SUMMARY OF THE THESIS
Léon Bonnat (1833-1922) received his artistic training in Spain, then in the Parisian studio of the painter Léon Cogniet, finally in Rome. His first major religious compositions very early on brought him success, fame, State commissions, and his Italian or Orientalist genre scenes were bought by private clients.
In the mid-1870s, he turned definitively to portrait painting in which he achieved immense success, making him, according to his contemporaries, one of the greatest portrait painters of his time. He painted the portraits of the representatives of the ruling class and wealthy French or foreign, especially American, until the First World War. He practiced this genre until the end of his days, leaving behind him, beyond the portraits of artist friends or members of his family, an exceptional "gallery" of personalities of the moment, aristocrats, politicians, big bourgeois. French and foreign, including a few “iconic” works that mark the collective memory.
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"M. Léon Bonnat, dont les premières peintures religieuses, d’un réalisme plus qu’à demi espagnol, avaient tout de suite attiré l’attention, composait cette galerie historique que l’avenir consultera avec autant de confiance en la loyauté du Maître que d’admiration pour la décision et la netteté vigoureuse de son œil et de son pinceau".
André Michel, « Les Salons au Palais de l’Industrie de 1857 à 1897 », Gazette des Beaux-Arts, avril 1897, p. 275.
The “academic” painting of the second half of the 19th century, also qualified as “official”, “bourgeois” or “fireman”, has long been neglected, ignored, sometimes despised. Artistic institutions, researchers, critics, the general public have been rediscovering it for fifty years, and perhaps especially during the last twenty years. Research work and exhibitions have thus been devoted in France and abroad, mainly in the United States, to William Bouguereau, to Jean-Léon Gérôme, to Jean-Paul Laurens, to Carolus-Duran, to Alexandre Cabanel, to Fernand Cormon, etc., leading to a reassessment of the judgment made on artists and their works. But Léon Bonnat, the great portrait painter of the last quarter of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, often described as the “official portrait painter” of the Third Republic, did not benefit from this rediscovery of academic painting. Little research has been devoted to him since Alisa Luxenberg's thesis in the United States in 1991. No significant presentation of her works has been organized since the retrospective exhibition at the Salon des Artistes Français in 1924. La The thesis on "Léon Bonnat portraitiste" aims to make the artist and his work better known in its main component, portrait painting, and to allow a reassessment of the judgment made on both. It consists of the catalog of painted, drawn and engraved portraits (547 entries) and an introductory essay, a synthesis of established facts and reflections to which the research work has led. It is mainly based on the examination of numerous handwritten sources, public or private, most of them unpublished, on the writings of the artist's contemporaries and on the study of the works themselves, their history, the context of their work. execution, critical reception, and physical examination where possible.
Léon Bonnat was born in 1833 in a family originating from Voiron, in Isère, by his father, and from Bayonne by his mother. His artistic vocation was born in Spain, in Madrid where his family settled, in contact with Vélasquez and Ribera, but also with Rembrandt and Titian, whom he discovered at the Prado museum. He received his first artistic education at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts San Fernando. But the death of his father in 1853 places the young man in a difficult material situation by making him the head of the family. He could only continue in his initial vocation thanks to the financial support of his hometown of Bayonne and friends of the family which allowed him to enroll in the studio of the Parisian painter Léon Cogniet, then, despite his failure at the Prix de Rome, to spend three years in the Eternal City, before settling permanently in Paris. Are these difficult beginnings at the origin of the ambition which, undoubtedly, will animate him all his life?
