Go, dear young fellows, get close to Mr. Ingres, learn from him the prestigious art of linear beauty; go to Delacroix, Veronese, Rubens, Rembrandt, Raphael, learn from these masters and life and movement, color and style. But above all, never desert your own school. Reflect, work, look at the masters and even more at nature; become painters by the technical skills of your art, and men by deep thought, and keep yourselves equally far from all factions.
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With this sacrifice, be convinced, you will make, you also, great works of art, and you will illustrate a new era in French art that will have commenced with the decree of November Moreover, celebrating only Ingres and Delacroix could have caused bad blood among the other academicians who were tacitly demoted to second-rate status. The administration promoted the new ateliers and limited competitions as offering greater freedom to students to explore and experiment, while the non-studio courses provided a broader knowledge base on which they could draw to vie for and satisfy various artistic commissions.
The letter that Bonnat signed specifically describes the reforms as granting students more freedom in their studies. It was taught by the reformer Viollet-le-Duc, who abandoned the traditional content of artistic biography, anecdotes about beauty, and concentration on the classical and Renaissance eras. Instead, he extolled the rationality and utility of various styles and periods—but especially medieval architecture—, the study of nature, and practice-based solutions.
The students accused Viollet of forcing an untested historical narrative and aesthetic preferences on them. Bonnat as Challenger The question to pose now is, what led Bonnat to embrace the reforms and stand apart from his peers? For in many ways, Bonnat was a conventional and ambitious student, respectful of traditions and institutions in his objective for an official career in painting large religious works for the state and church.
After bankruptcy in Bayonne, his father moved the family to Spain to start anew, and a fourteen-year-old Bonnat joined them in Madrid, where he became one of the few French artists to study in the Spanish academic system. While the Madrid art academy followed practices similar to the Parisian one, the young Frenchman had to learn in a foreign language and culture, without close friends or examples to follow. His aesthetic models were the Spanish Old Masters, who were not embraced within French academic training. He progressed sufficiently to land a government commission at the tender age of 19,  but his studies were interrupted in when his father died.
His training in Paris was only possible due to a stipend provided by his hometown of Bayonne. He duly competed for the Rome prize, first in ,  and made it to the final round in For Bonnat, the ideas behind the reforms confirmed his path and the benefits of training abroad and independently in Rome. He read widely, from historical and religious texts to contemporary poetry and newspapers, and he was curious about new philosophies and political matters.
If Bonnat set his sights on triumphing at the official Salon, he also showed in alternate venues when it suited him. In , Bonnat had a very good Salon. Not only did he earn a Salon medal, he sold all three paintings.
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But despite his post-Rome success, he did not feel supported within the Parisian art world. I see my wings clipped by this lack of resources and security. The director of fine arts at City Hall. The next day the city commission met and voted to give me an order worth francs; I was told of the matter by members of the committee. Not receiving any official word. Except for these few enemies, who, unfortunately, have great importance in my life, I only half-heartedly regret what happened. From the elation of learning that the state purchased his Saint Andrew and that the city voted him a splendid commission for a religious painting,  his bubble was rudely burst when he did not obtain the gold medal and the arts administrator probably Courmont treated him coldly.
His mentor in Bayonne, the artist-publisher Romain Julien, interpreted the official patronage lavished on Bonnat as compensation for the elusive first-class medal. In criticizing academic training, he seemed to call into question those artistic talents that were certified by its awards, but he also exposed himself to charges of sour grapes.
His criticism derived from his experiences, but he avoided supplying personal tribulations to Chesneau as evidence of the failures of the academic system. In , he was appointed to the jury of the Prix de Rome for the first two stages of competition.
Some of its faculty, still angry over the changes imposed by the reforms, refused to teach, and Robert-Fleury likely hired or recommended his mentee. It was not long before Bonnat realized the difficulty of being an effective teacher, a realization that caused him to reflect on his own artistic development.
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I come to see that it is nearly to chance that I owe my progress. A miserable engraving! In Rome a bad photograph representing a steer lying down made me understand what a picture is, what makes it so that an object is powerfully modeled to the detriment of nearby objects that are sacrificed! When I was going to Mr. Go give lessons and guide people after similar examples. Well, I do my best. He admitted having had little practical or theoretical instruction, for the elderly and frail Cogniet rarely came to the atelier.
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But rather than condemn this absence, Bonnat presented it as a virtue. I was very surprised by this type of negligence, of this abandonment that left us in doubt, indecision, and nearly absolute ignorance on the path to take. He thought that mutual learning is the most efficient teaching, and finally and above all, he did not want to impose on his students his way of seeing, of understanding, and of interpreting life.
Bonnat now seemed in full agreement with the anti-reform students who reviled Viollet: a master must not impose his particular aesthetic on students. Bonnat adopted an antagonistic posture in his Adam and Eve , his dark, Spanish manner, the reforms debate, and his private atelier, but he was ultimately reconciled with the academic system. I will tell you that I am completely reassured about the interpretation that they could give to my position.
I held off in my plans [to approach Chesneau] from scruples. On one hand, I did not want to help destroy the school in Rome, several [of its] scholarship students being friends of mine, and above all I did not want to make of this, or give the impression of making it a personal issue. Having returned home, I wrote to him; I had forgotten loads of things. I wrote him a second letter the following day urging him to explain to the young fellows what the problem was and in what way we had to find a remedy for it.
I urged Chesneau to put aside his satirical tone and to try to stir up our generation. They confirmed for me this idea that talent is inseparable from a certain fervor in soul and mind. This war of personalities must end. I am slightly unwell, forgive me for not responding at length to your excellent letters.
I tell you again, they touched me very much. And on Thursday when you pass by my house, please remember that I will always enjoy chatting with you. I would like to be in his position.
After tomorrow all the young fellows will be on our side. At that time it would have been very easy to give it legs.
Today this reform will be very official. There is only Robert Fleury who will hold to it; the others who initially agreed to direct the [new] studios are caught up in the general reaction of the Institute and submitted, are submitting, or will submit their resignation. Bonnat met him in Rome in , and did not like him. Cette bienheureuse signature est en train de me brouiller avec tous mes amis. Que sais-je!!!!!
Ah Bah! Ma foi tan [ sic ] pis.
The letter signed by me and others was published in the Moniteur [ universel ]. I am reproached for having put my name alongside those of a crowd of decorators, of entrepreneurs who are not only unknown but whose profession has almost nothing to do with art. To these reproaches I answer by [illegible] When I believe an idea is good, I support it and defend it.
All the same, even if I am alone in thinking this way, they cannot be angry with me for having had the courage of my conviction. But what bothers me is that they accuse me of playing up to Nieuwerkerke or to the Administration, and this accusation almost makes me regret my signature. What do I know!!!!! Why does the Institut elect men like Signol, Alaux and others? This letter also appeared in the Alfred Bovet sale. Dites-leur, Monsieur, je vous prie, que des recettes ne peuvent que produire un semblant de grand art.
Le grand art se trouve dans leur conscience, dans leur coeur.