This unfinished picture, after Rembrandt’s engraving of Christ Preaching (c. 1657; fig. 1), is one of Bonington’s earliest works in oil and represents a significant rediscovery. After Bonington’s family moved from Nottingham to Paris in the autumn of 1818, his early training continued to be overseen by his father, Richard. Before enrolling in the atelier of Baron Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835) in April 1819, the young artist was taken by his father to the Louvre to make copies of paintings in oil and watercolour. As is suggested by the 1838 sale following Bonington’s mother’s death, in which this picture was probably sold (op. cit.), Bonington had executed works in oil prior to his arrival in Paris: lot 118 is described in the catalogue as being ‘painted in March 1818’, when the artist’s family was still in Calais. Bonington’s father was known to have amassed a collection of approximately sixty etchings by Rembrandt and it is presumably from one of these that this picture, the only surviving oil from this period, was made. Remarkably, it is thought that Bonington did not return to the medium until he started to paint landscapes in oil in circa 1823, only five years before his untimely death aged twenty-five.
A letter attached to the reverse of the canvas, written by Bonington's painting companion Thomas Shotter Boys (1803-1874) and dated 3 March 1840, states that the picture is an ‘authentic mis en couleur by Bonington’, and that it was ‘possessed by his old servant when residing with him in his last illness at the Rue St. Lazare. She used to keep it at his bed head and pray for her master’s recovery.’ It is not clear why the picture later appeared in the artist’s posthumous sales, but it is possible that Boys was mistaken in assuming that it had been given to the housekeeper. She has been identified as the model for the old woman in the artist’s little oil entitled The Use of Tears, dated to circa 1827-8, and now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Noon, op. cit., p. 448, no. 411). She also appears in his watercolour of the Invitation to Tea (c. 1826; Private collection), which shows the artist entertaining his patron Charles Rivet, and as the subject of Study of an Old Woman by Eugène Delacroix (c. 1827; New York, Private collection), with whom Bonington shared a studio in Paris in 1826.
We are grateful to Patrick Noon for confirming the attribution on the basis of a photographs and for his assistance with this catalogue entry.