Monday, May 9, 2016

The Schoolboy (1874)

François Bonvin: The Schoolboy

The present work is one of François Bonvin's masterpieces, bearing all the hallmarks for which the artist is best known: a combination of profound sensitivity towards his subject matter, a masterful understanding of chiaroscuro modelling, and a quiet, intimate simplicity in keeping with his humble subject matter.

The almost geometric simplicity and small scale of Bonvin's paintings draw attention to the meticulous detail of the motifs which inhabit them. This technique had its roots in the Dutch and Flemish masters of the 17th century whom Bonvin studied at the Louvre. Epitomised by Vermeer, these artists' works are characterised by sparse interiors, single figures, gentle plays on reflected light, and humble objects, such as glass, earthenware and white linens, in which emphasis is placed on geometric form and texture.

The present work depicts a schoolboy, deep in concentration. Most of the room is in shadow, a muted harmony of greys and browns, through which the rough texture of wood and leather is keenly felt. A small amount of light emanates from an unseen window on the left, picking out a few strikingly described objects and details: an inkwell and quills, the smoothed ball of the chair in the background, the white of the boy's collar -- all set strikingly against the red and blue of the table cloth and smock. The mood is meditative and serene, achieved through simple, yet brilliantly crafted means.

Less obviously, the present painting is also a clear testament to Bonvin's social and political outlook. Although his works were much less rhetorical than those of other Realist artists such as Jean-François Millet, whose firmly Republican beliefs he shared, Bonvin was deeply committed to the cause of the common people. Here he describes the transformative power of education, imbuing a picture of secular learning with with the quiet power of a devotional painting. [Christie’s]

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