The young artist therefore received academic training, first in Madrid with José de Madrazo, then from his son Federico at the San Fernando Academy, then from Léon Cogniet in Paris, all three great painters, in particular, of portraits, and seems to be interested, early, in this genre. He was also advised by Romain Julien in Bayonne, then by Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury in Paris… But it is in the "great genre" of history painting, in religious painting and large decorative compositions, "passage obliged ”for an ambitious artist, whom he first wishes to make a name for himself. It was in this genre that he quickly found success, received rewards, saw his works presented at the Salon purchased by the State and benefited from public commissions. The crowning achievement of this successful start to his career, - even if the young artist considered that recognition, rewards and commissions did not come quickly enough - in 1869 he received the Salon's Medal of Honor for his Assumption of the Virgin. Italian genre scenes, then orientalists, then very fashionable and in which he excelled, also ensured him a certain financial ease. He defines and affirms in religious painting, in particular in Christ on the Cross of 1874 intended for the decoration of the courthouse in Paris, and, to a lesser extent, in genre scenes, a personal style, based on the realism of the representation of people and a frank, energetic, powerful execution, which will also be that of his portraits. The success is there, and the recognition of the public, of the critics, of the authorities of the State is acquired.
On the strength of this reputation, in the mid-1870s he turned to portrait painting, in which he had been interested since his beginnings, an interest which the choice of paintings and especially old drawings that made up the collection he created in Paris would confirm. from the 1880s. Portrait painting is more lucrative, and meets his ambitions. To prevail against the countless portrait painters wishing to benefit from the craze, in France and abroad, in the United States in particular, for the genre, it is necessary to attract the attention of the public and the critics, surprise them and to seduce by presenting, in large paintings that catch the eye, famous models, in their reality, in their truth. He perfectly achieves this objective with three “founding” works: the portraits of the actress Madame Pasca, in 1874, of Adolphe Thiers, in 1876, of Victor Hugo in 1879. Their immense success with the public and the critics is a lasting success. him one of the most famous portrait painters of his time, the most in demand, the most expensive. The greatest personalities of the French ruling class, the aristocracy, the wealthy bourgeoisie, in particular the upper Jewish bourgeoisie, the political world, and especially the successive Presidents of the Republic, but also the wealthy Americans of the "Golden Age" asked him to obtain a portrait of his hand. Léon Bonnat is undoubtedly one of the most brilliant representatives of portrait painting of his time, which he practiced for nearly fifty years, until his last days. But at the beginning of the 20th century, and even more with the approach of the First World War, the demand, French and foreign, will weaken, the fashion of the portrait will pass, the academic painting will be rejected and other forms of artistic expression will take. on top, other artists will impose themselves on a market which has lost its splendor. When he died in 1922, Bonnat's name was forgotten.
Léon Bonnat is undoubtedly a pure product of Academism. He received an academic education at the School of Fine Arts, copied extensively the great masters of the past, lived in contact with and respect for the great French painters of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. But has he remained faithful to his original artistic milieu, to his training, to the environment in which he was trained and lived? Has he not freed himself from the working methods taught at the École des beaux-arts, as the direct work on canvas and therefore the total absence of preparatory drawings for his large portraits may suggest, in contradiction with the teaching provided at the School of Fine Arts, which emphasizes the studies of drawing and underlines its importance in the work prior to painting? The realism which he shows in his last great religious works and which will be his personal mark in the painting of portraits also distances him from the dogmas of academic training. His technique, with a visible touch, a sometimes thick painting, "masonry", or laid flat, the use of black or the treatment by small parallel brush strokes to create the reliefs, to obtain the modeling of the faces. and flesh, also distances it from the received teaching. Should we consider that he remains faithful and attached to academic painting, that he respects its "institutional" character, its history, its teaching, but that this attachment, this fidelity does not prevent him from defining his own path, his own style, at a distance from academicism, made of realism, truth in individual representation, simplicity of composition, power of execution?
