Richard Parkes Bonington: The Complete Paintings

A compilation of the works of a highly regarded, influential painter is appreciated by Duncan Wu

August 27, 2009

"His name was Richard Parkes Bonington," Eugene Delacroix told a friend in 1861, remembering a long-dead colleague. "All of us loved him."

Highly regarded as a visual artist in his own day, Bonington was claimed after his death by the French as one of their own, having spent much of his working life in Paris. He has been likened to John Keats - a prodigiously gifted near-contemporary practising a sister art, who succumbed to an early death from tuberculosis while in his twenties; indeed, Bonington was barely a year younger than the poet had been at the time of his death.

Yet there is a significant difference. Keats' reputation, depressed by critical incomprehension and poor sales, languished for decades, whereas Bonington's demise was greeted by heartfelt lamentation on both sides of the Channel and led to a surge in the popularity of his art. Throughout the 1830s, Bonington's work commanded high prices in the French and British art markets and became popular in print form, spawning numerous imitations.

What's more, Bonington's influence changed the course of his art. The critic Charles Sainte-Beuve declared his vision the third pillar of Romantic sensibility, harmonising the vibrancy of Delacroix with the realism of Theodore Gericault; Camille Corot thought him the first naturalistic landscapist in France; Theophile Gautier avowed more than once that the modern revolution in French painting had begun with Bonington; while Honore de Balzac described him as the Romantic malaise incarnate.

And yet, reputations are flighty, wayward things subject to the caprice of fashion; and so it was that by the time the Pre-Raphaelites rediscovered Keats (a development that led to his long-delayed reinstatement to the canon), Bonington's star had declined.

Patrick Noon counts three comprehensive exhibitions of Bonington's oeuvre since his death, only the most recent of which (in 1991) was sufficiently informed "to pose, and respond to, the various issues of connoisseurship and interpretation that have plagued modern appreciations of this artist's attainment".

Bonington's ability to meet the technical challenges of his subjects, regardless of whether he was working in oils or watercolours, was as unparalleled as the intensity with which he depicted them. It's what Romantic art is all about. Noon's exhaustive catalogue raisonne puts this remarkable artist on the map once and for all. Within the 360 pages of this handsome volume, Noon catalogues, analyses and reproduces the works of art (all 415 of them) now attributed to Bonington.

For each, Noon gives full descriptive information, details of provenance, exhibition appearances and present location. The reproductions are often (although not invariably) in full colour and, in many cases, sufficiently detailed to enable the reader to trace brush and pencil strokes in fine detail.

The designer and publisher have done a fine job in this respect, for many of the larger items have been given either a full page or a two-page spread.

Supplementary illustrations show preparatory sketches, later versions and related works by Bonington's associates.

Noon also supplies a lavishly illustrated essay on his subject's life and work that extends to more than 60 pages - a lucid, well-informed piece of scholarly writing that tells Bonington's story in a way that does full justice to his unusual background as a French student in the atelier of Baron Antoine-Jean Gros, and his subsequent career in France and Britain.

Bonington has been described as "Young and Romantic" (to cite the title of Matt Cambridge's 2002 exhibition at Nottingham Castle); if his youth was self-evident, his Romanticism has always been something that could bear further scrutiny, and this is one of the finest elements in Noon's introduction.

By placing Bonington securely within his context - the world of Samuel Prout, Thomas Shotter Boys (Bonington's protege), Copley Fielding, John Constable and J.M.W. Turner, as much as that of the French artists who were his immediate colleagues and rivals - Noon establishes the painter's credentials as a Romantic beyond question.

As he observes, it is evident as much in his treatment of landscape, where "a picturesque lyricism supersedes any topographical considerations", as in his interest in oriental subjects, which was "undoubtedly stimulated" by his friend and sometime studio partner Delacroix.

This is a major publication not only for those with a prior interest in its subject; it is of compelling importance to anyone concerned with the artistic ferment of high Romanticism. It establishes the cultural terrain in which Bonington thrived and from which he emerged as one of the great artists of his day.

Specialists will find it indispensable, not least because it brings the scholarly record up to date, citing hitherto unavailable items of correspondence as well as manuscript materials concerning Bonington's Italian sojourn, which have emerged only in the past decade. There could be no better case for the genius of an artist described by Edith Wharton as the "Keats of painting".

Richard Parkes Bonington: The Complete Paintings

By Patrick Noon

Yale University Press, 360pp, £85.00

ISBN 9780300134216

Published 28 December 2008

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