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L’Ouvroir / The Workroom



François Bonvin (1817-1887)
L’Ouvroir / The Workroom
oil on panel
AGLC 410 @ A.G Leventis Gallery

François Bonvin, a contemporary and friend of Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), was considered, during his lifetime, to be one of the proponents of Realism. He suffered a difficult life, and his output remained meagre. Soon forgotten following his death, he was nevertheless rediscovered in the 20th century. Bonvin’s first success came at the 1850-1851 Paris Salon, where he showed L’École des Orphelines (Langres, Musée du Breuil de Saint- Germain). He remained faithful to this type of subject, becoming the chronicler of life in convents and orphanages, and of the life of people of modest means. The painting in the A. G. Leventis Collection fits in perfectly with this spirit of Realist intimacy, which his contemporary admirers and critics associated with the work of the great Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699-1779), who was being rediscovered at the time and about whom Bonvin was passionate. Like his illustrious predecessor, Bonvin was also a remarkable painter of still lifes. Yet Bonvin’s restrained, even austere art, by virtue of his dark palette, surely includes other sources, such as the, even older, Le Nain brothers or Dutch works of the 17th century. Closer to him, François-Marius Granet (1775-1849) can be considered to be his immediate inspiration.  

Inscribed with a date which is difficult to read (probably 1856), this small canvas belongs to the beginning of the painter’s career and is similar to a composition in the Musée Bargoin in Clermont- Ferrand. Professor Gabriel P. Weisberg, author of the catalogue raisonné of Bonvin’s oeuvre, has kindly signalled the reproduction of this painting in the prestigious L’Art review, issued in 1890, in an article paying homage to the recently deceased painter. The caption indicates that the artwork then belonged to a collection famous for its works by Jean-François Millet (1814-1875) owned by Paul Tesse (1825-1893). By virtue of his artistic orientation and amidst the development of ‘modern’ and independent tendencies in mid-19th-century French painting, Bonvin certainly occupies pride of place in the Realist movement. One should also remember that it was in his studio, in 1859, that artists who had been rejected by the Paris Salon, such as Théodule Ribot (1823-1891), Alphonse Legros (1837-1911), Henri Fantin-Latour (1836- 1904) and James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), exhibited their works to the public despite official art authorities, thus paving the way for the celebrated anti-establishment artists Courbet and Édouard Manet (1832-1883), who also tried to help Bonvin, and the Impressionists.

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About the artist

Along with his friend Gustave Courbet, he was a leading proponent of Realism. He grew up in difficult circumstances and started drawing at an early age. He painted still lifes and genre scenes, influenced by Pieter de Hooch and Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, and depictions of people of modest means. Although poor himself, he helped other artists, including his half-brother Léon Bonvin; and when James McNeill Whistler, Henri Fantin-Latour and others were rejected by the Salon in 1859, he exhibited their works in his studio.

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