In the first of this series of two articles about the career and art of Léon Bonnat (1833–1922), I had reached his orientalist paintings of 1872.
Christ on the Cross from about 1874 is perhaps the best demonstration of his mastery of the figure, a formidable example for his students.
Among his many fine portraits is this of Madame Pasca from 1874, when this French stage actress was forty-one. Her real name was Alice Marie Angèle Pasquier, although she was better known under her stage name of Alix Pasca, and she lived between 1833-1914.
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, Bonnat 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, 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, providing one possible origin of its name, from the Latin mons martyrum, the ‘martyr’s mountain’. It’s 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, later forming the Saint Denis Basilica, and burial place for the kings of France.
This legend became a popular motif for miniatures in the later Middle Ages.
After the American businessman and art collector William Thompson Walters (1819–1894) had moved to Paris in 1861, Walters had come to know and collect Bonnat’s work, forming what became the Walters Art Museum in 1934.
Bonnat dedicated this Portrait of the Artist (1885) to his friend Walters. The pair were fans of Antoine-Louis Barye’s animal sculptures, and together raised funds for a monument to the sculptor in Paris on the Île-Saint-Louis. Barye died in 1875.
Bonnat’s later career was dominated by teaching and portraits, but in 1891 he reaffirmed his brilliance at painting figures in Samson’s Youth.
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 what was already a long-gone era in painting.
In 1896, Bonnat painted a portrait of the great operatic soprano Rose Caron in the role of Salammbô. Caron had first sung the title role in the premiere of Ernest Reyer’s opera in Brussels in early 1890, but the opera didn’t make its way to Paris for two years, and is now rarely performed.
In May 1905 Bonnat was appointed director of the École des Beaux-Arts, and in 1917 he was elected an Honorary Corresponding member of the US National Academy of Design.
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. The museum opened in 1901, and in 1989 was given 181 works by Paul César Helleu, so changed its name to the Musée Bonnat-Helleu. It’s currently undergoing major renovation, and expected to re-open in 2024.
Bonnat continued to paint portraits and this Self-portrait from 1918. He died on 8 September 1922.
Tomorrow, to commemorate the centenary of Bonnat’s death, I show examples of the paintings of some of his better-known pupils.