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A Year: Day to Day Men: 20th of June, Solar Year 2018

Double Eagles

June 20, 1833 was the birthdate of French painter Leon Joseph Florentin Bonnat.

Leon Bonnat was born in Bayonne, southwest France; but in his teen years he lived in Madrid where his father had a bookshop. While tending the shop, he copied engravings of works by the Old Masters, developing a passion for drawing. In Madrid he studied and trained at the atelier of  Realistic painter Raimundo Madrazo. Traveling to Paris, he developed a reputation as a portraitist and was given many commissions. His portraits show the influence of the Spanish painter Velázquez, and Van Dyke and Titian, whom he studied in the Prado.

Bonnat received a scholarship from his native Bayonne, enabling him to live independently in Rome from 1858-1860. It was there he became friends with Edgar Degas, Gustave Moreau and the sculptor Henri Chapu. Bonnat won the Grand Officer of the Legion d’honneur and became a professor at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in 1882. He was quite popular with the international students, being able to speak his native French, as well as Spanish, Italian and English. In May of 1905 he became director of the Ecole des Beauz Arts.

The vivid portraits of contemporary celebrities are his most characteristic works; but his powerful religious scenes are arguably his most important works. His “Christ on the Cross” is now in the Musee du Petit Palais in Paris, his “Job” is in the Musee Bonnat, and the “Saint Vincent Taking the Place of Two Gallery Slaves” is at the Church of Saint Nicholas des Chanps in Paris. He, however, received few commissions in his life for religious or historical paintings. Most of his work is consists of portraits.

Leon Bonnat was an academic painter following the movements of Neoclassicism and Romanticism. He had a quest for truth to nature, a pursuit for accuracy. On of his students, Gustof Cederstrom said that Bonnat was a   scientific observer of the real world who measure the heads and distances between the facial features of his sitters as if he were a scientific researcher. He went to great effort to capture the realism of his model, sometimes requiring his subjects to sit fifty or more times before completing portraits.

Students chose Bonnat’s atelier over others for a few reasons and a focus on painting was one of them. Though Bonnat always maintained that drawing was important, a student went to his atelier not to learn how to draw but how to paint. Bonnat’s atelier differed from most of its contemporaries in another way: paint mixing. Rather than prepare a set palette before the sitting, Bonnat taught his students to mix their colors directly, in front of the model.

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