by the works of the Italian Renaissance Masters, Panzera immersed himself in the proportional theories of Leonardo da Vinci, which led him to create The Leonardo Series, a group of 65 drawings based on Leonardo's investigation of proportion. Other groups of work include a series of scroll drawings each measuring 15 feet in length, a group of life-size figure drawings, the 1001 Body Parts Series, and a group known as The Headless Torso. Panzera's oeuvre also includes allegorical paintings, including the works entitled Fiamma's Fantasies, commissioned religious works and classic paintings of the nude, including his latest series which focuses on the back views of the figure. In addition to his figurative work, Panzera is inspired by Cape Cod and the islands and has painted its seascapes, landscapes and vistas since 1978. 

Panzera's works are represented in many public and private collections, including the art museum at The Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, in Utica, New York; The Hickory Museum of Art, in Hickory, North Carolina; The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, in New Brunswick, New Jersey; The Bristol-Myers Squibb Collection; The Johnson & Johnson Collection; The Janssen Pharmaceutical Collection, The Rutgers Center for Innovative Printmaking; and The National Academy Museum, in New York City. Additionally, Panzera has curated a number of exhibits, written several catalogue essays and contributed dozens of articles to art publications. His works have been exhibited in solo and group shows across the country and in Europe. He is currently represented by the Quidley & Company Gallery, in Nantucket, Massachusetts, and the Eisenhauer Gallery, in Edgartown, Massachusetts.

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