But Bonnat's success in portrait painting, which is partly based on his technical choices often making his portraits spectacular works, is not explained above all by an astonishing ability to discover the particular character of each model behind facial features, behind an attitude, a movement, to reveal it, to distinguish it, and to transmit each time the image of a different personality, to translate it directly and vividly on the canvas thanks to the qualities of designer who are recognized by his contemporaries and a speed of execution that can surprise? Isn't it this particular skill, this psychological acuity and this ability to transcribe on the canvas the truth of this perception, which made Bonnat's immense success in this genre? The realistic, lively, surprising character of Bonnat's portraits makes them particular works, easily recognizable, and some have become iconic works, present in the collective memory. What would Victor Hugo be today in the collective imagination without Bonnat? The artist gave it a face, a corporeality, immediately identifiable. The same is true of Adolphe Thiers and, perhaps to a lesser extent, of President Jules Grévy, Ferdinand de Lesseps, Cardinal Lavigerie, Léon Gambetta, Alexandre Dumas fils, Ernest Renan… The portraits made by Bonnat are they not the only representations that the public knows and identifies of these great personalities, despite the existence, in their period of glory, of photography, or other painted portraits? Bonnat did leave the “historical gallery” of the great figures of his time that certain critics announced when he was at the height of his glory. Unfortunately, the name of Bonnat is not associated today with these representations.
Bonnat has shown remarkable continuity in portrait painting, design and execution throughout his career as a portrait painter. The same realism in the representation of the model, the same simplicity of the composition and the same vigor in the execution are found in the successive portraits. This continuity has turned against him, some critics evoking a "formula" that he would have found and repeated since it had brought him success. In the eyes of his detractors, this "formula", this monotony would have led to a certain weariness of the public and the critics and contributed to the oblivion into which he fell upon his death. Yet the artist has sometimes explored new avenues in the technique of execution, out of curiosity, perhaps out of a desire for renewal, or under the constraint of age. Is it not appropriate to recognize, in a very homogeneous whole, this research in new directions in the execution of works, with brilliant results, and which bring him closer to the new schools of Impressionism and Pointillism? We must also appreciate the great variety of portraits, small and large, from the “head only” portrait to the “full-length” portrait, the latter, with a more “classic” style often obscuring the small ones, generally treated with more freedom. spontaneity.
The portrait occupies an essential place in Bonnat's career. But the artist's work is not reduced to his portraits, and religious paintings and large decorative compositions hold an important place. They are not, any more than the most famous portraits, attributed by the general public to the artist. But isn't Bonnat, at least in part, responsible for this lack of recognition, since he has moved away from this genre, in which he had defined his style and met success, to turn to painting? portrait in the mid-1870s, leaving only a very small number of works?
Finally, Bonnat's career is inseparable from the place he occupies in society and the role he plays in fine arts institutions and with his fellow artists. He undoubtedly considers that the work of the artist and the service of the State constitute one and the same commitment in the service of "Art". He receives the highest honors that the Republic can bestow on an artist. He was notably elected to the Academy of Fine Arts in 1881, elevated to the dignity of Grand'Croix of the Legion of Honor in 1900, and appointed member of the Council of the Order of the Legion of Honor in 1895 and will remain so until his death. But above all, he carried out long-term important functions in the service of the State and the fine arts: he was vice-president, then president in 1899 and until his death of the Council of National Museums, he was appointed director of the School of Fine Arts in 1905 and will remain so until his death.
What remains of Bonnat today? Some large iconic portraits present in the collective memory, powerful, original, which surprise, which strike the general public, but to which the name of the artist is not, in general, not associated, and which mask the very many portraits of personalities less in sight, of the French upper middle class, of the rich Americans of the East Coast, of his friends and fellow painters or of his family. The painter has in fact disappeared behind the great collector of paintings, sculptures, antiques and especially old drawings, who enriched the drawing collections of the Louvre and allowed the City of Bayonne to have today one of the most beautiful museums in France, where, at his request, the collections bequeathed to the National Museums were deposited, to which were added other donations, bequests or deposits. The artist has also disappeared behind the public man, the friend of the Presidents of the Republic, the greatest personalities of the ruling class and the wealthy big bourgeoisie, the man of influence of institutions touching the Fine Arts. Arts, the man with a particularly important social network, the man covered with honors, finally erased behind the professor appreciated by the very many French and foreign students who have followed one another in his private workshop, then at the École des beaux- arts. Finally, was the artist's work not overshadowed by the multitude of his passions and his commitments in the art world and in the service of art?