Walters showcases the nature of Bonvin

March 12, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Leon Bonvin's life was short, unhappy and ended with suicide at age 32 in 1866. Forced to work in his father's inn-keeping business, he escaped at dawn and dusk to paint delicate, lovely watercolors of the natural world around the village of Vaugirard near Paris.

Largely unappreciated in his lifetime and long forgotten afterward, he found a champion in William Walters, the %o 19th-century collector from Baltimore who spent the Civil War years in Paris. Walters eventually amassed, and the Walters Art Gallery now owns, about 60 works by Bonvin, the world's largest collection. Two dozen of them are currently on view in "A Vanishing Meadow: The Watercolors of Leon Bonvin," a show of reserved but considerable delights.

Curator William R. Johnston has concentrated on Bonvin's watercolors of living nature. Typically, they feature depictions of flowers and shrubs growing wild in the foreground, with a scene of fields beyond and perhaps a building or two in the distance.

The background scene is often shrouded in the mists of early morning or evening, against which the foreground flora stand out with clarity. Bonvin did not simply record, though; he imbued his scenes with a sense of light and atmosphere, a feeling for time of day and weather, and a hint of emotional response to the beauty of nature.

One of his finest qualities is the ability to capture exactly what it is like to see things at a particular time of day, or in a particular light. When he paints a night scene, as with either of the two pictures titled "Moonlight Scene," the foreground at first looks virtually black. But the eye adjusts to the dark, as it would if one were actually there, and gradually one can see bits of light and the outlines of nearby shoots.

When he paints a scene in which he is looking from a darker place into the light, as in "Rural Scene," he perfectly reproduces the difficulty of focusing on nearby objects with the light behind them.

Reading one's knowledge of an artist's life into his works can be an easy snare to fall into. But it is not too far-fetched to say that in his best works Bonvin conveys in an understated way an anguished joy at the beauty of the world, like a condemned man seeing with exceptional clarity what he is about to lose.

Leon's better-known artist brother Francois wrote, in early February, 1866, "My poor brother, in spite of all his efforts, has been overtaken by evil fortune. . . . He was determined to end everything and he went and hanged himself in the forest of Meudon." Thanks to William Walters, his brief life was not in vain, as visitors to this show will see.


What: "A Vanishing Meadow: The Watercolors of Leon Bonvin"

Where: The Walters Art Gallery, 600 N. Charles St.

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, through Aug. 7

Admission: $4 adults, $3 seniors, free for students and others 18 and under

$ Call: (410) 547-9000

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