As one of the principal members of the realist movement in France during the 1850s, and later, François Bonvin found himself drawn to themes inspired by daily life. He completed canvases that reflected the life of the indigent and studied street beggars in a group of drawings that established him as one of the innovators in the freer, more spontaneous use of charcoal. However, his place with middle-class collectors was established with the completion of numerous still-life compositions inspired by the most humble range of objects.
These still-lifes, which were regularly exhibited at the annual Salons from the 1850s onward, brought Bonvin a few governmental awards; they also led to the clear perception that he was one of the primary proponents of the emerging still-life revival in France. He found himself at the head of a group of younger painters (including Théodule Ribot, Antoine Vollon and Edouard Manet) who increasingly placed their faith in the study of a few objects randomly arranged on a spare table top, often against a white tablecloth. These objects were frequently the utensils that the artist had collected; they were lovingly arranged so that light would model the various shapes and textures of the individual pieces. These canvases found supportive collectors who wanted to exhibit these compositions in their homes, often in dining rooms, where some works were arranged as "over-doors" in relationship with similar still-life compositions by many other painters. Bonvin, and his colleagues, spearheaded the revival of interest in this type of work leading toward the recognition that Bonvin - because he favored a simple arrangement of forms - could be designated as the "new Chardin." This designation was frequently used by art critics eager to demonstrate that Bonvin, and the other still-life painters of the time, were following a well-established tradition; their canvases were continually compared with the masters of former times. In this way they were given a presence, a position, and a tradition that demonstrated that still-life painting was a worthy category and that it had a heritage that the painters of the nineteenth century fully absorbed and understood.
During the 1860s, as Bonvin was able to sell some of his canvases, and before illness greatly reduced his capacity to work, he completed a series of canvases that were destined to be part of a still-life painting cycle. Among these paintings were three, ostensibly completed for the famous photographer Nadar, works which are now exhibited on the walls of the Musée d'Orsay (Paris). These canvases - studies of game, poultry, fruit, vegetables and cheese - were produced in an unusual format; they were horizontal and rather narrow. It suggests that these works were deliberately designed for an interior setting, revealing that Bonvin worked on placing some works in a predetermined setting. The format of these paintings, as much as the type of objects selected, are significant; they bear directly on this canvas of 1877 - Le Pot de Cuivre.
Completed in the summer of 1877, this painting uses a series of objects that Bonvin was extremely fond of painting or drawing. Whether it was the brass vessel in the center, the blue and white ceramic at the left, or the mortar and pestle at the right, these were objects that Bonvin collected, examined, and sensitively used in numerous other compositions over the years. They, along with the brie cheese or the knife placed at an angle, were the objects that Bonvin infused with a personality almost human (in fact, drawings from 1878 and 1879 of these objects and others, from his carnets, convey these same intimate qualities). Along with his masterful study of light, the textural feel to the painted objects, and the simplicity of the setting, Bonvin has created a work that suggests his canvases of 1863. Once again, he appears at the top of his abilities, at a moment when still-life painting in general had assumed greater importance. There were now even younger painters - Camille Pissarro, Auguste Renoir or Paul Cézanne, among others - who championed this particular theme and who unceasingly continued to elevate its importance for painters.
This painting was sold in the 1950s through the well-established firm of Arthur Tooth and Sons in London, dealers who specialized in sponsoring works by major painters for the nineteenth century. It was secured by Denys Sutton, former editor of Apollo Magazine (London), who was deeply interested in the work of the American painter James McNeill Whistler (he published a major book on the artist) and through him Bonvin, a painter who had supported Whistler's work in 1859 through an exhibition in his Paris studio. Sutton's selection of this painting revealed an astute interest in nineteenth century painters who were destined for further appreciation in the 1970s and 1980s as part of a general reevaluation of realist art in France.
We are grateful to Professor Gabriel P. Weisburg for his assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.