"At the Fountain," by William Adolph Bouguereau.Photo from EPL

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When you come up the steps of the Main Library here in Evanston, proceed
to the third floor and then turn to your immediate left. There, on the wall, rests a lovely painting by French academic painter William Adolph Bouguereau 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?  

In 1925 Charles F. Grey wanted to give the Evanston Public Library a painting. A millionaire entrepreneur in the hide and leather business, he handed over a painting purchased in 1899 in London for around $10,000. For 75 years it hung on the library’s walls without incident. Then there came a problem. Bouguereau became popular again.

During 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. Thus he fell out of favor. Then, with the rise in interest in figure painting in the 1980s, people were suddenly crazy about Bouguereau again.  So much so that by 1999 the library became worried about theft. Library director Neal Ney stowed the work in a bank vault and 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 Bougeuereau 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 Bougeuereau 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.

Betsy Bird

Betsy Bird is the Collection Development Manager of Evanston Public Library. She has been writing for the Evanston RoundTable since 2016.