Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Soap Bubbles

Thomas Couture (French, Senlis 1815–1879 Villiers-le-Bel)
ca. 1859
Oil on canvas
51 1/2 x 38 5/8 in. (130.8 x 98.1 cm)
Credit Line:
Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Bequest of Catharine Lorillard Wolfe, 1887
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 827
A schoolboy, identifiable by the books on the desk, contemplates soap bubbles, traditional symbols of the transience of life. A wilting laurel wreath on the wall behind him suggests the fleeting nature of praise and honors. The word "immortalité," inscribed on the paper inserted in the mirror, reinforces the painting’s allegorical content.
Couture was an influential teacher known for his opposition to strict academic instruction. Among his pupils was Manet, who in 1867 painted his own, more naturalistic, version of this subject (Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon).
Inscription: Signed and inscribed: (lower left) T.C.; (on paper) immortalité de l'un . . . (one's immortality . . .)
John Wolfe, New York (until 1863; sale, Leed's, Old Düsseldorf Gallery, New York, December 22–23, 1863, no. 129, as "Day-Dreams" or "The Indolent Scholar," for $4,750 to Hoey); J. Hoey, New York (from 1863; sold for $5,000 to Sanford); James T. Sanford, New York (by 1864–at least 1867); Catharine Lorillard Wolfe, New York (by 1876–d. 1887)
New York. Metropolitan Fair. "Art Exhibition at the Metropolitan Fair, in Aid of the U.S. Sanitary Commission," 1864, no. 97 (as "Day Dreams," lent by J. T. Sandford [sic]).

Philadelphia. Logan Square. "Paintings, Drawings, Statuary etc. of the Art Department in the Great Central Fair," June 1864, no. 397 (lent by J. T. Sanford).

New York. National Academy of Design and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "New York Centennial Loan Exhibition of Paintings, Selected from the Private Art Galleries," 1876, no. 205 (lent by Miss Catharine L. Wolfe).

Newark Museum. "19th-Century French and American Paintings from the Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art," April 9–May 15, 1946, no. 10.

College Park. University of Maryland Art Gallery. "Thomas Couture: Paintings and Drawings in American Collections," February 5–March 15, 1970, no. 28 (as "Soap Bubbles").

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. "The Masterpieces of French Painting from The Metropolitan Museum of Art: 1800–1920," February 4–May 6, 2007, no. 36.

Berlin. Neue Nationalgalerie. "Französische Meisterwerke des 19. Jahrhunderts aus dem Metropolitan Museum of Art," June 1–October 7, 2007, unnumbered cat.

Edward Strahan [Earl Shinn], ed. The Art Treasures of America. Philadelphia, [1880], vol. 1, pp. 132–34, calls it "The Idle Scholar" and dates it 1853; states that it was commissioned by John Wolfe.

Cicerone. "Private Galleries: Collection of Miss Catharine L. Wolfe." Art Amateur 2 (March 1880), p. 76, as "Day-dream".

The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Hand-Book No. 1. New York, 1887?, p. 12, no. 79, dates it about 1855; states that it was painted to the order of John Wolfe and purchased at his 1863 sale by Wm. T. Sanford, and then purchased from Sanford's 1876 sale by Catharine Lorillard Wolfe.

"The Wolfe Pictures." New York Times (November 7, 1887), p. 4, calls it "The Idle Student" and comments that in it "Couture concealed an allusion to himself and his own disappointed hopes".

Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer. "The Wolfe Collection. News and Notes." Independent 39 (December 1, 1887), p. 7, praises this picture, but considers it inferior to the version in the Probasco collection (now Walters Art Museum, Baltimore).

Montezuma [Montague Marks]. "My Note Book." Art Amateur 16 (May 1887), p. 122.

"Some Former Picture Auctions." Art Amateur 24 (March 1891), p. 6, states that at the John Wolfe sale in 1863, this picture was bought in at $4,750 and sold immediately afterward to J. L. Sandford [sic] for $5,000.

Sophia Antoinette Walker. "Fine Arts: The Painting Master in the Wolfe Collection." Independent 46 (August 2, 1894), p. 12.

"The Metropolitan Museum of Art—The French Painters." New York Times (May 22, 1895), p. 4, as "The Idle Student".

William Sharp. "The Art Treasures of America (Concluded.)." Living Age, 7th ser., 1 (December 3, 1898), p. 604, as "The Idle Student".

Arthur Hoeber. The Treasures of The Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York. New York, 1899, p. 84, ill. p. 87, calls it "The Idle Student".

Frank Fowler. "The Field of Art: Modern Foreign Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum, Some Examples of the French School." Scribner's Magazine 44 (September 1908), p. 383, calls it "Day Dreams" and notes that it "exemplifies" all of Couture's "mannerisms".

