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Richard Parkes Bonington
Birth Date: 
Birth Place: 
Arnold (Nottinghamshire)
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Death Place: 
An English landscape and history painter who worked in France for most of his short artistic life, Richard Parkes Bonington’s Romantic works influenced a generation of French artists as they moved away from the academic classicism of the 18th century towards the modernism of the 19th century. Born in Arnold, a village near Nottingham, in 1802, Bonington probably received his artistic training from his father, who was a drawing instructor, portrait painter, art supplies dealer and print collector. Facing an economic recession in Nottingham, in 1817 his parents sold their house and possessions and moved across the English Channel to Calais, where his father went into a partnership to manufacture lace. Bonington received instruction in watercolor painting from François-Thomas-Louis Francia (1772-1839), a French artist who had recently returned to Calais after having a successful career in London. The Bonington family probably moved to Paris in late 1818 to open a retail store selling lace. While copying works in the Louvre Museum he met Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), who would become a close friend, and the English artist James Roberts (active 1818-1867), who recommended that Bonington enroll in the atelier of the history painter Baron Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835), which he did in April 1819. He studied with Gros for about two years; contemporary accounts record that they clashed, then reconciled. Sketching trips taken around Paris with his fellow students led to watercolor views that Bonington sold through dealers and illustrations in literary magazines. With the proceeds of his sales Bonington left Gros’s studio by September 1821 and traveled to Normandy. Two of his landscape watercolors were exhibited in the 1822 Paris Salon and were purchased by the Société des Amis des Arts. Early that year he received a commission from Jean-Frédéric d’Ostervald (1773-1850) to create a watercolor copy of a sketch for d’Ostervald’s travel book “Voyage pittoresque en Sicile” (1822 and 1826), the first of many topographic illustrations Bonington would create. A tour of Belgium and Normandy in 1823 led to his set of a ten lithographic views of Gothic architecture, “Restes et fragmens d’architecture du moyen age,” published in 1824. He probably learned lithography from Francia, who was then in Paris and had published lithographic views. Bonington also created lithographic views for the series of travel books published by Baron Isidore Taylor (1789-1879), “Voyages pittoresques et romantiques dans l’ancienne France.” Of the sixty-one lithographs Bonington created during his career, fifteen were for Taylor’s series of books. Around 1823 Bonington took up oil painting, and spent much of 1824 in Dunkirk, painting marine views. He displayed four marine oils, a watercolor and a lithograph at the 1824 Salon, and received a gold medal for one of the oils. During the following summer Bonington traveled to London where he met with other French colleagues then in London (including Delacroix and Eugène Isabey (1803-1886)), viewed works in the British museum and in private collections and took sketching trips. That fall, after sketching trips along the Normandy coastline with Isabey and along the Seine with Paul Huet (1803-1869), Bonington moved into Delacroix’s Parisian studio in the Left Bank and began creating history paintings using oil paints. He exhibited two marine oil paintings of the French coastline in London at the British Institution in early 1826, to great critical praise. The review of the exhibition in the February 1826 “London Gazette” asked “Who is R. P. Bonington? We never saw his name in any catalogue before and yet here are pictures which would grace the foremost name in landscape art.” (Quoted in Noon (2008) p. 41.) Both paintings were sold, and Bonington soon sold works to a number of British aristocrats. In February Bonington moved into his own studio on rue des Martyrs in the 9th arrondissement. That spring he traveled to Italy with his friend Charles Rivet (1800-1872), returning by way of Switzerland. The several cities they visited were recorded in sketches that Bonington later turned into finished oils and watercolors, most notably views of Venice in its faded glory that he exhibited in 1827 and 1828 in London and Paris along with history paintings and other landscapes, including lithographs. He moved his studio again at the end of 1827, this time to rue St.-Lazare. During a visit to London in early 1828 he met Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) and exhibited at the British Institution. Later in the spring he exhibited at the Paris Salon and London’s Royal Academy. While sketching on the Seine Bonington collapsed due to sunstroke, and in the following months his health declined, although he continued to work. He created his only etching, a view of Verona, with the assistance of the English painter and printmaker Thomas Shotter Boys (1803-1874), who published it after Bonington’s death. He returned to London for medical treatment in September, but it was unsuccessful; Bonington died of tuberculosis on September 23, 1828, a month shy of his 26th birthday. (TNB 8/2105) Selected bibliography: Cormack, Malcolm: Bonington. Oxford: Phaidon, 1989. Noon, Patrick. Richard Parkes Bonington: The Complete Paintings. New Haven and London: Paul Mellon Centre for British Art, Yale University Press, 2008. Noon, Patrick. Richard Parkes Bonington: The Complete Drawings. New Haven: Paul Mellon Centre for British Art, Yale University Press, 2011.