The first time that François Bonvin used the theme of preparing breakfast was in a canvas of 1854 that was purchased by the French government from the painter in 1855 and sent to the Museum in Rodez, in the central part of France. The artist returned to a similar type of construction with this work in 1857, and in subsequent years. By this moment, realism - as an artistic movement - had become the modern focus of creativity; critics extolled painters who were able to examine simple daily chores as themes that emphasized the importance of humble activity often realized in the intimacy of the home. Few painters memorialized work as well as Bonvin as his small canvases and panels often found a receptive audience among middle-class collectors.
In 1857-8, Bonvin completed other themes with similar models dressed to suggest the work of a servant either hauling wine from the cellar (Up from the Cellar, 1857, Private Collection) or drawing water from a metal container (Woman at the Fountain, 1858, Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore). In both cases the servant wore a white apron over a red jacket and blue dress, similar to the garments worn here, and a white cap, drawn tightly over her hair. We know that Bonvin was using actual models; his wife, friends or people from his own neighborhood, to support the accuracy of his images.
The impression of frozen time, of the young woman caught in the action of pouring water into her coffee container, suggests the activities imaged by Dutch seventeenth century painters - artists that Bonvin valued, studied and assimilated throughout his career. The burning brazier in the foreground, the accumulation of other utensils on the spare wooden table, reinforces Bonvin's reliance on objects from his own personal collection which he used many times in his paintings and drawings. In this way, the objects assume as much significance as the servant, suggesting the way in which Bonvin's still-life objects work in close harmony with his figural selections. Completed at the moment when Bonvin's career was in its ascendancy, when younger realists such as James McNeill Whistler recognized Bonvin's major contribution to the evolution of realism, this painting adds to our awareness of the important role that Bonvin's genre scenes played in making him one of the foremost intimists active at the end of the 1850s.
We are grateful to Dr. Gabriel P. Weisberg for his assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.