Thomas Couture and his grandson Preface by Camille Mauclair in Thomas Couture (1815–1879): Sa vie, son oeuvre, son caractère, ses idées, sa méthode. Paris, 1932, pp. 40, 155, ill. opp. p. 12, as "L'enfant aux bulles de savon".

A Selection of Paintings. New York, 1936, unpaginated, under no. 29, illustrates the original study for this painting.

Joseph C. Sloane. French Painting Between the Past and the Present: Artists, Critics, and Traditions, from 1848 to 1870. [reprint 1973]. Princeton, 1951, p. 132, calls this "a scene of pure sentimental genre".

Charles Sterling and Margaretta M. Salinger. French Paintings: A Catalogue of the Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Vol. 2, XIX Century. New York, 1966, pp. 147–48, ill., call it a replica of the version in the Walters Art Museum and mention a drawing (Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Mass.) related to the Walters painting; note the influence of Chardin and suggest that Chardin's painting of the same subject (MMA 49.24) may have inspired Couture; discuss this as an allegory of vanity.

Jane Van Nimmen in Thomas Couture: Paintings and Drawings in American Collections. Exh. cat., University of Maryland Art Gallery. [College Park, Md.], [1970], p. 58, no. 28, notes its close connection with a chalk study for the head of the boy (Valentine Museum, Richmond).

Robert Kashey and Martin L. H. Reymert in Thomas Couture, 1815–79: Drawings and Some Oil Sketches. Exh. cat., Shepherd Gallery. [New York], [1971], unpaginated, under no. 33, discusses the study for the boy's head (Valentine Museum, Richmond), and suggests that both paintings (MMA and Walters Art Museum) and both studies (Valentine Museum and Fogg Art Museum) date from 1859.

George Mauner. Manet, Peintre-Philosophe: A Study of the Painter's Themes. University Park, Pa., 1975, pp. 124–25, 130, 135, fig. 67, relates it to Manet's "Portrait of Émile Zola" (Musée d'Orsay, Paris); discusses the theme of a child blowing bubbles.

Denys Sutton in Paris—New York: A Continuing Romance. Exh. cat., Wildenstein. New York, 1977, p. 19.

Lois Marie Fink. "French Art in the United States, 1850–1870: Three Dealers and Collectors." Gazette des beaux-arts, 6th ser., 92 (September 1978), p. 94, fig. 4, calls it "Rêverie" and notes that it is a replica of the 1859 original (Walters Art Museum, Baltimore); discusses the John Wolfe sale of 1863, giving the sale price of this work as $5,000.

Albert Boime. Thomas Couture and the Eclectic Vision. New Haven, 1980, pp. 112–13, 335–38, 461–62, 470–71, 474, 527, 592, 612, ill., compares it to the version in the Baltimore, calling ours "the better of the two oil versions"; states that Chardin's "Blowing Bubbles" (MMA, 49.24) was Couture's "immediate source," and describes the picture's impact on other artists, including Manet.

William R. Johnston. The Nineteenth Century Paintings in the Walters Art Gallery. Baltimore, 1982, p. 97.

Françoise Cachin in Manet, 1832–1883. Ed. Françoise Cachin and Charles S. Moffett. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1983, pp. 268, 270, ill. [French ed., Paris, 1983, p. 270, ill.].

Master Drawings: 1700–1890. Exh. cat., W. M. Brady & Co., Inc. New York, 1989, unpaginated, under no. 33, mentions it in connection with a study seemingly more closely related to the Baltimore version than to ours.

Luísa Sampaio in "Only the Best": Masterpieces of the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon. Ed. Katharine Baetjer and James David Draper. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1999, p. 138, under no. 65, notes the influence of this picture on Manet's "Boy Blowing Bubbles" (Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon).

Kathryn Calley Galitz in The Masterpieces of French Painting from The Metropolitan Museum of Art: 1800–1920. Exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. New York, 2007, pp. 57, 203, no. 36, ill. (color and black and white).

Kathryn Calley Galitz in Masterpieces of European Painting, 1800–1920, in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2007, pp. 52, 236, no. 49, ill. (color and black and white).

MaryAnne Stevens in Manet: Portraying Life. Exh. cat., Toledo Museum of Art. London, 2012, p. 179, under no. 9, compares it to Couture's student Manet's version of the same subject, "Boy Blowing Bubbles" (ca. 1867, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon).

There is another version of the composition in the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, dated 1859. A drawing in the Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, with the same date is almost identical to it. A chalk study of the boy's head (1859; Valentine Museum, Richmond) is more closely related to the MMA version than to the Baltimore one. An undated oil study exhibited at W. M. Brady & Co., New York, in 1989 seems to have elements in common with both the MMA and the Baltimore paintings.
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