CHARLES SPRAGUE PEARCE (1851–1914)
Woman in Profile with Black Hair (The Artist’s Wife), 1880s
Oil on canvas, 13 7/8 x 10 3/4 in.
Signed (at lower left): CHARLES–SPRAGUE–PEARCE
EX COLL.: Adelaide Arnold, New York, New York, circa 1930; to her daughter, Jane Arnold Spanel, Durham, North Carolina, 1970s–2018, and by descent in the family until the present
At various points in his career, Pearce was engaged in portraiture, especially images of women, ranging from commissioned works and formal costume pictures to smaller, more intimate conceptions that were admired for their elegance and fluency of touch. Such is the case with Woman in Profile with Black Hair (The Artist’s Wife), which is believed to be a likeness of Pearce’s French-born spouse, Antonia (1856–1925), who was also his muse and frequent model. His attraction to this raven-haired beauty is not surprising. Born Louise Catherine Bonjean (but known as Antonia) in Paris, she was the daughter of Louis Bonjean and his wife, Catherine (Boisset). An aspiring artist, Antonia met Pearce in 1879, when they were working in ateliers at 75, boulevard de Clichy.
When Pearce first met Antonia, she was modeling for the Finnish painter, Albert Edelfelt. A painter of landscapes and the occasional still life, Antonia exhibited intermittently at the Paris salons between 1879 and 1912.
Pearce and Antonia maintained separate residences until 1884, when they both listed their addresses as 179, boulevard Pereire, in the city’s 17th arrondissement. The couple were subsequently married in Paris on June 9, 1888, after which Pearce went on to paint his Portrait of Mrs. P. (unlocated), which he exhibited the following year at the Universal Exposition. Antonia’s Japanese nick-nacks (location unknown) was also featured at the Universal Exposition, where she was identified in the accompanying catalogue as Louise Catherine Pearce. Antonia also appears in several of the artist’s large scale fashion portraits, such as The Mask (1895; The Armand Hammer Collection, The Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center Los Angeles, California) and The Shawl (about 1895–1900; Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, Wisconsin), which show her dressed in attire from the Napoleonic era.
Woman in Profile with Black Hair (The Artist’s Wife) is possibly one of the “stunning study heads” of young women that Pearce painted during the early 1880s on modestly sized supports, often measuring approximately 13 x 10 inches. In this instance, the artist depicts his subject facing to the left. The viewer’s gaze is immediately drawn to Antonia’s seductive mane, which forms a vivid contrast with her ivory skin and the lush shade of coral used to denote the unadorned backdrop. In keeping with his expertise in rendering the human form, Pearce adheres to highly controlled brushstrokes in describing his sitter’s comely face while employing a more fluent touch in depicting her hair. He extends this painterly handling to his rendering of her attire as well. Indeed, the delicate floral motifs of Antonia’s dress add an appealing decorative quality to the image and, along with the simplified composition and sumptuous hues, demonstrate Pearce’s familiarity with aestheticism and the precepts of japonisme. (Pearce was an avid collector of Japanese prints).
Whether Pearce painted Woman in Profile with Black Hair (The Artist’s Wife) for pleasure—as an homage to the woman he loved––or as an excursion into modern pictorial concerns relative to form, color, and design, remains a mystery. Certainly, the painting has a fresh, contemporary feel that exemplifies the artist’s interest in the more progressive trends of the Parisian art world.
The antique label “379” that accompanies the painting indicates that the work was exhibited during Pearce’s lifetime or in the wake of his death. However, thus far, the exhibition venue remains unknown. The Paris Salon would be a possible setting for such a lovely work. However, in keeping with the Salon’s practice of listing its vast number of exhibitors alphabetically, the catalogue numbers for Pearce’s work are typically four digits. An examination of published exhibition records in the United States indicates that the “379” printed on the label did not coincide with the catalogue numbers assigned to works Pearce exhibited at the national annuals in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh.
As to the painting’s journey from France to the United States, it’s tempting to surmise that Adelaide Arnold, the first owner of the work––a New Yorker who served as a Red Cross nurse in France during World War I and spent several years in Paris following the Armistice––acquired the painting from a French dealer or conversely, from the Pearce family estate sales held in Auvers following Antonia’s passing in 1925. (Email from the current owner to Hirschl & Adler Galleries, July 28, 2021, Hirschl & Adler Galleries archives. The sales were held in July and September 1925. See Succession de Madame Charles Sprague Pearce, Tableaux, Aquarelles, Dessins, Gravures ... [Auvers-sur-Oise, France, 1925] and 2éme Vente. Catalogue des Graveurs, Estampes, Japonaises ... Charles Sprague Pearce [Auvers-sur-Oise, France, 1925].)