One of America’s most important expatriate painters of the late-nineteenth century, Charles Sprague Pearce spent his entire career in France. A “conspicuous figure in Parisian art circles,” he was best known for his portrayals of Orientalist subjects, biblical themes, and rustic peasants, executed in a refined academic realist style (“Obituary: Charles Sprague Pearce,” American Art News 12 [May 23, 1914], p. 3). Much admired for his ability to render the human form, Pearce was also engaged in portraiture, particularly images of women.
Born into a wealthy and cultured family in Boston, Pearce (the grandson of the poet Charles S. Sprague) attended the Brimmer School and the Boston Latin School. After graduating, he spent five years working as an apprentice in his father’s importing firm, Shadrach H. Pearce and Company, while painting in his spare time. Intent on pursuing an artistic career, Pearce initially planned to study art in Munich. However, in August 1873, on the advice of his friend and fellow artist, William Morris Hunt, he decided to go to Paris instead. Pearce subsequently enrolled in the atelier of Léon Bonnat, a popular portrait and figure painter whose roster of pupils included several Americans, notably Edwin Howland Blashfield, Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent, and William Sartain. An admirer of Spanish Baroque masters such as Diego Velázquez and José Ribera, Bonnat advocated an objective realism characterized by forceful light-dark contrasts, painterly brushwork, and a concern for mass, form, and color. To the young, up-and-coming artists such as Pearce, his teacher’s unpretentious style represented an appealing compromise between traditional academic painting, with its emphasis on line and detail, and the “vagueness” of more radical modes of expression, such as Impressionism.
Pearce is said to have spent three years working under Bonnat. However, since he suffered from recurring bouts of pulmonary disease, most of their contact is thought to have occurred not in Bonnat’s damp and noisy atelier but in Pearce’s own studio, where, as reported in Art Amateur, the master “visited him frequently to criticize and encourage” (“Charles Sprague Pearce,” Art Amateur 10 [December 1883], p. 6). Suffice to say, Bonnat’s style and his repertoire of motifs––ranging from biblical, historical, and exotic genre themes to society portraiture––set a compelling example for Pearce.
Bonnat’s impact on Pearce’s artistic evolution and choice of subject matter is readily apparent in his Orientalist works. Indeed, about a month after his arrival in Paris in the fall of 1873, Pearce experienced a respiratory ailment that forced him to take a break from his studies. Seeking a warmer climate, he went to the south of France to recover, during which time he befriended the American painter Frederick Arthur Bridgman. Later that year, Pearce and Bridgman spent about three months in Egypt, where they visited Cairo and sailed along the Nile making sketches and gathering material for future paintings. Certainly, both men were very much aware of the vogue for Orientalist painting in France, England, and the United States, a taste that Bonnat and his contemporary, Jean-Léon Gérôme (Bridgman’s teacher at the time), helped create. In 1874, Pearce headed south once again, this time wintering on the Kasbah in Algiers with William Sartain. In the ensuing year, he continued to make seasonal trips to temperate regions, including locales in France, Italy, and Spain.
Pearce’s visits to Egypt and North Africa inspired many paintings, including oils based on stories from the Old Testament and picturesque portrayals of contemporary Arabian life, among them such well-known works as his Arab Jeweler (about 1882; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). He continued to explore Orientalist motifs until the early 1880s, when, motivated by the example of French Naturalists such as Jules Bastien-Lepage and Jules Breton, he turned his attention to bucolic images of peasant women, among them A Village Funeral, Brittany (1891; Danforth Museum of Art, Framingham, Massachusetts), in which he melded aspects of realism and plein-air painting. Rural subjects became especially prevalent in Pearce’s oeuvre after 1885, when––now a well-established artist––he moved into an old farmhouse in Auvers-sur-Oise, about twenty miles outside of Paris, where he remained for the rest of his life. After erecting a glass-enclosed studio, he was able to paint throughout the seasons without having to worry about the cold afflicting his health. Pearce’s involvement with rustic peasant themes mirrored that of his equally successful American cohort Daniel Ridgway Knight (1839–1924). However, Pearce imbued his faces and figures with a greater degree of individuality than Knight––a quality that reflected his earlier training under Bonnat.
In the wake of his relocation to the countryside, Pearce maintained his strong connection to the American expatriate art community in Paris, helping found the Paris Society of American Painters (1889), where he fraternized with other academic artists such as Bridgman, Julius L. Stewart, and Edwin Lord Weeks. He also served as a juror at the Universal Exposition, held in Paris in 1889, and helped coordinate the American fine arts section at the Antwerp World’s Fair in 1894. Pearce likewise served on the Paris committee for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1893) and the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in Saint Louis (1904). In the United Kingdom and Europe, he exhibited his work at prestigious institutions such as the Royal Academy and the Royal Society of British Artists in London, the Royal Hibernian Academy of Art in Dublin, and the Royal Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts, in addition to participating in art fairs and industrial expositions in Munich, Antwerp, Copenhagen, and elsewhere.
In America, collectors and critics had the opportunity to see Pearce’s paintings at the Society of American Artists and the National Academy of Design in New York, as well as at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Boston Art Club, and similar venues. His work was also disseminated through articles and reproductions in journals such as Art Amateur and Art Interchange and in publications such as George Sheldon’s Recent Ideals in American Art (1888). While easel painting remained his forte, Pearce ventured into new aesthetic territory in 1896, when he painted a series of lunette murals for the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Following his death in Auvers-sur-Oise on May 17, 1914, Pearce was buried in the local cemetery, not far from the resting place of Vincent van Gogh.