12 April 2016

Leon Bonvin: A Frenchman's Art In Baltimore


“He had but the cold hours of the morning or the heavy hours of the night in which to draw and paint his water-colors."  - Walters Art Museum

In five brief years from 1861 until he committed suicide in 1866,  Léon Bonvin created  watercolors outstanding for their sheer loveliness and realism.   Because we know how the story ends it is tempting to read into the images things that may not be there.

Of the dozens of Bonvin landscapes in the Walters collection I chose three of my favorites (that's the selection process) that I think represent his worldview: in the foreground an appreciation of the here and now, and in the distance, the faraway nearby, desperately yearned for.   The plump  rose bud in spring, the desiccated  thistle in winter, have seldom been painted with equal affection. What might it cost an artist emotionally to depict the countryside that immured him in poverty and obscurity?  

Some details of Bonvin’s life have not been definitively confirmed from surviving documents, allowing room for embroidery.  Leon Bonvin (1834-1866) and Francois Bonvin (1817-1887) were half-brothers; both were sons of a constable in Vaugirard. Both were primarily self-taught artists but Francois attended two art schools; his mentor was Francois Granet and he became friends with the realist master Gustave Courbet.  Having achieved a modest success in Paris, the elder brother encouraged his brother to continue and provided him with paints.

As a young boy he began making small charcoal sketches and ink drawings of a bleak environment suffused with his  ardor.…How explain the luminous watercolors that he went to create, with their intimations of a world of light just beyond grasp?  So far as we know, Bonvin produced only one oil painting.  The lack of money that kept him from using oil paints confined him to relatively unforgiving media like ink and watercolor, but that never registers itself as a lack in his art.  Bonvin perfected the technique of outlining his forms in sepia ink, creating an effect similar to the then new medium of photography.

Bonvin worked as an innkeeper; he married in 1861. The young couple struggled; the inn lost money. Yet in the seven year period between 1859 and his death Bonvin created numerous exquisite still lifes  and subtle landscapes capturing fleeting atmospheric effects.
In desperation, Bonvin traveled to Paris in January 1866 to offer his watercolors to a dealer. Rejected, he hung himself the next day in the forest at Meudon. What must it have felt like to have works of such delicacy and palpable feeling rejected?  A sale, organized to aid his destitute family, raised some 8,000 francs.

During the rest of the century Bonvin's work was known to a small circle, among them William T. Walters (1820-1894), whose son Henry Walters, founded the Walters Art Museum.  William's collection of Bonvin's work (56 watercolors and one oil painting) was acquired between 1862 and 1891 and is the largest single collection of Bonvin's work in existence.  That these exquisite French works came to Baltimore is a quirk of history.  Baltimore, according to a woman who wrote to a local newspaper in 1809,  was “the Siberia of the arts.”  Apparently the brothers Rembrandt and Rubens Peale thought not when they opened a combination art and natural history curio gallery there in 1812.  Even the considerable reputation of America’s first family of the arts was not enough to guarantee a success; after a few years the gallery closed and the Peales moved on.  William Walters might never have gone to Paris, might never have been exposed to the works of Leon Bonvin, were it not for Baltimore.  Baltimore sat near the political  fault line between north and south in 1861.  A successful grain merchant and liquor wholesaler, Walters' wealth was built on the backs of slaves.  When war came, he took his mixed loyalties and his family to Europe.  It may be that, in the French landscape, he found an escape from trouble.  If so, that was both temporary and illusory, as Leon Bonvin well knew.

1. Leon Bonvin - Country Scene, 1865, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. 
2. Leon Bonvin - Roses and Grasses, 1863, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.. 
3. Leon Bonvin - Still Life with Wine, Water, and Fruits, 1864, Walters Art museum, Baltimore.
4. Leon Bonvin - Thistles and Weeds in Winter, 1864, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

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