Charles Sprague Pearce

Charles Sprague Pearce, “The Arab Jeweler”, 1882, Oil on Canvas, 116.8 x 80.9 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Born in Boston, Massachusetts in October of 1851, Charles Sprague Pearce was an American artist, one of the generation of American artists who in increasing numbers settled in France after the Civil War. Strongly influenced by the predominant European styles of the period, he explored a wide range of both subjects and artistic expressions throughout his successful career as an expatriate.

Born into a wealthy family, Charles Sprague Pearce was immersed from an early age in a setting which stimulated his appreciation of the arts. His parents were accomplished at the violin and piano; Pearce’s father was a dealer in Chinese porcelains, objects that would later influence many of the works in his mid-career. He was enrolled by his parents in the prestigious Boston Latin School where he was recognized for his artistic talent. After graduating, Pearce worked with his father at his Chinese import business, Shadrach H. Pearce and Company, for five years. Deciding to pursue a career as an artist, he left Boston for Paris in August of 1873. 

After his arrival, Pearce enrolled in the atelier of academic painter Léon Bonnat who had achieved recognition for his historical paintings, genre scenes and portraits. In his career, Pearce would also produce work in these same categories. Léon Bonnat’s strong influence can be seen in Pearce’s earliest works, inspired by his ambitious travels, in their treatment of light and shadow, and in the modeling of the subject. In the course of his career, Pearce initially concentrated on historical paintings that often portrayed biblical stories; he produced primarily portraits in the middle portion of his career. Pearce’s final works consisted of mainly pastoral and generic scenes depicting peasants in the French countryside.

Orientalist themes had begun to appear in many works at the Paris Salon. Paintings presented by Eugène Delacroix, Eugène Fromentin, and Jean-Léon Gérôme revealed the customs, dress, and landscape of Eastern countries with an almost realistic precision. Charles Pearce and American painter Frederick Arthur Bridgman, also a student at Bonnat’s atelier, left for Egypt in the latter part of 1873 and spent three months traveling down the Nile River. Besides the attraction that the exotic East presented to the two artists, Pearce had contracted consumption and felt that the warmer climate would aid in his recovery. Both men produced a wealth of drawings and immersed themselves in a culture that was unfamiliar to their own.  In 1974, Pearce traveled again, this time to Algeria, where he spent the winter months absorbing its culture and daily life. As a result of this trip, new paintings of orientalist themes were added to his body of work. 

After his return  to Paris, Pearce made his Paris Salon debut in 1876 with the portrait of the American author and historical activist Ellen Hardin Walworth. Despite his travel experiences and many orientalist works, he made the decision to enter a portrait for his first exhibition at the Salon. For the 1877 Salon, Pearce decided to exhibit a historical scene and entered his “La Mort du Premier Né (Death of the First Born). This biblical scene of mourning Egyptians with the coffin of their dead child contained, based on his first hand knowledge, integrated Eastern details in its composition. Even though Pearce worked on Biblical themes, his work continued to show a predominating interest in Orientalism and the depiction of ethnographic detailing. “La Mort du Premier Né” established Pearc’s reputation as a serious artist and was later exhibited in Boston, New York, Chicago and Philadelphia.

Charles Sprague Pearce continued to exhibit biblical works at the Paris Salons of 1879, where he presented “Le Sacrifice d’Abraham”, and 1881, where he earned honorable mention for his “Décollation de Saint Jean-Baptiste (The Beheading of St. John the Baptist)”. This black ink and white gouache drawing on wove paper was later exhibited at Pennsylvania’s Academy of Fine Arts and received a first-place honor. In 1882, Pearce executed his “The Arab Jeweler”, an ambitious oil on canvas portrayal of a native craftsman, now housed in the collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. His interest in Orientalism and the exotic drew him to the rage of Japanese work that was prevalent in the galleries and publications of Paris. Pearce’s 1883 “Femme á l’ Éventail (Lady with a Fan)”, depicting a European woman dressed in her kimono and holding a fan, examplifies his placement of oriental objects into his work.

At the 1883 Salon, Pearce presented a peasant themed work “Porteuse D’eau (The Water Carrier)” for which he won a third-class medal. Two years later, he moved to Auvers-sur-Oise, a rural commune twenty-seven kilometers from the center of Paris, where he would remain for the rest of his life. In 1885, Pearce exhibited “Peines de Coeur (Troubles of the Heart)” at the Salon; this painting, depicting one girl consoling another, won the Temple Gold Medal for best figure painting at the Pennsylvania Academy exhibition. In the late 1880s, Pearce continued his peasant themed work and began to add pastoral paintings to his oeuvre. He remained a consistent yearly exhibitor at the Salon and participated in several international shows in England, Belgium, Germany and the United States. 

Beginning with his election to the jury of the Universal Exposition of 1889, Charles Sprague Pearce became involved in a number of ambitious activities. These included chairing both the Paris advisory committee for Chicago’s 1893 World Columbian Exposition and the Paris committee for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in Saint Louis. Pearce also helped organize the first large scale American art exhibition in Belguim for the 1894 Antwerp World’s Fair. Even though he adopted a preference for typical French style and subject matter, he was still interested in promoting other American artists, particularly those with a link to France. For his contributions in the field of art, he was named a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in 1894. 

In his work, Pearce addressed the interest of the times, ranging from an obsession with the mid and far-East to the more socially driven goals in the depiction of the peasant. He had fully immersed himself in the life and artistic culture of Paris and gained acclaim while maintaining his support for other American artists and exhibitions. Pearce’s last exhibition at the Salon was in 1906 when he presented “Jeune Picarde (Young Girl of Picardie)”. He died in Auvers-sur-Oise in May of 1914. 

Among Charles Sprague Pearce’s many honors are Chevalier, Order of King Leopold, Belgium in 1895; Chevalier, Order of Red Eagle, Prussia in 1897; and Chevalier, Order of Red Eagle, Denmark in 1898. Pearce was also Vice President and founding member of The Paris Society of American Painters; Associate National Academician of the National Academy of Design, New York in 1906; and posthumously promoted to National Academician of the National Academy of Design; New York in 1920.

Top Insert Image: Charles Sprague Pearce, “Self Portrait”, 1876, Oil on Canvas Laid on Board, 33.3 x 25.7 cm, Private Collection

Second Insert Image: Charles Sprague Pearce, “Auvers-sur-Oise”, circa 1894, Oil on Canvas, 82.6 x 95.9 cm, Private Collection

Third Insert Image: Charles Sprague Pearce, “Paul Wayland Bartlett”, 1890, Oil on Canvas, 150.5 x 117.8 cm, National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC

Fourth Insert Image: Charles Sprague Pearce, “La Mort du Premier Né (Death of the First Born)”, circa 1877, Oil on Canvas, 97.8 x 130.8 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC

Bottom Insert Image: Photographer Unknown, “Charles Sprague Pearce at His Studio, Auvers-sur-Oise”, 1895, Vintage Print



Leave a Reply