Richard Parkes Bonington

(25 October 1801 - 23 September 1828)

Born in Arnold near Nottingham in 1802, but moved to Calais with his family at the age of 15. His father, also called Richard, was a provincial drawing-master and painter. In Calais, Bonington studied under Louis Francia, who had been a friend and associate of Thomas Girtin, the English watercolourist. Under Francia, Bonington consolidated his knowledge of the watercolour technique and learnt the process of lithography. In 1820 he went to Paris, where he became acquainted with Eugene Delacroix, and entered the Ecole des Beaux Arts. For a time, Bonington was influenced by the medieval and oriental themes of the French Romantic movement, and produced a number of oil paintings in this manner.

Bonington was an accomplished watercolourist from an early age, and he was known for his landscapes, which he exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1822 and 1824. In the latter he won a gold medal for his originality and atmospheric effects. Each summer Bonington would set off on a sketching tour, visiting places like Normandy, Picardy and Flanders, and in 1826 he travelled to Venice, where he produced some of his finest works.

Unfortunately Bonington died of consumption at the age of 26. The Wallace Collection in London probably owns the finest collection in the world of his works, including 11 oil paintings and 25 watercolours, ranging from his richly costumed historical scenes, to views of France and northern Italy.

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His friend Eugène Delacroix wrote that his works were “a type of diamond which flatters and ravishes the eye, independently of any subject and any imitation.” Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot recognized him as the first truly naturalistic landscape painter to work in France, where his subtle approach to color and atmosphere deeply influenced the later Barbizon painters.

Richard Parkes Bonington was an English Romantic painter who spent his tragically brief working career in France, where he received formal art training in the Paris studio of Baron Antoine-Jean Gros. However, it was Bonington’s familiarity and great skill with the distinctly English art of watercolor landscape that immediately distinguished his work from his fellow artists in Paris. The frank realism of Bonington’s landscapes, combined with his lightness and delicacy of tone in both watercolor and oil painting were unlike anything his French contemporaries had seen before. A chance encounter with a small Bonington landscape in a Paris gallery window caused Corot to dedicate his painting career to the natural landscape, later writing that “No one thought of landscape painting in those days…the artist had captured for the first time the effects that had always touched me when I discovered them in nature and that were rarely painted. I was astonished.”

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After an exhausting series of painting trips through northern France and northern Italy, where he completed dozens of oil and watercolor paintings, Bonington contracted tuberculosis, and died of the disease just before his 26th birthday. Although Bonington was widely recognized in both England and France in the early 19th century, his fame waned and his work became known mostly to connoisseurs of early Romantic painting. Luckily for Yale’s Center for British Art, one of those connoisseurs was Paul Mellon, who collected Bonington’s work, and Mellon’s donations to the Center comprise the largest collection of Bonington paintings in North America.

© Treasures of Yale: Richard Parkes Bonington: The Greatest British Painter You’ve Never Heard Of -- news.yale.edu div div

BONINGTON, Richard Parkes, landscape and subject painter. Born October 25, 1801, at Arnold, a village near Nottingham. His grandfather was the governor of the gaol of that county, and was succeeded by his father, who lost the appointment through his irregularities, and then practised as a portrait painter, and published a few prints of little merit in aqua-tint, while his wife kept a school.

The son's early talents were divided between art and the drama, and his future career seemed balanced between the two. But the father's love of low company, his indiscreet conduct, and his violent political opinions, broke up his wife's school, which was probably the chief support of the family, and they fled to Paris. Here, at the age of 15, and with the most limited means, young Bonington obtained admission to the Louvre, and commenced seriously the study of art as his future profession. He took great pains to improve, became a student at the Institute, and drew in the atelier of Baron Gros, and his improvement was rapid; his studies were in a bold, masterly style, and he gained the gold medal in Paris for one of his marine subjects.

About the year 1822 he went to Italy. His works, both in oil and water-colours, had already met with patronage, and had made him a reputation in Paris, but were unknown here; when, in 1826, he exhibited at the British Institution two views on the Frerch Coast, which surprised the English painters, and gave him at once a name among his own countrymen; and in the next year a similar subject at the Academy, followed in 1828, when he was still residing in Paris, by 'Henry III. of France' and the 'Grand Canal, Venice.' He had always been greatly esteemed in France, and now commissions flowed upon him from both countries. Devoting himself to his art, he was imprudently sketching in the sun at Paris, when he was attacked by brain fever, followed by a severe illness. He came to London for advice, and fell into a rapid consumption, which ended his short yet promising career. He was buried in the vaults of St. James's Church, Pentonville. His works were marked by great originality and a rich feeling for colour. His art was picturesque and dramatic. He painted landscape and marine; and master of the figure, genre subjects with much grace. His drawings were sold by auction, and realised 1200l. In 1870, his 'Henry IV. and the Ambassador ' is stated to have fetched 3320l. at a sale in Paris. A series of his works was lithographed by Harding, and his 'Picturesque Journey' was published, but its true appreciation was confined to the artists.

A dictionary of artists of the English school: painters, sculptors, architects, engravers and ornamentists: with notices of their lives and work by Samuel Redgrave, 1878