The artist

Léon Joseph Florentin Bonnat was born in Bayonne in 1833 and died in Monchy-St-Eloi in 1922.



He discovered painting and received his first artistic lessons in Spain, where his family settled between 1846 and 1853. He continued his training in Bayonne, in 1853, then especially in Paris, from 1854, where he enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Léon Cogniet's studio, thanks to the financial assistance granted to him by the city of Bayonne.



Candidate for the Prix de Rome competition, where he only obtained, after two failures in 1854 and 1855, a second second grand prize in 1857, he left, thanks once again to the support of the City of Bayonne, for Rome, where he stayed from 1858 to 1861, enjoying a status close to the laureates of the Prix de Rome. There he frequented Degas, Henner, Gustave Moreau, Delaunay, Jules Lefèbvre, Carolus Duran, Chapu… and produced his first religious works and his first Italian genre scenes.



He exhibited at the Salon from 1857, and was noticed for the first time by the critics at the Salon of 1859. Success was rapid: The Good Samaritain received an honorable mention from the Salon jury in 1859 and was purchased by the State, Mariuccia, presented at the Salon of 1861, was bought by Princess Mathilde… He received his first public order in 1863: a decorative panel on the life of Saint Vincent de Paul for the Saint-Nicolas-des-Champs church in Paris, delivered in 1866. In 1869, Léon Bonnat traveled to the Middle East, where he accompanied Jean-Léon Gérôme. He painted, after his return and for a few years, orientalist genre scenes, while continuing to produce important religious works. In 1869 he received the Medal of Honor of the Salon for L'Assomption. Christ on the Cross, which responded to a state commission for the decoration of the Cour d'Assises of the Palais de Justice in Paris, was presented at the Salon of 1874 and caused a certain scandal. This major work established Léon Bonnat's reputation as a realist painter, or even more a naturalist.

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"I was brought up in the cult of Velasquez. I was very young, in Madrid; my father, on bright days such as one only sees in Spain, sometimes took me to the Prado Museum, where we did long stops in Spanish cinemas. I always left them with a feeling of deep admiration for Vélasquez ".

In addition to this, you will need to know more about it.

"What is striking about Rembrandt is the power, the strength and the brilliance. He represents life in all its intensity. We see his characters, we talk with them, he resuscitates and revives an entire era. a marvelous and unique gift of interpretation, he joins the sensitivity, the goodness of a heart which vibrates to all the miseries, to all the joys, to all the emotions of humanity. He does not belong to any school. He has opened the new path which closed behind him. "

Success, and fortune, were brought to him by portrait painting: he presented at the Salon the portraits of Mme Pasca in 1875, of Thiers in 1876, of Victor Hugo in 1879, the first large portraits of a long series, which he consecrate as one of the great portrait painters of his time, the greatest for some critics. He very quickly and almost definitively abandoned religious painting, a genre in which his last great work was Le Martyre de Saint Denis for the Pantheon, commissioned in 1874 and delivered in 1885, and genre painting, to devote himself exclusively to portraiture. . The great figures of the Republic, the aristocrats and the big bourgeois, French and American, the celebrities, men and women, artists, friends or relatives are portrayed by Léon Bonnat between 1880 and his death. The number of portraits made is estimated at around five hundred. Léon Bonnat is described as "official painter of the Third Republic".



Recognized by critics and the public, he is also recognized by his peers who regularly make him a member of the Jury of the Salon, the President in 1892, then Honorary President in 1894 of the Society of French Artists, and more generally their representative in administrative bodies. He is also recognized by the State, knight of the Legion of Honor in 1867, he was made Grand'Croix in 1900. Elected member of the Institute in 1881, he was appointed President of the Superior Council of Museums in 1905. He is also recognized abroad, and is named member of many foreign academies, among others Berlin, Madrid, Vienna.



Léon Bonnat is a recognized and appreciated teacher. He sees pass in his private workshop, opened in 1865, or from 1883 in his workshop at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where he teaches as workshop manager, then after 1888 as Professor, several hundred students, French and foreigners, including Toulouse-Lautrec, Matisse, Dufy, Eakins, Blashfield, Kroyer, Sorolla, Zuloaga ... He was appointed director of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1905.



Finally Léon Bonnat is a recognized collector. It brings together an exceptional collection of works of art, drawings (Michelangelo, Raphael, Rembrandt, Ingres…), paintings, bronzes, in particular by Barye… which he will donate, in part in 1901, for the essential after his death, to the city of Bayonne, which builds, to present it, the Museum that bears his name. Some pieces will also be donated, during his lifetime or upon his death, to the Louvre Museum and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.



Beyond his image as a great collector and teacher, Léon Bonnat deserves to be recognized as an innovative and brilliant portrait painter. Marked, in his apprenticeship, by Velasquez and Ribera, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphaël, Rembrandt and Frans Hals, he knew how to merge these different influences in a personal, new style. Léon Bonnat was able, relying on an irreproachable technique and a very great rigor, with a great simplicity of means, to express with power the individuality of each of his models. It is by the play of light, by the energetic and innovative work of the material, by the simplicity of the compositions and the play of colors that he creates very personal and, at the same time, timeless works.



Finally, Léon Bonnat has left us, through this “gallery” of portraits, an exceptional picture of his contemporaries and a perfect illustration of the position acquired by the bourgeoisie, whether French or American, during the 19th century, making thus work of a painter of history.