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 Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
At the Ecole, Bonnat enrolled in the atelier of Leon Coignet where he first made the acquaintance of Jules Lefebvre 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 Ecole'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 Academie and became a professor at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Among his students were Raoul Dufy, Henri Matisse and Henri deToulouse-Lautrec (who the older artist reputedly did not care for). In 1905, Bonnat became Directeur of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, young Italian girls in regional costumes pervade the work of many Academic artists, and the same was true of Bonnat. The Broken Pitcher certainly belongs to this series of paintings, however, its monumental scale and thinly veiled symbolism of lost innocence sets it apart from mere representations of quaint country dress. The young girl stands alone in the center of the composition, surrounded by the pottery shards of the broken pitcher. She does not seem startled or surprised, but deep in contemplation. The bright colors of her costume contrast strongly to the muted tones of the background, setting her off in her isolation even more. The image is forceful and poignant, and a testament to both the artist's technical skill and narrative abilities.