This drawing by Léon Bonnat, the greatest portrait painter of the Third Republic, shows a woman of indeterminate age, caught in a melancholic pose.
1. Léon Bonnat
Born in Bayonne, Léon Bonnat discovered painting in Madrid, where he lived between 1846 and 1853, in the studio of José de Madrazo y Aguado (1781 - 1859) and his son Federico de Madrazo y Küntz (1815 - 1894). He arrived in Paris in 1854 and was a pupil of the painter Léon Cogniet (1794 - 1880) at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. In 1857 he was awarded the second Prix de Rome for his Resurrection of Lazard. At that time, his style took inspiration from the paintings of the Spanish Golden Age and showed a predilection for the use of earthy tones.
After travelling to Italy, Greece and the Middle East, he settled in Paris and abandoned historical and religious subjects to devote himself entirely to portraiture. By the end of the 1870s he became the official portraitist of Parisian high society. He painted about two hundred portraits of personalities of his time: scholars and writers, members of the aristocracy and the upper class, and politicians.
Besides his activity as a portraitist, he was also an excellent teacher and directed a studio at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris between 1888 and 1905. He directed the National Museums between 1900 and 1922. He was a great collector and left an important collection of paintings, drawings and sculptures to the Bayonne Museum of Fine Arts, which now bears his name.
2. Description of the artwork
It is probable that this drawing was done in preparation for a larger portrait as was popular in Parisian society during the Third Republic. We do not know the name of the model. The woman, whose age it is difficult to evaluate, is shown from the waist up, wearing a dark jacket whose silky sheen is reflected in the drawing. Dressed both with refinement as well as austerity, she wears two large pearls in each ear. Her head is coiffed with an elaborate headband that evokes a crown.
It seems legitimate to compare the attitude of this woman with the traditional representation of melancholy, which can be found, for example, in one of the most famous engravings by Albrecht Dürer (1471 - 1528), Melancholy (1514).
We are almost certain that Bonnat, a great lover of ancient art, would not reuse such a classic canon without reason and without wanting to appropriate its meaning. This figure of melancholy, often associated in Western art with mourning, suggests that this portrait could be that of a widow.
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