12 May 2011

The Gentle Art Of Leon Bonvin

Using graphite, and pen and ink, Leon Bonvin (1834-1866) created pristine lines and his watercolor technique produced colors both delicate and buoyant.  Bonvin, who live his life in poverty, felt keenly his inability to afford oil paints but I find no lack in the watercolors and charcoals he created. His hunger to create, to get it all down on paper, in spite of all difficulties, vibrates from the paper.

Life was hard for the Bonvins,  a large family.   Francois (1817-1997) was  the first child, born in Paris to a policeman and a seamstress.  After his mother died when he was four years old, the father remarried another seamstress and there were nine more children   Leon, the family caboose, grew up at an inn the family ran in the village of Vaugirard (now a suburb of Paris).  
Both boys showed an early desire to draw, but Francois, who grew up in Paris, was able to spend time at the Louvre, even though apprenticed to a printer at age thirteen.  Not especially healthy and never well to do, Francois helped his younger brother as he could, encouraging Leon to keep at his art.

The work of an innkeeper is never-ending, no matter how modest the inn, and the time that Leon Bonvin could devote to his art was limited to  early morning and sunset.  The figure in the garden, immersed as he is his surroundings, is surely Bonvin himself.  Less certain is the identity of the woman sweeping, alos with her back to us.
Interior of a House with an Open Door strikes me as being   autobiographical , contrasting a claustrophobic  interior  with lighted shining path.  Compressed here is the frustration of confinement and a glimpse of a wider world ,obscured by blazing sunlight, or so it appears to the one inside.  And always the implied loneliness, always the spectator waiting by the roadside.

Without wishing to take anything away from Francois Bonvin's lustre, it is painful to think that Leon's pictures brought him so little recognition - and the money that he needed so desperately to support his wife. 

On January 29, 1866, Bonvin,  desperate to earn money to support himself and his wife, carried a portfolio of his work to Paris where a short-sighted art dealer refused to place his pictures, telling the artist that they are "too dark, not gay enough."   I recoil from the thought of despair that accompanied him on his trek toward home.  What he thought can only be guessed at, but his conclusions were grim.
The next day Bonvin hanged himself from a tree in the forest of Meudon, a place that overlooked the plains of Issy that the artist depicted with such affection in his watercolors.  The little family inn, Bonvin's wife, and the dog and the cat were all left waiting in Vaugirard for his return.
In the charcoal of his little dog, Bonvin's chiaroscuro approaches abstraction, foreshadowing works by Seurat, like the dog guarding the baby carriage.

1. Francois Bonvin - Portrait of Leon Bonvin at His Easel, 1860s, private collection, Cleveland Museum of Art.
2. Leon Bonvin - The Rabbit Hutch, undated, Louvre Museum, Paris.
3.  Leon Bonvin - Woman Sweeping, 1860s, Walters Gallery, Baltimore.
4 Leon Bonvin - The Open Door, Louvre Museum, Paris.
5. Leon Bonvin - Moonlit Scene, 1864, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.
6. Leon Bonvin - His Little Dog, undated, Louvre Museum, Paris.
7. Leon Bonvin -  A White Poodle, a Black Cat, and a Frying Pan,  no date, Louvre Museum, Paris.

Addendum:  During the original post of this article some text and images disappeared into the cloud, but have now reappeared.  My apologies for any confusion.


Neil said...

What a sad story - but beautifully told.

alaine@éclectique said...

I was so enjoying this story and his art, thinking how some of them actually looked like old photographs, when I read of his tragic suicide.

It was so unfortunate that he met that myopic art dealer and not someone who had a real appreciation. How dreadfully sad but thank you for your research into Leon Bonvin.

Melinda9 said...

I had never heard of Leon Bonvin - it's a sad story but the pictures are beautiful. Thanks for posting these.

Jane said...

Neil, I just hope Leon Bonvin knew how good his work was. Perhaps, he did, for he did not destroy his pictures. His step-brother Francois, who was talented but less so, achieved some worldly success.

Jane said...

Alaine, the Walters Museum in Baltimore (//thewalters.org)has a beautiful collection of Bonvin's works. The Louvre in Paris (www.louvre.fr) has a collection of his drawings. "The Drawings And Watercolors of Leon Bonvin" by Gabriel Weisberg,published in 1980, is well worth searching out.

Jane said...

Melinda, you are so right. Beautiful is the word. Bonvin used his hands to commemorate what his eyes perceived, with joy. A lesson and a reminder.

Picturetalk321 said...

A lovely post, and very informative. A very suggestive choice of images, too: I've never seen so many Léon Bonvins together: really interesting. Thanks.

Jane said...

Thank you Pictuertalk. It is lucky for us here in the U.S. that the founders of the Walters Museum in Baltimore collected Bonvin's work. When I was first attracted to his work, I knew nothing about Bonvin -it wasn't even the sort of art that I gravitate to, but it was so good. And after I learned something of his difficult life, it pains me that such fine work couldn't even save him, much less receive its due.