The young girl, gazing intently at the beholder while tenderly holding a baby on her lap, is endowed with an almost inexplicably beguiling beauty. William Bouguereau was the quintessential successful academic painter. His canvases were in high demand by both European and American collectors, and his fame has been rekindled of late. Executed with extraordinary painterly skill, The Elder Sister is a sentimental scene for which the artist's daughter Henriette and son Paul served as models. Bouguereau has stripped them of all imperfections, portraying them as children with perfect features, dressed in clean garments, and posed against an idyllic rural background. The composition is unified and balanced, with the children’s arms and legs converging nearly at the center of the canvas. Bouguereau’s smooth paint application and diligent attention to detail result in an almost hyperrealistic representation. Although his works were originally inspired by classicism and antique idealism as transmitted through the works of the masters of the High Renaissance, images like this one present an emphatically Victorian ideal.

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William Bouguereau, French, 1825–1905
The Elder Sister
Oil on canvas
51 1/4 × 38 1/4 in. (130.2 × 97.2 cm)
Credit Line

Gift of an Anonymous Lady in memory of her father

Current Location
The Audrey Jones Beck Building
Accession Number

[Goupil & Cie., Paris, November 5, 1869]; M. Mastenbrock, The Hague, from January, 1870; H. H. Roelofs Heyrmans, Rotterdam; [Boussod Valladon & Cie., The Hague, H. H. Roelofs Heyrmans Sale, April 9, 1902, lot 16, illus.]; Private collection, The Netherlands, 1902–1984; Private collection, Houston, until 1992; given to MFAH, 1992.