Look through the biographies of the great nineteenth century French painters, often those from the USA and other nations, and you’ll see familiar names appearing as their teachers. These include Léon Joseph Florentin Bonnat (1833–1922) and his teacher Léon Cogniet, who was in turn taught by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, whose teacher was Jean-Baptiste Regnault.
Few of these names are remembered well today, but their pupils often went on to greater things. Among Bonnat’s more successful students were Jean Béraud, Louis Béroud, Gustave Caillebotte, Raoul Dufy, Thomas Eakins, Stanhope Forbes, Henri Geoffroy, PS Krøyer, Edvard Munch, Alfred Roll, John Singer Sargent, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
So what of the master himself?
Bonnat was born in 1833 in Bayonne, France, the son of a bookseller, and spent much of his childhood in his father’s bookshop in Madrid. He started making drawn copies of engravings of the old masters, then went to train as a painter with Raimundo de Madrazo y Garreta (1841-1920), who had trained under Léon Cogniet in Paris.
Bonnat painted this delightful imagining of the artist’s youth in Giotto Tending the Goats in 1850, the year that he turned seventeen. He shows the boy scratching drawings in the ground, looking dreamily into his future. It is an amazing work for someone so young.
He moved to Paris, where he trained under Paul Delaroche and Léon Cogniet, both accomplished history painters. He entered the Prix de Rome several times, but only managed second place. Fortunately, his hopes of painting in Rome were realised by a travel award from his native Bayonne.
Although Bonnat painted relatively few religious works, The Raising of Lazarus from 1857 gives a good idea of his early style.
Bonnat lived and painted in Rome from 1858-60, where he was friends with Edgar Degas and Gustave Moreau.
He continued to paint fine figurative works, such as his Young Woman Paying Charity at the Entrance of the Chapel of the Hospital of San Sebastian in Cordoba from 1863. Here he contrasts the young woman dressed in her fine black clothing accompanied by those seeking alms, with the wall painting of the Trinity behind them. This work has more than an air of social realism about it too.
Bonnat continued to travel extensively in Europe. It was presumably during a visit to Italy in the mid 1860s that he saw and painted this sad and wistful young Italian Woman (c 1865).
In 1869, he was awarded a medal of honour at the Salon in Paris, which established his reputation and career. He quickly became a sought-after portraitist, and ranked as one of the leading artists of the day. His paintings were praised by the most influential critics, including Théophile Gautier and Émile Zola.
He didn’t just paint the portraits of the rich and famous: An Egyptian Peasant Woman and Her Child from !869-70 gives deep insight into the Middle East behind the exotic façade of Orientalism. This painting was exhibited at the Salon in 1870.
Bonnat painted The Victim in the year of the Franco-Prussian War, 1870. Although it isn’t clear to me what she is a victim of, I suspect that this may relate to that great tragedy for France. His style may be ‘academic’ in its realism, but his facture is very different from that of Bouguereau, for example, and more akin to that of Manet, who was a friend of Bonnat’s.
Another of his unconventional ‘Orientalist’ paintings is Arabian Sheikhs in the Mountains from 1872. This is extremely painterly, with a paint surface as rough as its terrain.
An Oriental Barbershop from the same year is rather tighter in its brushwork, and declares its ultimate descent from Regnault.
Christ on the Cross from about 1874 is perhaps the best demonstration of his mastery of the figure, a formidable example for his students.
Roman Girl at a Fountain from 1875 adopts a much lighter theme, in which the careful detail and finish of the figure is set in a more sketchy and painterly surround.
In 1882, he was appointed a professor at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris, and ran one of the two teaching ateliers there, the other being run by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes.
Bonnat’s middle age brought commissions for large works in public buildings, including the Panthéon and the City Hall of Paris.
The Martyrdom of Saint Denis is Bonnat’s ornate showpiece in the Panthéon, which he painted between 1874-88.
According to legend, Saint Denis, patron saint of the city of Paris, was martyred by beheading on Montmartre hill in Paris – and one possible origin of its name, from the Latin mons martyrum, the ‘martyr’s mountain’. It is claimed that after his head had been cut off, Denis picked it up and walked around preaching a sermon. The legendary location became a place of veneration, then the Saint Denis Basilica, and the burial place for the kings of France.
This was a popular motif for miniatures in the later Middle Ages.
Bonnat’s painted ceiling in the Hôtel de Ville in Paris, made in 1894, is a fantastic allegory of The Triumph of Art, and perhaps more a tribute to a long-gone era in painting.
As an expression of gratitude for the support which he had received in his training by the city of Bayonne, he founded and built the Musée Bonnat there in his late career. To this he gave his private collection of art, including many important old master drawings.
Léon Bonnat died on 8 September 1922. His own work has now largely been forgotten, while that of many of his students lives on.