Begoña María Azkue Bequest  - Bilbao Fine Arts Museum

2023-11-08 • 2024-06-30

Begoña María Azkue Bequest 

William Bouguereau: The Vow in Sainte-Anne d’Auray (c.1870)

Pedro de Icaza y Aguirre Hall

The museum’s nineteenth-century painting collection has been enriched with an outstanding work by William Bouguereau (La Rochelle, France, 1825–1905), which was acquired this year thanks to the bequest of Begoña María Azkue (Bilbao, 1944–2023). 

The Bilbao Fine Arts Museum recently received the bequest of Begoña María Azkue with the stipulation that it be spent to acquire artworks. This act of cultural philanthropy now joins the historical series of donations and bequests that have nurtured the museum’s collections since it was founded in 1908 and become one of its clearest hallmarks. In fact, currently, more than 60% of the museum’s works come from bequests, either private like this one, or institutional or corporate. 

In addition to its undeniable quality, The Vow in Sainte-Anne d’Auray (c.1870) also boasts other points of interest, including the fact that it is a unique work within the oeuvre of one of the top exponents of nineteenth-century French academicist painting. Despite being somewhat dismissed by the more avant-garde painters of the era—who were exploring the newfound pathways of impressionism—Bouguereau’s streamlined technique and deliberate emotivity nonetheless garnered recognition from both critics and the public, as well as huge commercial success in France and the United States. Today, the art market is once again taking an interest in his work, so the museum’s purchase of this painting for €165,466 at Subastas Ansorena (Madrid) was extremely favourable. 

Its addition to the collection adds value to the nineteenth-century academicism represented—Mariano Fortuny, Raimundo de Madrazo and Eduardo Zamacois—and to painters interested in the symbolist iconography of Brittany, like Charles Cottet, Paul Gauguin and the Zubiaurre brothers, among others. It is also joining the recent 2020 acquisition—made possible by the Friends of the Museum—of the painting The Vagabonds by the fellow French artist Gustave Doré from the same period as when this Bouguereau work was painted (c.1868–1869). 

William Bougurereau

The Vow in Sainte-Anne d’Auray, c. 1870

Oil on canvas. 61 x 50 cm
Acquired in 2023 thanks to the Begoña Azkue Bequest

The scene is set in the sanctuary devoted to Saint Anne—the protectress of mothers and pregnant women—in the Breton town of Auray, one of the most important pilgrimage sites in France.

In an interior defined by soft lighting, two girls are kneeling before the altar to express to the saint their promise of action or omission. They are holding long candles whose light echoes that of the candelabrum glimpsed on the altar, which is protected by a wrought-iron grille whose decoration casts a shadow on the column of the chapel. On the step that elevates the chapel, the painter’s name is engraved on the stone in trompe l'oeil fashion. The girls are holding rosaries in their hands, just like the older woman seated the stone floor off to one side counting her beads on her rosary with a sorrowful gesture. This middle ground is in the shade because of the scant light filtering in through the deep-set window, and the column holding up the arch can barely be seen in the background. All three are wearing a sober version of one of the traditional costumes from the region, with voluminous head coverings and linen collars that tie up their hair while serving as a counterpoint to the darkness of their other garments. The fine trim on the head covering of the girl in profile and the undulating ribbon lacing on her dress are the only elements that temper the sobriety of their clothing. The old lady’s red bodice contrasts with the ochre and black palette that heightens the solemnity of the instant and concentrates the expression in the tones of the girls’ delicate faces.

This painting, one of Bouguereau’s few interiors, is a reduction—a common practice among successful nineteenth-century painters that made it easier to sell certain works—of another larger one which was exhibited at the 1870 Paris Salon. Today, the whereabouts of this painting are unknown, even though one painting without the figure of the older woman, perhaps trimmed from the larger one, is known; it sold for €1,122,240 at Sotheby’s auction house in New York in 2007. Several preparatory sketches also survive, such as the ones in the Cabinet of Drawings at the Louvre Museum in Paris, with details of the figures, the ferronnerie and the window.

In his critique from the 1870 Salon, the writer Théophile Gautier included this reference to the work: ‘Mr Bouguereau did not seek to exaggerate the local colour, but, in a country where religious sentiment persists, he only sought an expression of pure, ingenuous faith, and he clearly could not have found a better example than these two charming faces of celestial candour, who seem to conceal halos under their white fabric head coverings. We adore this painting of such pure sentiment, with such sober yet perfect execution.’

About the artist

William Bouguereau (La Rochelle, France, 1825–1905) 

Bouguereau is one of the outstanding figures from nineteenth-century French academicism. His works were warmly received by official critics and the public—which only solidified through his participation in the artistic contests of his day—and were extraordinarily commercially successful. 

Born in La Rochelle to a merchant family, he soon revealed his inclination towards art and moved to Paris to pursue training at the age of 20. After being admitted to the prestigious École Royale des Beaux-Arts in 1846, he became a disciple of François-Édouard Picot, who was also the master of other great neoclassical painters like Alexandre Cabanel. In 1850, he won the Grand Prix of Rome, which included a scholarship at the French Academy of Rome, housed in the Villa Medici. After three years in Italy, he returned to his hometown and began to successfully show his works at the Paris Salons and in other European and North American cities. 

Thanks to his classical training, Bouguereau adapted his themes—primarily myths and allegories, Madonnas, nudes and candid depictions of children and peasants—to an emotive style expressed through an idealised beauty of precise drawing and finishes and clean colours, which catered to the tastes of his bourgeois clientele. In 1885, he began to work with the Galerie Durand-Ruel, and one year later his reputation as a painter of grand classical themes earned him the commission to paint the portrait of the emperor Napoleon III. Between 1866 and 1870, he spent five summers in Brittany, attracted by the genuine archetypes and scenes in the region, like other painters of his period. 

Between 1865 and 1887, he worked exclusively with the dealer Adolphe Goupil, who avidly promoted the sale and dissemination his works internationally. Yet just as he was being praised by the Academy—which he was appointed a member of in 1876—other great artists of his day, like the painters Paul Gauguin and Paul Cézanne and the writer Émile Zola, looked down on the strict conventionalism of his style and the sentimentalism of his themes. By the time he died in 1905, his figure had been overshadowed by the rise of the avant-gardes and the academic system’s loss of clout. 

His oeuvre began to be reassessed in the late twentieth century through exhibitions like William Bouguereau, 1825–1905 at the Petit Palais (Paris) in 1984 and Bouguereau & America at the San Diego Museum of Art (USA) in 2019. In parallel, the art market reconsidered the value of the works of this artist, who was adored by the French Academy and Gilded Age collectors in the United States during his lifetime, and whom time has not stripped of his prominent role in nineteenth-century art history. 

Begoña María Azkue

Begoña Azkue, who was born in Etxebarri in 1944 and died this year in Bilbao, was deeply engaged in culture, which spilled over into her personal pastimes. 

Committed to Basque language and culture, she was associated with the Ikastola Urretxindorra (Bilbao), for which she translated pedagogical materials. She also participated actively in the adult training classes at the University of Deusto. 

Driven by a passion for culture in its broadest sense, she delved into Semitic and Mediterranean cultures on her countless journeys and had the opportunity attend important international recitals and musical events. 

Discreet by nature, Begoña Azkue joined the Friends of the Museum at a particularly delicate time (2020) due to the pandemic, a commitment she confirmed when she stipulated in her last will and testament that she wished to contribute to enhancing the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum’s collection in a last gesture of civic and cultural philanthropy.