Monday, July 5, 2010

Cadaver on the Cross

Academic master Léon Bonnat (1833-1922) spared no effort to inject realism into his painting of the crucifixion, commissioned for the Palais de Justice and completed in 1874.

According to one of his American students, J. Alden Weir,
“I went into the dissection room and saw Mr. Bonnat with the Prof. [Gerome]. They had just received a subject, and a the opposite side of the room I saw an immense cross, but thought nothing. Bonnat said he had not much time to stay and wanted the gendarme to hurry up so two of these soldiers and a hired man took the subject out of the room, brought the cross out and laid it on it.

It was then whispered about that Bonnat had a commission to paint a crucifixion, had bought the subject, and had the cross fixed, so as to be able to study the action of the muscles. Some of the students, hearing what was up, crowded in; this attracted Bonnat’s attention, and he got the gendarme to close the door and lock it.

We went back to the lecture room where we draw the bones, and while sitting there we heard the nails driven in. We finished; Mr. Blackman and myself went out together after all had gone.

At the door we met a guardian and bribed him to let us see the subject, which he did, and standing up against the wall was the large cross with the subject crucified on it, a horrid sight; but it shows how these French artists believe in truth.”


--from The Lure of Paris: Nineteenth-Century American Painters and Their French Teachers, by H. Barbara Weinberg

9 comments:

Roberto said...

Too bad this guy didn’t know about Sculpey; it would have saved him a lot of time, trouble, and expense. -RQ

Will Kelly said...

Wow, what a commitment to realism! That must have been a disturbing yet awe-inspiring sight for those students.

ARMAND CABRERA said...

Great post.

I wonder why he chose to paint a living figure in the end? As the painting shows muscles that are tensed from holding oneself up in that position not relaxed as they would be in death.

James Gurney said...

Armand, good observation, and I think you're right. Perhaps he regarded Christ's last struggles as the essence of the story.

Andrew Wales said...

Very interesting anecdote!

Poortvielt's paintings of the crucifixion are some of the best of this subject I've ever seen. When I was a kid, we had his book, "He was One of Us".

Me said...

was going to say teh same thing as james, it appears this would be just before death

Off the Coast of Utopia said...

Pietro Annigoni did the same for his Christ figure in the Annigoni Room frescoes in San Marco, Florence (1939) and again in his Deposition in the church at Ponte Buggianese (late 1960's)

Humza Khan said...

Hard core

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Gene Snyder said...

In addition to the tense muscles, the skin tone and color leads us to believe the figure is still alive. I'd imagine the color would have been drained from the skin if deceased.