Top Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Evanston Public Library #8: The Painting That is Not a Painting

FountainToday’s feature is a piece of art sitting serenely on the third floor of the main library that is not all that it appears to be.

When you come up the steps on the third floor, turn to your immediate left.  There, on the wall, rests a lovely painting by French academic painter William Adolph Bourguereau called “At the Fountain”.  In it, an older sister tips a jug of water towards her younger sister’s mouth.  The scene is a rather idyllic image, done in the French realist style of the late 1800s.

But it’s not real.

It’s real in the sense that this painting does indeed exist.  However, what you are seeing on the walls of EPL is a very perfect copy of the original.  The sign next to it says as much, revealing that it is merely “A Reproduction”.  And why is that?  Here’s the story.

In 1925 Charles F. Grey wanted to give the Evanston Public Library a painting.  According to the Chicago Tribune, “A millionaire entrepreneur in the hide and leather business, Grey built a Forest Avenue mansion and spent part of his fortune collecting works of various distinguished painters, including those of Anton Mauve and William T. Richards.”  The painting had been purchased in 1899 in London alongside another for $10,000.  He handed it over to EPL and for 75 years it hung on the library’s walls without incident.  Then there was a problem.  Bourguereau became popular again.

Self_portrait,_by_William_BouguereauDuring his lifetime, the painter had enjoyed a great deal of attention from the French salons.  Fun Fact: The Impressionists?  They didn’t care for him.  In time, he fell out of favor.  Then, with the rise in interest in figure painting in the 1980s, people were suddenly crazy about Bourguereau again.  So much so that by 1999 the library became worried about theft.  ” . . . suddenly worried that the painting would be stolen, library director Neal Ney quickly stowed the work in a bank vault.”  There it remained until it was finally sold at auction for $900,000.  That money went towards the Library’s endowment.  And as part of the transaction, the auction house provided the digital reproduction you see on display today.

So who bought the beautiful painting for such a large amount?  That we don’t know and may never know, but there is a theory.  While Bourgeuereau is hardly a household name, he has always had his fans.  One fan in particular was a fellow by the name of Michael Jackson. Yep.  The King of Pop himself.  And considering the amount paid, it is not entirely out of the realm of possibility that he would have purchased a new addition to his already impressive Bourgeuereau collection.  For all we know, the original is sitting in a Neverland vault somewhere until such a day as it is sold to someone else.

In his lifetime Bouguereau wrote of the painting,”I consider this canvas one of my best as much on account of the composition as the execution . . . It is a work which I painted with great pleasure and in which I shall always be interested.”  And while the original may no longer be with us, its sale has given the library years and years worth of support for our mission in the community.

Please note that if you are looking to find information about any of the art on display at EPL, there’s actually a rather lovely part of the EPL website that lists all the art and their stories here.

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