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Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Leon Bonnat

The Triumph of Art, 1894, Leon Bonnat, Hotel De Ville, Paris
One of the problems our education system faces is the fact that we prepare students to live and work in our present society and environment while everyone knows that the "present" is an ever-changing fact of life. As much as the conservative minded would like to turn back the clock to a simpler, less challenging times, that's neither possible nor would it solved the problems inherent in social, political, and environmental changes. Thus educators are left with the dilemma of trying to see into the future, then striving to adjust their teaching content to such guesswork. Computers come to mind as a prime example. Twenty-five years ago few schools even owned one. As a result, today, about half the population barely know how to turn one on while jobs for those with computer skills go begging. At best we trained students to use a computer when we should have been teaching how to fix program and repair) them.
The Eagle and the Rabbit, 1897, Leon Bonnat
There is, of course, nothing new in all this. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris faced a similar quandary. Most of the instructors had been trained in the long academic traditions of David, Ingres, Delacroix, Bouguereau, and finally, Gerome. They were men who failed to recognize, or refused to accept, the changes taking place next to their precious academic style and techniques while all about them Modern Art was flexing its muscle, making waves, and challenging everything they held dear. Leon Bonnat found himself in the middle of these changes. He'd been trained traditionally, but starting in 1882 he found himself teaching a new generation of artists who worshipped the Realists, or worse, the Impressionists. By 1905, when he became director of the school, he found himself torn between the past and the present as the school not only began accepting women but followers of Monet, Cezanne, van Gogh, Gauguin, Courbet, and Corot.
Giotto Keeping the Goats, 1850, Léon Bonnat
Populating his classes were future greats the likes of John Singer Sargent, Stanhope Forbes, Gustave Caillebotte, P. S. Krøyer, Georges Braque, Thomas Eakins, Raoul Dufy, Edvard Munch, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Walter Tyndale. These were men no long satisfied with painting pontificating religious scenes or sanitized, academic nudes. This was the new wave, destined to move and shake much of 20th-century art. To his credit, unlike academicians of the past, Bonnat adapted, both what he taught and how he taught it to the needs and temperament of his students. He thus bore influences from the past, blending them with the art of the present, while also subtly influencing the art of the future.
Self-portraits from age 17, thru old age (photo).
Léon-Joseph-Florentin Bonnat was born in 1833, He grew up in Bayonne, (southwestern) France, where his father owned a bookshop. Bonnat studied under Federico Madrazo in Madrid. Despite repeated attempts, he failed to win the prix de Rome, though he did receive a second prize. However, a scholarship from his native Bayonne allowed him to spend three years studying independently in Rome (1858–60). During his stay in Rome, he became friends with Edgar Degas, Gustave Moreau, Jean-Jacques Henner and the sculptor Henri Chapu. He also studied under Léon Cogniet in Paris. His early paintings are religious in which can be seen evidence of the Spanish Baroque. Later, his better-known portraits of prominent Europeans and Americans drew inspiration from Velázquez and the Spanish realists. He painted about 200 portraits, most of them featuring photographically accurate draftsmanship and subdued coloring.
Roman Girl at the Fountain,
1875, Leon Bonnat
Leon Bonnat won a medal of honor in Paris in 1869, after which he went on to become one of the leading artists of his day. Bonnat later won the Grand Officer of the Légion d’honneur and became a professor at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in 1882. He was quite popular with American students in Paris. In addition to his native French, he spoke Spanish and Italian and knew English well, to the relief of many monolingual Americans. In 1905 Bonnat succeeded Paul Dubois as director of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Bonnat was a liberal teacher who stressed simplicity in art above high academic finish, as well as overall effect rather than detail. Bonnat’s emphasis on overall effect on the one hand, and rigorous drawing on the other, put him in a middle position with respect to the Impressionists and academic painters like his friend Jean-Léon Gérôme.

There's nothing in the way of Academic "prettiness" in
Bonnat's religious paintings, his early works being more
Spanish than French.

Bonnat’s vivid portraits of contemporary celebrities are his most characteristic work, but his most important works are arguably his powerful religious paintings, such as his Christ on the Cross (above, top), Job (above, bottom), St. Vincent Taking the Place of Two Galley Slaves, and the large Martyrdom of St. Denis for the Pantheon in Paris. However, he received few commissions for religious and historical paintings, and most of his output consists of portraits. He also produced genre paintings of Italian peasants (left), and a small number of near-eastern scenes (below).

First Steps,
Leon Bonnat

An Arab Removing a Thorn from His Foot, Leon Bonnat
In a gesture of gratitude for the help he had been provided in his youth, Bonnat built a museum in his native city of Bayonne, the Musée Bonnat. Most of the works in the museum are from Bonnat's personal art collection, amassed over a lifetime of travelling around Europe. They include an outstanding collection of Old Master drawings from Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo to Ingres and Gericault. Bonnat died in 1922 at Monchy-Saint-Éloi at the age of eighty-nine. He never married, and lived for much of his life with his mother and sister.

Sleeping Girl, 1852,
Leon Bonnat


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