February 25, 1833 – Léon Joseph Florentin Bonnat
I recently discovered this beautiful painting by Léon Bonnat; the beauty lies in the opposition between the strength of the barber, suggested by his musculature and the razor he uses, and the softness and confidence, even abandonment, of the young man who is being shaved.
From tribal tattoos to tiki bars, dragons and drugs, Western culture has been enthralled with “exotic” cultures for centuries. Starting in the 17th century, Europeans were fascinated by all things eastern and created their own form of “Oriental” paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts, now labeled “Chinoiserie”. Flip through any shelter magazine today and you’ll likely see chinoiserie elements on page after page. From colorful foo dogs to glossy lacquered furnishings and faux bamboo, chinoiserie encompasses far more than the highly collectable blue-and-white porcelain.
The term chinoiserie, which comes from the French word for Chinese, and denotes that chinoiserie did not, in fact, come directly from Asia but instead from a European interpretation of Asian culture. The style originated from Europe’s flourishing trade with China and other countries of East Asia.
Europeans were intrigued by it all, as few Europeans had traveled to Asia, and they knew little about it. While this led to more than a few misinterpretations and misunderstandings, Europeans still held Asian culture in high regard. Monarchs and the aristocracy were especially fond of chinoiserie, and you can see it in the palaces of King Louis XV of France and King George IV of England.
Tea was another of the era’s Asian imports. As traders began importing teas to Europe, the beverage grew in popularity. The culture and tradition of drinking tea, complete with tea sets, tea tables, tea chests, only helped bolster the demand for all things chinoiserie. England’s imperialism mashed the various cultures of the East into one sensuous and mysterious ideal that depicted women and men as erotic, uninhibited, and available. European accounts of Istanbul and Egypt as hotbeds of forbidden desire were common.
The homoerotic paintings of young men were merely depicting their culture, right? European gentleman could observe these naked young dark-skinned men from a position of interested ethnographer.
One of the best examples is The Barber Of Suez, painted by Bonnat in 1876, a few years after his trip to Egypt. A young man sits cross-legged on a rug, his robe open at his neck, while another well-muscled man, wearing only a loin cloth, stands behind him, leaning over to shave his face. The sitting man nestles his head into the barber’s crotch. These two figures are completely absorbed into one another, sealed off in their own world, observed but un-observing. The contact between head and dick, the tenderness and intimacy of their barber’s gesture, as he spreads the fingers of his free hand over the side of his client’s face and the blissful look of the man being shaved, combined with the general portrayal of handsome partially unclothed black men, probably really grabbed the attention of certain Victorian era guys.
Born in France in 1833, Bonnat lived in Madrid from 1846 to 1853. His father owned a bookshop in the city and while tending his father’s shop, he copied engravings of works by the Old Masters and developed a passion for drawing.
He later worked in Paris, where he became known as a leading portraitist. It was rare for him to be without a commission. His many portraits show the Spanish masters, as well as Titian and Anthony Van Dyke, whose works he studied in the Prado, the largest art gallery in Europe.
Following the period in Spain, Bonnat worked in the ateliers of other painters in Paris. Despite repeated attempts, he failed to win the Prix de Rome, the French scholarship for arts students that was established in 1663 during the reign of Louis XIV of France. Winners were allowed to live in Rome for three to five years at the expense of the state. Bonnat only received a second prize. However, another scholarship meant he could spend three years in Rome (1858–60) independently. During his stay in Rome, he became friends with painter Edgar Degas.
Bonnat become one of the leading artists of his era and he became a professor at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in 1882. Bonnat was quite popular with his American students in Paris. In addition to his native French, he spoke Spanish and Italian and English well, to the relief of the Americans. He was known as a teacher who stressed simplicity in art above high academic finish, as well as overall effect rather than detail. His emphasis on overall effect on the one hand, and rigorous drawing on the other, put him right in the middle with respect to the Impressionists. In 1917, Bonnat was elected into the National Academy of Design in Paris.
Bonnat’s vivid portraits of celebrities are his most noted works, but his most important works are his powerful religious paintings, such as his Christ on the Cross, now living at the Musée du Petit Palais in Paris. However, he received few commissions for religious and historical paintings, and most of his output consists of portraits. He also produced genre paintings of peasants and ”Oriental” scenes.
The writer Émile Zola was among Bonnat’s biggest boosters. He had friends and connections among the biggest artists of his time. Degas painted two portraits of Bonnat. His friend Édouard Manet shared his penchant for Spanish style painting. He championed the work of Auguste Rodin and Gustave Courbet.
As a teacher he encouraged freedom of expression and execution. He recommended traveling to Madrid to visit the Prado Museum, and introduced in Paris the Spanish techniques which influenced the evolution of French painting.
Some of Bonnat’s students included gay artists: John Singer Sargent, Georges Braque and Thomas Eakins, plus Edvard Munch, and Walter Tyndale.
In his last years Bonnat made his painting evolve, from the influence of 17th-century painters towards a more modern freedom of execution, scratching the brush and using a spatula, as well as a more colorful color pallet, as can be seen in his self-portrait. In his native city of Bayonne, there is now a Musée Bonnat. Most of the works in the museum are from Bonnat’s personal collection of works of art, amassed over a lifetime of travelling.
Bonnat died in September 1922. He ”never married or had children and lived for much of his life with his mother”, which is an Art History euphemism for gay.