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June 2023

Vol. 165 / No. 1443

Dessins français du XIXe siècle and Léon Bonvin 1834–1866: Drawn to the Everyday. Catalogue Raisonné

Reviewed by Jane Munro

The Fondation Custodia, Paris, has an exemplary history of researching and publishing its collection of works of art on paper. This long-standing commitment continued undiminished under the energetic directorship of the late Ger Luijten, from 2010 to 2022, enhanced by the dissemination of collections-based research via email newsletters and online catalogues, many of recent acquisitions.[1] The catalogue Dessins français du XIXe siècle, which accompanied an exhibition of the same name in 2022, focuses on a group of 138 works selected from the 1,800 nineteenth-century French drawings in the collection. Frits Lugt (1884–1970), the founder of the Fondation Custodia, collected few works by French artists of this period, judging himself to be too much a product of the nineteenth century to be able to discriminate with appropriate historical perspective, although he made a few exceptions: drawings by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Edgar Degas, Jean-François Millet and Théodule Ribot feature in this volume as exemplars of his taste in this field. Lugt’s general preference for landscape, portrait and figure drawings, as opposed to preparatory compositional drawings or genre scenes, determined the choice of subjects in the exhibition and accompanying book, even if they are not rigorously presented in these terms.

Within each of these thematic groups there are strengths: a sequence of watercolour landscapes by François Marius Granet (cat. nos.15–19), for example, some showing the imposing Montagne Sainte-Victoire, and others by the brothers Flandrin (nos.46–52); seascapes by Eugène Isabey (nos. 86–89); and a wide range of views made by artists in Italy. Following Lugt’s cue in acquiring Ingres’s pencil portrait of the Prix de Rome winner François-Édouard Picot (1817; cat. no.41), the Fondation has assembled a strong group of portraits of artists: Amaury-Duval’s painting of the suave-looking and seriously moustachioed Adrien Dauzats (1840; no.43), Félix Bracquemond’s friendship portrait of Charles Daubigny (1853; no.85) and Paul Delaroche’s minuscule but moving pen-andink portrait of the elderly Granet (no.44) stand out, as do self-portraits by Louis Lamothe (no.40) and Ker-Xavier Roussel (c.1887–88; no.119), and what could be described as a portrait in absentia, in watercolour, by Henri- Joseph Harpignies (1909; no.101), depicting the corner of his studio. But some of the most memorable drawings are hors catégorie, perhaps best characterised by their powerful presence of absence: an anonymous piece of drapery by Pauline Auzou (no.5), all sfumato stumping; Horace Vernet’s study of wickerwork gabion fortifications on the Crimean front (1854–55; no.59), devoid of combatants; a beautiful graphite drawing of overcoats and top hats by James Tissot (no.131; Fig.5), suspended on an invisible cloakroom rail, waiting to resume human form; and Albert Besnard’s battered but lovingly painted slippers (no.138).


Media and techniques are wide-ranging: black and coloured chalks, pen and ink, sharp graphite pencil, watercolour, pastel and even a ‘painted drawing’ (p.162) in oil on panel by Théodore Rousseau (no.62) – a nod to the extraordinary collection of oil-on-paper sketches that have been the focus of the Fondation’s acquisition campaign in recent years. In some cases, the supports also range beyond paper. Notable in this respect are Eugène Carrière’s oil-on-parchment portraits of Gustave Geoffroy (1891; no.123) and Edmond de Goncourt (1892; no.124), commissioned by the latter and painted – or drawn, despite the medium? – on the bindings of their own publications. The index of artists includes many of the great French draughtsmen one might expect to find in a survey of this kind – in addition to those mentioned, there are drawings by, among others, François Bonvin, Eugène Boudin, Eugène Delacroix, Camille Corot, Jean-Léon Gérôme and Achille-Etna Michallon – but these appear on an equal footing with lesser-known artists, whose star has unjustifiably faded, many working outside the capital. Foundational research on the work and lives of Caroline de Fontenay, Lionel Le Couteux, Pierre Letuaire, Paul Coulon, Jean-Pierre Monseret and Auguste Cabuzel, to name but a few, provides invaluable building blocks for further study.


Impressively, just under half the drawings presented were acquired during Luijten’s tenure as director. Provenances of the drawings suggest that he and his team kept a close eye on the art market at all levels, from international auction houses and dealers to runners who frequented house clearances; he also inspired a series of important gifts. It is noteworthy that several drawings were bought in 2022, some just a matter of weeks before the catalogue was published. But this is no vanity publication. A multi-authored volume, it also consciously foregrounds the achievements of previous staff and directors from 1970s onwards, and in not a few cases shows how more recent acquisitions have built on these earlier initiatives in meaningful ways. The catalogue fully acknowledges the contribution of various enterprising dealers, in particular Jacques Fischer and Chantal Kiener, who have done much to advance knowledge of neglected artists. A minor criticism about the design concerns the arrangement of the catalogue: the entries for each work are separated from the main text and image and published together with the footnotes at the end of the volume, which means a deal of hopping between the front and back of the book to assimilate all relevant information. But this is a piffling gripe, not least since the designer gave their time for free to bring about this substantial and richly illustrated volume.


