Although best known for his portraits and historical and religious subjects, Bonnat’s landscapes and Orientalist scenes are among his most intensely personal and instructive works. The artist’s journey to the Middle East in 1868 with a party that included Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904) – Bonnat’s only expedition to the region – would have a profound impact, both in terms of technical and formal innovations and an inspired approach to the realistic portrayal of modern daily life, including his own. In the present work, one of approximately 72 small oil sketches made during the course of his travels, the biographical element is subtle but clear: with his signature bravura and eye for elemental detail, the artist records the impressions and the specifics of his arrival at the gates of Jerusalem in April of that year.
Bonnat’s journey, begun in Alexandria, Egypt in January 1868, included an impressive list of friends and colleagues. In addition to Gérôme (who was making his third journey to the Middle East), the Dutch artist Willem de Famars Testas (1834-1896) and Gérôme’s student Paul-Marie Lenoir (1843-1881) were enthusiastic participants, each publishing accounts of their travels and making numerous sketches and studies along the way. Also in attendance were Gérôme’s brother-in-law Albert Goupil (1840-1884), who would become the group’s designated photographer, the painters Jean-Richard Goubie (1842-1899) and Ernest Journault (1836-1924), Wilfrid de Barthélémy (possibly, 1835-1890), and the critic and historian Frédéric Masson (1847-1923). (Masson would meet up with the group later in their travels; the celebrated author Edmond About [1828-1885] also joined along the way.)
In March, the group was still in Egypt, and, after a period of intense artistic activity in and around Cairo, set off through the Sinai in a long caravan comprised of nearly 50 camels, 20 camel-drivers, a dragoman (Joseph Moussali), a cook (Ahmed), his helper (Geheir), and two Egyptian servants. Testas sketched this colorful party at a halt at Aqaba, north of the Red Sea, on 19 March 1868 (fig. 1). Bonnat, one of the few to cast off European dress and don Turkish shalwars, or voluminous pantaloons, is third from left.
By the third of April, the group had arrived at the gates of Jerusalem, where they remained overnight, awestruck by the beauty and drama of the scene. “The first glimpse of Jerusalem was gripping,” Testas penned, “the sun-illuminated city was silhouetted against a violet thundery light, while the outlying land lay under the shadow of clouds,” (Willem de Famars Testas, De Schilderskaravaan 1868, Leiden, 1992, p. 115). Four days later, they climbed up the eastern flank of the Mount of Olives, and visited the Chapel of the Ascension. From this vantage point, the travelers were again “blessed with a fantastic view of Jerusalem […],” (Testas, p. 120). This panorama was already well known to artists, as well as to contemporary photographers such as Wilhelm von Herford (1813-1866), Francis Frith (1822-1898), Auguste Salzmann (1824-1872), Felix Bonfils (1831-1885), and Frank Mason Good (1839-1928) (fig. 2). Goupil also made photographic studies of the site, which he shared with his colleagues and which may have served as models for several of the artists’ later works. (A few years earlier, Gérôme had painted his own panoramic portrait of the city, this time from an elevated viewpoint from the west [fig. 3]. This study would become the inspiration for his remarkable Jérusalem [Golgotha] of 1867 [Musée d’Orsay, Paris].) Two of Bonnat’s oil sketches, that presented here and a slightly larger work, (9 x 12 ¼ in. [22.9 x 31 cm.]) (fig. 4), now in the collection of the Musée Francisque Mandet in Riom, recall these panoramic photographs, though the sweeping swathes of thick paint and vibrant energy of the scenes suggest that they were recorded on the spot.
Bonnat’s experimentation with landscapes painted en plein air had begun a decade earlier, during another expedition abroad. In 1857, the same year that he made his Salon debut, the artist had embarked on a three-year period of study in Italy, funded by his native city of Bayonne. Sketches from this time reveal a new interest in atmospheric effects - Bonnat was at this moment reputedly “in love with sunshine and the picturesque” – and a return to his early artistic education. Raised in Spain, Bonnat had studied at the Prado, where he was influenced by both the intense realism and the painterly traditions of Spanish Baroque art. Later studies (1854-7) with the French history and portrait painter Léon Cogniet (1794-1880) in Paris, famous for his looser, less rigorous academic style, allowed Bonnat to further develop his idiosyncratic technique: vigorous brushstrokes, impastoed surfaces (one contemporary critic even likened Bonnat’s brush to a sculptor’s tool), and extensive use of chiaroscuro marked the artist’s canvases, giving them a sense of immediacy antithetical to most academic art.
In Jerusalem, Bonnat’s distinctive style has been perfected through the seamless merging of these two artistic approaches. Thickly applied paint gives weight and volume to the architecture here portrayed – indeed, Bonnat’s landscapes are often as molded and shaped as the figurative works he would later create – while rapid-fire brushstrokes animate the surface of the painting, barely able, it seems, to hold fast this moment in time. Despite contemporaries’ appreciation of these compelling landscape views, and the patronage of several leading American collectors, including William H. Stewart (1820-1897) and Catherine Lorillard Wolfe (1828-1887), Bonnat would cease to exhibit his Middle Eastern pictures after 1876. By 1882, besieged with the portrait commissions that would make him rich, he abandoned them altogether. Jerusalem, then, as one of a series of deeply autobiographical paintings created during Bonnat’s short-lived foray into Orientalism, and as an exemplar of his technical skill, must stand as one of the artist’s most prized and poignant works.
This note was written by Emily M. Weeks, Ph.D.
Signature: signed L. Bonnat (lower right) and inscribed Jérusalem. (upper left)
Private Collection, France
About Léon Bonnat
French, 1833-1922, Bayonne, France