Charcoal, black chalk on ribbed hand-made paper
Inv. No. 16332 (Property of the Städelscher Museums-Verein e. V.)
28.9 × 19.9 cm
It will take a great deal more practice and hard work before this little artist achieves mastery: the boy has only just begun his artistic training. Perched on a stool, he is copying a picture, an academic nude that has been pinned up on the wall. Such exercises were part of the elementary phase of art training, after which the pupil progressed to the more advanced stages of drawing from sculpture and, finally, from life. A bright beam of light shines onto the white paper, which is supported by a draughtsman’s board, and the tip of the black drawing utensil the boy is using stands out in sharp contrast. It is only indirectly that we sense both the hand as it draws and the child’s gaze focussed on his work. Nonetheless, the quiet concentration of the pupil, who is viewed from behind, is expressed in his whole posture. The clear articulation of the room – or the section we see of it – and the harmonious distribution of the large, subtly differentiated areas of light and shade are likewise in keeping with the overall mood. In a painterly manner, but at the same time with a distinctly unacademic approach for the period, Bonvin has largely avoided linear drawing, successfully achieving tonal modelling instead by rubbing and scraping the charcoal and chalk.
Bonvin modelled his drawing loosely on the well-known painting Le jeune dessinateur (The Young Draughtsman; National Museum, Stockholm) by Jean Siméon Chardin, which exists in several versions as well as a number of engraved reproductions and is accordingly widely known. The use of Chardin as a source is indicative of the high regard in which that eighteenth-century painter was held around 1850, in particular by the nineteenth-century French Realists, led by Gustave Courbet. It is striking, though, that Bonvin substitutes a child for the considerably older drawing pupil in Chardin’s painting. In his genrelike scene, he thus places the emphasis on the training of a child who is eager to learn at a time when a fundamental debate was going on about the value of drawing as an intellectual activity which supported the development of knowledge and taste. Just in this period there was moreover a growing interest in children’s drawings, as reflected, for example, in Gustave Courbet’s famous painting of 1854/55, L’Atelier du peintre (The Painter’s Studio; Musée du Louvre, Paris), where a younger child looks on as a boy draws matchstick men.
Bonvin, who came from a humble background, did not attend the French Academy, but was enrolled instead at the École du Dessin and the Atelier Suisse, where he first met Courbet around 1845. The famous Realist, who would later become a friend, initially had a formative influence on Bonvin’s drawing style, but by the time of this picture the style had attained individuality and independence.