Léon-Joseph-Florentin Bonnat was born in Bayonne in 1833 and lived for many years in Madrid where his father owned a bookshop. He began his artistic education under Charles Sarvy, his maternal uncle, by whom he was taught an appreciation of the Spanish masters Velasquez, Murillo and Zurbaran. The young artist attended classes at the Royal Academy of San Fernando in Madrid for a short time before moving to Paris to study at the École des Beaux-Arts.
At the École, Bonnat enrolled in the atelier of Leon Coignet where he first made the acquaintance of Jules LeFèbvre and Tony Robert-Fleury, two Academic artists who were frequent contributors to the Salon and the three would remain lifelong friends. Bonnat made his Salon debut in 1857 and that same year, he took second place in the Prix de Rome, the École's most prestigious annual competition. He later rose to prominence as the most celebrated portrait painters of the Third Republic. Bonnat won a number of state-sponsored commissions, the most important of which was the cycle of paintings that now adorn the interior of the Pantheon in Paris.
Like William Bouguereau, who was Bonnat's contemporary and reputed rival, Bonnat was ultimately elected to the Académie and became a professor at the École des Beaux-Arts. Among his students were Raoul Dufy, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (who the older artist reputedly did not care for). In 1905, Bonnat became Directeur of the École des Beaux-Arts.