On The Square

Long Lost Sunbeam Masterpiece at Auction

By Bidsquare

Oct 06,2016 | 10:00 EDT

The whereabouts of Sunbeam had been unknown for over 100 years, but was recently discovered in the most unlikely of places - a Facebook message!

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) was regarded as the foremost representative of French academic art during the second half of the 19th century. He was a member of the prestigious Académie des Beaux-Arts and exhibited his work at the organizations salon for most of his life.

Left: William-Adolphe Bouguereau self portrait (photo source); Right: William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Rayon de Soleil (Sunbeam) in Cowans Auctions October 15th Fine and Decorative Art Auction 

Rayon de Soleil (Sunbeam) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau was completed in 1899, at the height of the artists career. An exceptional example of Bouguereaus talent, the work pictures a barefoot girl in a white dress. She stands against a garden wall, one hand raised to her chin in a pensive pose.

"As an artist, Bouguereau was incredibly popular during his heyday; his paintings were marvelous compositions and reflected the long popularity of realism in art,” said Pauline Archambault, Fine Art specialist at Cowans. 

That popularity continues to this day with his works hanging in some of the most prestigious museums in the world including the Louvre, The State Hermitage Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  Sunbeam was created during a period in which Bouguereau had moved to southern France, where his ailing son was receiving treatments. Not one to remain idle, Bouguereau set up a makeshift studio in his hotel.

Detail of William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Rayon de Soleil (Sunbeam) 

Detail of William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Rayon de Soleil (Sunbeam) 

Shortly after Sunbeam was completed in 1899, it was sold directly to Arthur Tooth & Sons, a London gallery, for 15,000 francs, roughly the equivalent of $2,870 at the time. That same year the painting sold to Knoedler Gallery of New York City, then to Moulton & Ricketts of Chicago in July 1909, which soon found a private buyer whose identity was not divulged. For over a century, this is where the trail went cold for Bouguereau scholars who listed the painting as "whereabouts unknown" and feared the worst.

Then social media stepped in and changed everything. Cowan’s Auctions founder and owner Wes Cowan received word from a Facebook friend that the painting was hanging in the parlor of a modest clapboard home in Elkhart, Indiana. A trip to the home revealed the long-lost work truly was there, hidden in plain sight, having passed down through the family after it was sold by Moulton & Ricketts. 

Family papers helped fill in the gaps.

The person who had purchased Sunbeam from Moulton & Ricketts was Charles Gerard Conn of Elkhart. The price was $6,500.

Conn (1844-1931) was a well-known figure in his day. He founded C.G. Conn, which by the early 20th century was one of the largest manufacturers of brass and woodwind instruments in the world. In addition to being a successful businessman, he distinguished himself as a politician, serving as mayor of Elkhart from 1880 to 1883, a member of the Indiana State House of Representatives in the late 1880s and early 1890s, and a Representative to the U.S. Congress from 1893 to 1895. He also established the Elkhart Daily Truth.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Rayon de Soleil (Sunbeam) in Cowans Auctions October 15th Fine and Decorative Art Auction 

"Sunbeam is a spectacular example of Bouguereaus work, painted at the apex of his long career, and clearly one of the best to come to market in some time," said Archambault. “The pensive – yet coquettish expression of the little girl immediately invites the viewer into the scene,” notes Archambault.  “It really creates a conversation with the viewer, yielding a form of contemplation that isnt just visual."

The long-lost portrait by a master of French Realism will be offered at Cowans Auctions October 15th auction of Fine and Decorative Art. The painting is being offered with a conservative pre-sale estimate of $300,000-500,000. 

View Sunbeam here and the full catalog for Cowans Fall Fine and Decorative Art auction on Oct. 15 here.