François Bonvin (French, 1817-1887)
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François Bonvin (French, 1817-1887)


François Bonvin (French, 1817-1887)
signed and dated '1874/F.Bonvin' (lower left)
oil on panel
14 x 10 3/8 in. (35.5 x 26.3 cm.)
with Galerie Jonas, Paris.
with Galerie Huguette Bérès, Paris.
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
G.P. Weisberg, Bonvin, la vie et l'oeuvre, Paris, 1979, p. 191, no. 60 bis, illustrated.
G.P. Weisberg, Bonvin, Paris, 1979, p. 117, no. 67, illustrated on cover.
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Clemency Henty
Clemency Henty

Lot Essay

The present work is one of François Bonvin's masterpieces, bearing all the hallmarks for which the artist is best known: a combination of profound sensitivity towards his subject matter, a masterful understanding of chiaroscuro modelling, and a quiet, intimate simplicity in keeping with his humble subject matter.

Bonvin was, in many ways, the Chardin of his day. Like his predecessor, he produced works of quiet charm, with a great clarity of focus. Moreover, the realism of his approach avoided both the grandiosity of his friend Gustave Courbet, and the sentimentality often associated with his domestic subject matter. His are introverted, often pared-down paintings, focused on the lives of the common people or simple objects assembled into still lifes from which all extraneous detail is removed. As Gabriel Weisberg writes: 'Bonvin, like Chardin, appears as a solitary figure in his own century. As an artist he was guided by an internal vision which was united with an extremely personal way of painting. As a man, Bonvin's quiet nature did not allow him to proselytize.' (op. cit., p. 15)

The almost geometric simplicity and small scale of Bonvin's paintings draw attention to the meticulous detail of the motifs which inhabit them. This technique had its roots in the Dutch and Flemish masters of the 17th century whom Bonvin studied at the Louvre. Epitomised by Vermeer, these artists' works are characterised by sparse interiors, single figures, gentle plays on reflected light, and humble objects, such as glass, earthenware and white linens, in which emphasis is placed on geometric form and texture.

The present work depicts a schoolboy, deep in concentration. Most of the room is in shadow, a muted harmony of greys and browns, through which the rough texture of wood and leather is keenly felt. A small amount of light emanates from an unseen window on the left, picking out a few strikingly described objects and details: an inkwell and quills, the smoothed ball of the chair in the background, the white of the boy's collar -- all set strikingly against the red and blue of the table cloth and smock. The mood is meditative and serene, achieved through simple, yet brilliantly crafted means. The comments of the critic Jules Castagnary, applied to Bonvin's painting of a similar subject, L'école des frères, exhibited at the Salon of 1873, could apply equally well to the present work: 'There you have a painting in the total and absolute sense of the word. It is a pictorial idea expressed through the resources of painting and admirably expressed. It is not possible to be more right and more simple...' (J. Castagnary, Salons: 1857-1879, Paris, 1892, vol. 2, p. 103).

Less obviously, the present painting is also a clear testament to Bonvin's social and political outlook. Although his works were much less rhetorical than those of other Realist artists such as Jean-François Millet, whose firmly Republican beliefs he shared, Bonvin was deeply committed to the cause of the common people. Here he describes the transformative power of education, imbuing a picture of secular learning with with the quiet power of a devotional painting.

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