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Paris 1817-1887 Saint-Germain-en-Laye

Nature morte à la bougie, 1878

Nature morte à la bougie, 1878

Signed and dated, lower left, F. Bonvin 1878

Oil on panel

7 ½ x 9 ¾ inches

19 x 25 cm


Stoppenbach & Delestre, London

Sig. Pino Gavazzeni, Milan


_______, Gustave Courbet e il suo tempo, Verona, 2008, p.146-47, p. 227, cat. no.  71, illustrated (with essays by J.-J. Fernier and P. Gavazzeni)

Bonvin, born into a family of modest means, was a talented draughtsman from an early age.  His first formal instruction was at the Ecole du dessin in Paris where he attended classes for two years.  Beyond a return to the same school for a brief period under the supervision of Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran (1802-1897), he often went to the Academie Suisse where he drew after the model.  He was most directly influenced, however, from sketching at the Louvre, especially by copying the works of the Flemish and Dutch genre painters, as well of those of Chardin (1699-1779) and the Le Nains.  Although he sometimes submitted his work to François-Marie Granet (1775-1849) for criticism, he can be said to have been otherwise largely self-taught outside of the usual studio Beaux-arts studio system.

He first exhibited in the Salon in 1847, while earning his living, like his father, as a policeman.  His first major success was, however, with the exhibition of three paintings at the Salon of 1849.  It was at this time that he made the acquaintance of Gustave Courbet and the great critic Jules-Francois Fleury-Husson (1820-1889), who wrote under the pseudonym, Champfleury.  These three friends, Courbet, Champfleury and Bonvin, would become, in the words of Jay Clarke, the “cornerstones of the French Realist movement.”¹  This movement rejected the idealism of Romanticism and concerned itself with the objective portrayal of daily life, its simple and quotidian aspects, especially in the lives of the poor and marginalized.

Towards the end of 1878 Bonvin, suffering great physical pain and confined to his house in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, embarked on a remarkable series of small-scale still-life paintings and drawings of kitchen utensils and other small household objects that were at hand.  These pictures were painted at home, using objects found throughout the house, such as kettles, candlesticks, pipes, books, compote jars and stove grills.  Most of his pictures from this time until his death in 1887 were of this type and scale.

The present painting, one of three small-scale still-lifes devoted to the subject of letter writing, shows a brass candlestick, fitted with a handle, with the stub of a candle that has just been snuffed, its ember still glowing and residual smoke wafting upwards.  The candlestick rests on a small pile of correspondence, with a red stick of sealing wax and a seal to the left.  Richly painted, this small picture demonstrates fully Bonvin’s marvelous mastery of color.  Two other paintings of similar subjects, though vertical in composition, illustrate Bonvin’s interest in the subject.  One, dated 1878, shows an inkwell with a quill pen, and a letter addressed to the collect or and critic Philippe Burty.³ The second, dated 1879,³ is a variant of the picture dedicated to Burty, and shows the same inkwell and quill pen, but includes a greater number of white and blue sheets of correspondence, and the same stick of red sealing wax and seal as in our painting.  The present painting suggests a nocturnal attention to correspondence, while the absence of the candlestick in the vertical variants suggests that the letters have been written during the day. Bonvin was a writer of verse, as well as an attentive correspondent.

  1. J. A. Clarke, in Dreams and Echoes:  Drawings and Sculpture in the David and Celia Hilliard Collection, exhibitions catalogue, S. F. McCullagh, ed., Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago, 2013, p. 107.

  2. Location unknown ; see G. Weisberg, Bonvin, Paris, 1979, p. 231, cat. no. 162 bis, illustrated.

  3. Private collection, New York; formerly, W. M. Brady & Co., New York.

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