Léon Joseph Florentin Bonnat was born in Bayonne in 1833 and lived for many years in Madrid where his father owned a bookshop. Under the tutelage of Charles Sarvy, the artist's maternal uncle, he developed an appreciation for the Spanish Old Master paintings by Velázquez, Murillo and Zurbarán, making numerous sketches and copies of their work. He attended classes at the Royal Academy of San Fernando in Madrid for a short time before ultimately relocating to Paris to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
At the Ecole, Bonnat enrolled in the atelier of Léon Cogniet, where he made the acquaintance of Jules Lefebvre and Tony Robert-Fleury, two Academic artists who would remain his lifelong friends and frequent contributors to the annual Salon des Beaux-Arts. Bonnat made his Salon debut in 1857. That same year, he took second place in the Prix de Rome, the Ecole's most prestigious annual competition. He later rose to prominence as one of the most celebrated portrait painters of the Third Republic, lending his sitters a sense of realism and dignity no doubt influenced by his early study in Madrid. He won a number of state-sponsored commissions, the most important of which was undoubtedly the cycle of paintings that now adorns the interior of the Panthéon in Paris.
Bonnat exhibited his Samson's Youth in the Salon of 1891. The painting depicts an early moment in the life of Samson in which the hero slays a lion in a Herculean bout of strength. One reviewer of the Salon remarked, 'no one has reaped more laurels nor shown more talent than M. Bonnat.' The skillfully rendered Samson, his muscles contorted in battle, points to Bonnat's mastery of the Ecole's instruction; the figure could very well be modeled after classical sculpture, such as the Laocoön, now at the Vatican, which was often used as a learning tool for students at the Ecole in order to master the depiction of physical struggle and pain. The story also adheres to the topics chosen for the Prix de Rome, of heroic morality tales in which brain battles brawn. Its similarity to other epic characters - from Hercules to David - would have certainly appealed to the Salon's learned clientele.
Like Bouguereau, who was Bonnat's contemporary and reputed rival, Léon Bonnat was ultimately elected to the Académie and became Professor at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Counted amoung his students were Raoul Doufy, Henri Matisse and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (who he reportedly did not care for). In 1905, Bonnat received the highest honor of being chosen Directeur of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Ultimately, his career exemplified the success of a 19th Century Academician and the work that the then-burgeoning 19th Century art market demanded.
The Youth of Samson, Judges XIV, Photograph by Bruun, Clement & Co.