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A Nun Preparing Coffee. Oil on wood. 16 x 22 cm. Signed and dated: “F. Bonvin 1873”.
François Bonvin, a painter and etcher from humble origins, was largely self-taught as an artist. At the instigation of François Marius Granet he turned his attention to painting, scoring an initial succès d’estime at the Paris Salon of 1848. Bonvin’s talent was held in great esteem by critics and experts alike, although his reclusive nature meant that as an artist he was virtually unknown to the public at large. Bonvin, together with Courbet, is considered one of the foremost representatives of realism. He was greatly influenced by the Dutch 17th century masters as regards subject matter and painterly treatment. His small depictions of interiors illustrate everyday scenes from the lives of ordinary people and are distinguished by the high quality of the painting.
The present portrayal of a nun in her grey habit preparing coffee in her modest cell is an exemplary illustration of his sensitive genre painting. The young woman with her peasant-like features is a member of the order Soeurs de la Charité, which took care of the sick and needy in the Hôtel-Dieu of Saint-Germain en Laye. Bonvin made several visits to this nunnery, where he painted a large number of pictures portraying everyday life in the convent (see A. Berès, M. Arreiller, François Bonvin. 1818–1887, Paris 1998). The palette is reduced to vigorous, evocative hues of grey, black and brown which contrast effectively with the fresh white of the veil and the white porcelain cup. Glistening highlights on the copper finishing of the coffee grinder and on the body and handle of the brown stone jug testify to the artist’s consummate craftsmanship. The whole emanates a painterly refinement reminiscent of 17th century Dutch predecessors such as Nicolaes Maes. At the same time it documents the determining influence of 18th century French painting, in particular the art of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin. The little kitchen still life in the picture – coffee cup, pot and loaf of bread – is on a par with the work of Chardin. Equally subtle is the way in which Bonvin plays with different levels of perception. The nun in her heavy grey habit, who still looks fairly young, has opted for a life of asceticism and detachment from the world. Nonetheless, she is not averse to the little sensual pleasures of everyday life.