A bather in a forest signed and dated 'Ach. Benouville/Rome 1846' (lower right) oil on canvas 140 x 138 cm. (55 x 54 1/4 in.), tondo
Provenance: Acquired by the Grandfather of the present owner.
In the catalogue raisonné on the work of Achille Benouville, the author, Marie- Madeleine Aubrun, mentions the existence of Le bain (no. 202) only in reference to a known lithograph from the painting (G.202); (1) the whereabouts of the painted work remained, until now, unknown. It is therefore with pleasure that Bonhams will be offering Benouvilles previously unlocated masterpiece, thus contributing to the advancement of our historical knowledge of this artist. Although Achille Benouville was a prolific draughtsman, paintings by him are less frequent; today, most of his works remain in private collections or in public institutions and the appearance of such an important painting on the art market is almost unique.
Achille Benouville initially specialised in historical landscape painting. At a very young age, he had entered the studio of François-Edouard Picot (1786-1868), himself a pupil of Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825). Benouville continued his instruction under Leon Cogniet (1794-1880) before being admitted to the Ecole des beaux-arts on 27 March 1837. That same year, he won the second prize in the historical landscape category. In 1838, he set off on his first trip to Italy. In the summer of 1840, he returned there, visiting Frascati, Ariccia and Civitella. Benouville made a third trip to Italy in 1843. It was during this trip that he visited Narni, Tivoli and Nemi in the company of his fellow-artist and friend Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875). A recurrent visitor to the Italian peninsula, it was not until 1845 that Achille Benouville could justify an official stay in this country, winning the first prize of the prestigious Prix de Rome award in the category of landscape painting. The prize offered him three years of study at the Villa Medici, residence to the laureat-members of the French Academy in Rome. This allowed Benouville to embark upon a fourth trip to Italy, where he remained for the following twenty-eight years.
Shortly after his nomination for the Prix of 1845, Achille travelled to Italy with his brother, the well-known artist Léon Benouville (1821-1859), who had equally been successful for residency at the Villa Medici in the category of history painting. Léon stayed in Italy until 1851, when he returned to Paris. During his extended Italian period, Achille Benouville made several short visits to his homeland. His ties with France were also maintained by regular contributions to the Paris Salon. It was only in 1870, upon the death of his second wife in May, that Benouville returned to the French capital. He continued to travel extensively in France and abroad mostly the Low Countries and Italy. Achille Benouville died in Paris, on 6 February 1891. An important sale of his studio contents was held at Drouot ten years later, on 16 January 1901.
Benouvilles affinities with Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot extended far beyond their friendship. It was perhaps when Corot shared Benouvilles studio in Rome, in 1843, that their approach to landscape painting became so similar in style and technique. Following the great tradition of historical landscape painting in France, Corots own paintings brought greater fluidity in the depiction and distribution of light on foliage, through branches and across panoramic settings. The delicate freshness of his atmospheric renderings could only inspire a younger artist towards similar aspirations. As a pupil of Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1750-1819), Corot had assumed the passing on of the Neoclassical formulae of landscape painting to the following generation of French artists. Corots great contribution to this inheritance was to suffuse his landscapes with poetic atmosphere and distilled lighting effects. With Benouville, the Neoclassical tradition remains more transparent and a sense of quiet charm is instilled by reverting to a language of pictorial clarity. The learned attention he gives in depicting a corner of dense woodland transforms a visual perception of confusion into a painted representation of profusion; the distinction between each species of vegetation has brought clarity to the composition. By extension, it appears that this language of clarity has permeated the entire canvas, from vegetation to sky, from water to figure. With layers of transparent varnish, the artist has sealed in the circular parameters of a tondo a poetic celebration of nature in all its forms.
(1) Marie-Madeleine Aubrun, Achille Benouville 1815-1891. Catalogue raisonné de loeuvre, Paris: Imprimerie Chiffoleau, 1986, no.202, p.137. The lithograph after the painting was executed by Louis Francais (1814-1897). The cataloguing reference of this work at the Bibliothèque nationale is: B.N. Estampes: A.A. I., suppl.rel, Achille Benouville