True to its vocation to broaden the art-historical canon, the Fondation staged concurrently with this varied but coherent display a monographic exhibition devoted to one such unsung hero, Léon Bonvin (1834–66). Or almost unsung, since in the early 1980s he was rescued from the art-historical abyss by Gabriel Weisberg, co-editor and also an author of the present volume, who staged a small monographic exhibition on Bonvin and included the artist in a wider travelling group show, The Realist Tradition: French Painting and Drawing, both of which opened at the Cleveland Museum of Art.[2] The Bonvin catalogue raisonné, which doubles as a catalogue for the exhibition, draws on Weisberg’s decades-long research.[3] A section of catalogue entries is amplified by a list of unlocated and destroyed works and is followed by appendices that record works sold between 1866 and 2020, prints after watercolours Bonvin made for the 1885 Christmas edition of the American Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, the artist’s marriage and death certificates, a transcription of the sale catalogue held to support the artist’s family after his premature death and – from the Fondation’s own holdings – letters (given here in English translation) from Léon’s half-brother, the artist François Bonvin, to the critic Philippe Burty, an enthusiastic supporter of Léon’s work.


Much is made of Léon’s struggles. An innkeeper and a wine merchant by profession his path to becoming an artist was complicated by his all-consuming day job and, after 1860, by the demands and expense of family life. Those who knew him commented on his heightened sensitivity and insecurity. In January 1866 he hung himself in the forest of Meudon, about an hour’s walk from his home. He was thirty-one. One of the most touching drawings in the volume – a rare drawing of a person rather than a plant – is the portrait he made of himself, dedicated to his wife, made only ten days before his suicide and acquired by the Fondation in 2016 (1866; cat. no.113). Yet the challenges Bonvin faced also furnished him with creative constraints that give his work a distinctive intensity and emotional potency. His quiet studies of resonant banalities in daily life and the natural world he observed around his base in the plains of Vaugirard celebrate the overlooked. Wild thistles, eryginum, feverfew and other native plants too easily trodden under foot are elevated in his watercolours to the status of rare blooms. The little that is known about Bonvin’s life and character means that much of the biographical account is given in the conditional or past conditional tense and necessarily deals with hypotheses that are difficult, if not (currently) impossible, to prove. But informed guesswork is underpinned throughout by solid research that examines and illuminates Bonvin’s work in the context of his artistic peers and the mechanics of the contemporary art market. Weisberg expertly disentangles from a dearth of factual information the psychology of Bonvin’s complex personality and his motivations, drawing on such correspondence and published articles as exist as well as the sometimes opaque and occasionally contradictory accounts of contemporaries.


Modest recognition came, however, from the early 1860s, fostered in large measure by the art agent George A. Lucas, through whom the American William Walters of Baltimore commissioned a dozen watercolours from Bonvin and continued avidly to collect his work after the artist’s death. Walters is the reason that the gallery in Baltimore that bears his name holds the most significant collection of Bonvin’s work anywhere (fifty-six of the 112 surviving watercolours as well as his only known oil painting). In her catalogue essay, Jo Briggs provides a nuanced study of the taste for his works in the United States. She highlights Lucas’s dealings with other American clients who were eager to acquire Bonvin’s work and with individuals who supported Walters in promoting it by publishing journal articles and reproducing it as wood engravings.


Maud Guichané, co-editor of the volume, tackles the challenge of examining the complex relationship between the artist and his better-known older brother, François, who by his own account was at once a source of advice and support and a helpless onlooker, although his references to his sibling are at times obscure and frustratingly allusive. Wisely, she stays on solid material ground, basing her account on what unites – and separates – their work in terms of iconography and technique, as well as on the influence on their respective drawing styles of such past masters as Chardin and Dutch painters of the seventeenth century. In Léon she detects a spirit less worldly and ‘erudite’ (p.94) than his brother, one whose work should be valued precisely for its sincerity and unaffected vision. A short essay by Michèle Quentin considers Bonvin’s work in the light of the growing popularity of natural garden design in mid-nineteenth century France. Although she acknowledges that the artist worked independently of this movement, she sees his sensitive studies of native species as anticipating the naturalistic planting design that has dominated urban planning since the 1990s, as it surely does contemporary environmental concerns and the vogue for wilding. 


This book-cum-catalogue raisonné, with its assiduous research assembling all surviving evidence about Bonvin’s work and short life, is a labour of love, finally giving a distinctive place to an artist who was for too long as underappreciated as the wildflowers he painted.


[1] See the obituary of Ger Luijten by Peter Hecht in this issue, pp.675–76. 
[2] G.P. Weisberg: exh. cat. The Drawings and Water Colors of Leon Bonvin, Cleveland (Museum of Art) and Baltimore (Walters Art Gallery) 1980–81; and idem, ed.: The Realist Tradition: French Painting and Drawing, 1830–1900, Cleveland (Museum of Art), Brooklyn (Brooklyn Museum), Saint Louis (Art Museum) and Glasgow (Kelvingrove Art Gallery) 1980–82.
[3] Published in French as Léon Bonvin, 1834–1866: Une poésie du reel. ISBN 978–2–9583234–1–7.