A century ago, on 8 September 1922, the great painter and teacher Léon Bonnat (1833-1922) died. In the two preceding articles I have outlined his career and shown a selection of his paintings. Here I celebrate his greatest achievements, as a teacher of many who went on to make great art.
Alfred Philippe Roll (1846–1919), pupil from about 1865
Roll’s teachers at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris were among the Masters of the day: Jean-Léon Gérôme the realist, Charles-François Daubigny the great landscape artist, and Léon Bonnat. After some fine landscapes and narrative works in the style of Rubens, and successes at the Salon, Roll decided that he would focus his attention on everyday life.
Stop There! (1875), here as a photogravure print on canvas, shows his early rather romantic style.
Thomas Cowperthwait Eakins (1844–1916), pupil 1866-70
Thomas Eakins was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and from 1862 studied drawing and anatomy at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and attended courses in anatomy at Jefferson Medical College in 1865. Between 1866-70 he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, as a student of Jean-Léon Gérôme and Léon Bonnat.
He returned to Philadelphia in 1870, where he embarked on a group of rowing scenes, in a total of eleven oils and watercolours. The Champion Single Sculls (Max Schmitt in a Single Scull) (1871) is the most famous of these, the first in the series, and still an astonishing painting. Eakins’ friend and successful rower Max Schmitt is in the nearest boat, and Eakins (a keen oarsman himself) is the figure in the further single scull.
Louis Béroud (1852–1930), pupil to 1873
Louis Béroud moved from Lyon to Paris at the age of nine, and his growing artistic skills took him to train in Bonnat’s studio until 1873, when he started exhibiting at the Salon.
His early works appear impressive, like The Staircase of the Opéra Garnier from 1877.
Henri Jules Jean Geoffroy (1853–1924), pupil from 1871
The son of a tailor in Marennes, on the west coast of France, he went to study in Paris at the École des Beaux Arts in about 1871, where he was a pupil of Léon Bonnat.
Around 1879-1882, Geoffroy painted this work showing a well-known scene from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, of Jean Valjean and Cosette. This shows the hero Valjean when he arrives in Montfermeil on Christmas Eve and discovers young Cosette fetching a pail of water for her abusive guardians the Thénardiers, early in the novel.
Gustave Caillebotte (1848–1894), pupil from 1871
Caillebotte started painting quite late: he had already completed his law degree and obtained a licence to practice law before the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-71. After that, he started visiting Bonnat’s studio, where he rapidly became an accomplished painter.
Among his works, his pastel painting of a Nude Woman Lying on a Couch (1873) demonstrates his skills early in his career. This is one of the few nude figures which he painted, and exquisitely detailed, particularly for a work in pastel.
Painted within less than five years of starting to visit Bonnat’s studio, Les Raboteurs de parquet or The Floor Scrapers (1875) is a breath-taking masterpiece by any standards, and one of the major works of European art in the nineteenth century.
Jean Béraud (1849–1935), pupil from 1872
The son of a sculptor, he started his training as a lawyer just before the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870. Following that, he switched to painting, becoming a pupil of Léon Bonnat in 1872.
Le Bal Mabille (before 1882) is likely to have been one of his earliest paintings. The Bal was a very popular open-air dance hall which took place on a location in Avenue Montaigne in Paris. Started in 1831, it operated until 1875, and its site was demolished in 1882. It’s claimed that the polka and can-can were introduced there, and it was struck by shells during the Franco-Prussian War. Béraud probably painted this before its closure in 1875, and when still Bonnat’s pupil.
John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), pupil from 1874
Sargent was born in Florence, Italy, to expatriate American parents living in Europe, and in 1874 succeeded in gaining admission to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Although he was taught there mainly by Carolus-Duran, he also attended Bonnat’s classes.
His early style was realist, particularly in portraiture, but less formal works showed a subtle looseness in facture which was reminiscent of the Barbizon School or early Impressionism, but was quite distinct from the work of the leading Impressionists at that time.
Peder Severin Krøyer (1851-1909), pupil from 1877
Born in Stavanger, Norway, he completed studies at the Royal Danish Academy of Art in 1870, at the age of just 19. In 1874 he sold his first painting to the Hirschsprung family, establishing a long relationship with them as patrons. From 1877 he travelled widely in Europe, and studied under Léon Bonnat in Paris before returning to Denmark in 1882, where he spent his first summer in Skagen.
Harriet Backer (1845–1932), pupil from 1878
Born in Holmestrand, south of Oslo, she started drawing and painting lessons in Oslo in 1867, and travelled in the company of her sister, the concert pianist and composer Agathe Backer-Grøndahl. In 1874 she went to Munich where she became a pupil of Eilif Peterssen, then to Paris in 1878, where she was a pupil of Léon Bonnat and Jean-Léon Gérôme.
In France, her style started to loosen up: Solitude (c 1880) was her first painting accepted for the Salon. This was one of her first interiors featuring limited light, whose play was to become a dominant theme in her paintings. Although she remained based in Paris, she returned to Norway each summer, where she seems to have painted mostly landscapes.
Stanhope Alexander Forbes (1857–1947), pupil 1880-82
Stanhope Forbes trained first at Lambeth School of Art, then at the Royal Academy Schools in London. He continued his studies in Bonnat’s private atelier in Paris between 1880-82.
In 1884, he moved to the small Cornish fishing village of Newlyn, then an artists’ colony. The year after he had arrived, Elizabeth Armstrong settled there with her mother, the two fell in love, and wanted to marry. The bridegroom needed to raise the money to pay for their wedding, and that was the spur to him to paint his unusual Health of the Bride in 1889.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901), pupil from 1882
Born into an aristocratic family, his childhood was marred by fracture of both his thighs, which didn’t heal properly, and stopped the growth of his legs. He turned to art, and entered Bonnat’s studio as a pupil in 1882, then moved on to study under Fernand Cormon.
He lived in Montmartre for twenty years, where he painted The Rider at the Cirque Fernando in 1888.
Edvard Munch (1863–1944), pupil from 1889
Edvard Munch was born in a small village not far from Oslo, and studied engineering at a technical college for a year. In 1881, at the age of 17, he started his studies at the Royal School of Art and Design in Oslo, where he was taught by Christian Krohg, who became his mentor. In 1889 Munch travelled to Paris on state travel and study grants, where he studied drawing from life in Bonnat’s studio.
In Paris, Munch laid down his manifesto, aiming to paint a series of “powerful, sacred” works, the foundation of his later Frieze of Life. In preparation for these, he made his dark and melancholic Night in Saint-Cloud during the winter and Spring of 1890.
Including Alphonse Osbert (1857–1939), Tony Robert-Fleury (1837–1911), Charles Laval (1862–1894), Laurits Tuxen (1853-1927), Georges Braque (1882-1963), Raoul Dufy (1877-1953) and Erik Werenskiold (1855-1938).
Enabling so many others to make their own art is truly a mark of greatness.