The training of this son of a Lyon baker under Pierre Révoil was rapidly crowned with success: Jean-Claude Bonnefond took out the figure drawing prize at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Lyon in 1809 and the supreme distinction, the Laurier d’Or, in 1813. The first works he exhibited at the Salon – The Little Savoyards' Bedroom in 1817 and Elderly Blind Man with His Daughter in 1819 – were bought by the Duc de Berry. The Paris critics considered these pictures – together with those of the Lyon school as a whole – excessively meticulous. The six months Bonnefond spent in Guérin's studio were doubtless intended to rectify this fault, but it was above all his stay in Rome from 1825 to 1830 that freed up his style.
In the course of those five years Bonnefond abandoned traditional history painting in favour of the local folklore of brigands, itinerant musicians (pifferari), pilgrims and fortune tellers: subjects forming a genre in their own right ever since Léopold Robert had revealed their picturesque potential. The figure of the brigand, whose exploits had been fuelling the press for decades, burst dramatically onto the Roman art scene with the arrest of Mazzocchi and his gang in 1819. Léopold Robert and Achille-Etna Michallon were the first artists to request papal permission to study them in the prisons of Castel Sant'Angelo and the Baths of Diocletian. The brigand vogue was quickly seized on by the French art colony centred on the Villa Medici, and Victor Schnetz, Guillaume Bodinier, Léon Cogniet, Jean Alaux and Horace Vernet took it up at the same time as Bonnefond.
Stendhal echoed this fascination with outlaws: "Everyone fears the brigands, but strange as it may seem, everyone sympathises with them when they are punished for their crimes. They are accorded a kind of respect, even regarding their exercise of the terrible right they have arrogated to themselves. Italians have the habit of reading little poems conjuring up the remarkable doings of the most famous brigands; they enjoy heroic stuff and end up with an admiration for them very like the feeling the Greeks of old had for some of their demigods."
Opting for a threatening pose, the painter of this watercolour highlights the terribilità of a hero ready to use his dagger – an act in flagrant conflict with his veneration for the Virgin whose image is tucked into his hatband. At the same time his colourful costume is an elaborate exercise in the picturesque.
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