29 February 2020

The Gentle Art of Leon Bonvin

We see the artist, a cigarette dangling from his lips, holding a palette and wearing a cook's cap.  An image of a bifurcated existence as captured by his brother.  Leon and Francois Bonvin,

Francois (1817-1877), the first child of the family, was born in Paris to a constable and a seamstress. After his mother died when he was four, the father remarried (to another seamstress) and relocated the family to Vaugirard, a small village west of the city where the family grew to number ten children. Leon (1834-1866) was the caboose baby of the Bonvin family.

Both brothers showed an early aptitude for drawing: Francois who grew up in Paris was able to spend time at the Louvre studying its encyclopedic collection, even though he was apprenticed to a printer at thirteen.  Not very healthy and never well to do, the older brother helped the younger as much as he was able, giving materials and encouragement.

Leon was timid and introspective, unable to break away from his domineering and oppressive father.  Francois, already in Paris, was able to  pursue art but Leon was expected to stay at home  working as waiter at the family inn.

Interior of a House with an Open Door could be a metaphoric view of Bonvin's situation, contrasting a narrow, claustrophobic interior with a glimpse of the world beckoning through a blaze of sunlight.

We see the same scene in The Gate and the Door, this time from outdoors and the stone wall lining the road that leads to the larger world is now a formidable obstacle; my sense is of an artist feeling imprisoned by circumstance. And the larger world was coming; Vaugiriard and the adjoining village of Issy were building housing for the people being displaced (gentrified) by Baron Huassmann's urban renewal of the core of  old Paris.

The work of an innkeeper is never-ending, no matter how modest the premises.  During an
impoverished youth, drawing was his pleasure and consolation.  Leon was only able to find time to devote to drawing or painting at dawn and dusk of his very long days. He began drawing with charcoal because it was cheap and paints were expensive. His only formal training would be a period at the Ecole de Dessins in Paris at his brother's urging.

Philippe Burty, in an article that is a major source of information about the artist's life, called Bonvin's marriage in 1861 " a grave event in an existene which had until then been deprived of all tenderness" in the artist's life. Drawings like Waiting Dog and The Rabbit Hutch offer other intimations of  his yearning for companionship that expressed itself in empathetic observation.  The two rabbits peer out of the cupboard by a door that hangs precariously from a broken hinge, their white noses seem to emanate warmth.  For the little dog who waits the sun warms his back and the tree trunk suggests reassurance; yes, his posture seems to say, my people will return.

The winter of 1865 was a bleak one for the Bonvins. Other taverns had opened nearby and Leon felt compelled to build a new inn by going unto dept.  However few customers came and Leon had to take work as a carter at local stone quarries. Their situation was dire.

On January 29, 1866, in desperation Bonvin took his watercolors to Paris.  Unluckily, the first dealer he approached dismissed the works as " too dark, not gay enough."  What must he have felt  to have works of such delicacy and palpable feeling rejected out of hand? Apparently overwhelmed by a sense of futility, Bonvin did not return home but hung himself the next day from a tree in the forest of Meudon, a place that overlooked the plains of Issy that he had depicted with such attentiveness and affection.  The family at home, his wife, his  three children, and the little dog were all bereft.

"My poor brother, in spite of all his efforts, has been overcome by evil fortune, " wrote Francois to Albert de la Fiziliere, a compassionate dealer who organized a group of artists to donate works to a public auction to raise money to ease the family's plight.

It is painful to contemplate Bonvin's pictures. knowing how little recognition or recompense they brought him.  His pictures resonate with emotion, not the exaggerated emotional response to exotic subjects of the Romantics but emotion in service to the truth and accuracy of ordinary people, respecting the truth of their lives.

Philippe Burty- "Leon Bonvin, l'aquarelliste" in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, New York: Decmber 1885.

1. Francois Bonvin - Portrait of Leon Bonvin, no date given, charcoal and ink private collection, France.
2. Leon Bonvin - A Room with a Door Opening to a Courtyard and a Road, charcoa and ink, Louvre Museum, Paris
3. Leon Bonvin -. Gate and Wall near the Maison Bonvin, charcoal and ink, Louvre Museum, Paris.
4. Leon Bonvin - The Rabbit Hutch, 1856, charcoal and ink, Louvre Museum, Paris.
5. Leon Bonvin - Waiting Dog, charcoal and ink, Louvre Museum, Paris.


Hels said...

I can see a bit of the Chardin in Bonvin, but Chardin became very well known and Bonvin clearly did not. What a tragic waste of a young life :(

Jane A Librizzi said...

Hels, thanks for your comment. Given the wonderful collection of Bonvin's watercolors at the Walters Museum there is no good reason Bonvin cannot be brought to a large public. I'm working on a piece about them now. Stay tued.