Charles Sprague Pearce made a successful career painting highly finished figural images on exotic themes ranging from the Bible to traditional European peasant life. Pearce was the grandson and namesake of a celebrated American poet and the child of a well-to-do import trader in Boston. Influential painter William Morris Hunt, a champion in America of contemporary French painting, advised him to study in Paris rather than in Munich, Germany, traditionally a magnet for American art students. Pearce arrived in the French capital in 1873 to study under academic painter Léon Bonnat, whose peasant subjects and emphasis on clearly modeled figures greatly influenced him.
Ill health forced Pearce to spend several winters in the warm climate of the Mediterranean region. Visiting North Africa with fellow American artist Frederick A. Bridgman, Pearce was stimulated to follow the current fashion for so-called orientalist painting with exotic Arab and biblical settings and themes. His Beheading of St. John the Baptist (1881), for example, won an honorable mention at the prestigious Salon exhibition in Paris and a gold medal at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Beginning in 1876, Pearce exhibited his orientalist and religious paintings and portraits widely in both France and the United States, with considerable success.
In the early 1880s, Pearce began visiting the French countryside, and he expanded his range of subjects. Like many of his contemporaries, he came under the influence of the arts of Japan, portraying figures in Japanese costume and adopting such typically Japanese aesthetic features as attention to abstract surface pattern and tipped-up perspective. Around 1883, he began to depict scenes from the everyday life of the French peasantry using diffused lighting and cool colors that reflect the example of French painter Jules Bastien-Lepage. Many of these works combine carefully studied material detail and religious themes. In 1885, Pearce moved from Paris to the nearby village of Auvers-sur-Oise, the source for many of his rustic subjects. There, he purchased a house to which he added a glass-walled studio so that he could paint in outdoor light regardless of season and weather.
Active in the American expatriate art scene in France, Pearce was a juror for the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889, and he chaired the Paris advisory committees for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904. Although a permanent resident of France, he made several return visits to the United States. In the 1890s, he was one of a number of prominent artists selected to paint murals in the new building for the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. By the time Pearce ceased painting, around 1909, he had received a considerable number of awards and honors. His relative obscurity today is due in part to the small number of his works in public museum collections.
Universal Exhibition, Paris, France, 1889
Annual Exhibition, National Academy of Design, New York, New York, 1890
60th Annual Exhibition, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, January 30–March 6, 1890
International Art Exhibition, Dresden, Germany, 1897
Sunset to Dawn, Richard York Gallery, New York, New York, 1983
Paris 1889: American Artists at the Universal Exposition, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Venues: Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, Virginia, September 29–December 17, 1989; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, February 1–April 15 1990; Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis, Tennessee, May 6–July 15, 1990; The New York Historical Society, New York, New York, September 1989–December 1990)
Un regard américain sur Paris, Musée d'Art Américain Giverny, France
Giverny: une impression américaine, Musée d'Art Américain Giverny, France
Ville et campagne: les artistes américains, 1870–1920, Musée d'Art Américain Giverny, France (Venues: Musée d'Art Américain Giverny, France, April 1–July 15, 1999; Terra Museum of American Art, Chicago, Illinois, December 10, 1999–May 7, 2000)
The People Work: American Perspectives, 1840–1940, Terra Museum of American Art, Chicago, Illinois (Venues: Terra Museum of American Art, Chicago, Illinois, March 15–May 25, 2003; Musée d'Art Américain Giverny, France, June 8–August 17, 2003)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Massachussetts
Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Illinois
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Virginia
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C.
Chazen Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin
Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia