inspirational Painters Series: Leon Bonnat

Leon Bonnat

The inspirational painters series deals with painters who had a major influence on their students. These are painters and mentors who prized individual expression over technique. We judge these painters not so much on their output but on the mastery of their proteges. Leon Joseph Florentin Bonnat was one such Master Mentor.

Leon Bonnat was born in 1833 in Bayonne, France. The pivotal point in his training was during 1846 – 1853 in Madrid, where he studied the Old Masters especially the Spanish painters Velazquez and Jusepe de Ribera. Bonnat was also greatly influenced by Titian and Van Dyke whose works he studied at the Prado Museum. His Mentor in Madrid was Ricardo de Madrazo, a member of the famous Madrazo family of Spanish painters.

In Paris, Bonnat became a successful portrait painter and was never without a commission.

Bonnat became a professor at the Ecole des Beaus Arts in 1882. He spoke French, Spanish, Italian, and English which made him very popular with international students. As a Mentor, Leon insisted on simplicity rather than the high Academic finish popular at the time. He emphasized the Gestalt as the “whole” effect rather than the details. This emphasis on the overall plus the rigorous training in draughtsmanship made Bonnat a conduit between the Academic Painters and the Impressionists to follow.

Bonnat’s circle included the writers Emile Zola and Théophile Gautier. Gautier hailed him as “the antithesis of Bouguereau,” because of the stark naturalism and lack of surface finish that characterize Bonnat’s work. He was friends with many of the painters of his time, among them Gustave Courbet, Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet, and Auguste Rodin.

As a Mentor, he encouraged freedom of expression and execution. He recommended traveling to Madrid to visit the Prado Museum, and in Paris introduced the tendency to paint in the manner of Velasques and other Spanish Painters such as Fortuny. He was a monumental influence on the evolution of French painting and beyond.

Bonnat’s more notable students include John Singer Sargent, Stanhope Forbes, Gustave Caillebotte, Georges Braque, Raoul Dufy, and Edvard Munch.

Thomas Eakins, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Prince Eugen Duke of Narke, Gustaf Cederstrom, Laurits Tuxen, and P.S. Kroner.

Suzor-Cote, Alfred Philippe Roll, Jean Beraud, Franklin Brownell, Marius Vasselon, and Huber-Denis Etcheverry.

Louis Beroud, Paul de la Boulaye, Aloysius O’Kelly, Erik Werenskiold, Alphonse Osbert, and Henry Siddons Mowbray.

Charles Sprague Pearce, Huakutake Kaneuuki, Nils Forsberg, Walter Tyndale, Emile-Louis Foubert, and Harry Watrous.

We have examined a number of Bonnat’s proteges and what is evident is the diversity in their works. This is a sign of an outstanding teacher and motivator. Few have ever done this as well as Bonnat. For most teachers do not teach art, instead they teach technique which many conflate as art, but it is not. If there is little or no sign of the individual, the Mentor has not done his job. If a sameness is seen thought-out the studio then the method of instruction is flawed. We will examine more great Mentors in the future.

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