François Saint Bonvin was a painter and etcher. His half-brother Léon Bonvin was a watercolourist and innkeeper, whose lack of artistic success caused him to commit suicide in January 1866.
François trained first as a printer and later briefly at the Gobelins. From 1828 to 1830 he studied at the Ecole de Dessin, Paris, and later attended the Académie Suisse. He worked as a clerk for the Paris police until February 1850.
In 1847 he exhibited a portrait in the Salon and continued to show there until 1880. His works, mainly still lifes and genre scenes, show the influence of Chardin, e.g. The Cook (1849; Musée des Beaux-Arts, Mulhouse). This was drawn attention to by his friend the novelist and art critic Jules Champfleury in his La Silhouette (1849). Indeed, Bonvin convinced his patron Laurent Laperlier to collect works by Chardin, from which he then borrowed motifs. Bonvin's paintings also show the influence of the Le Nain brothers and seventeenth century Dutch art, especially the work of Pieter de Hooch.
Through his friendship with Champfleury and Gustave Courbet, Bonvin was admitted into the Realist circle in Paris, where he discussed Realist concerns with Amand Gautier, the writer Max Buchon and the art critic Jules-Antoine Castagnary at the Brasserie Andler.
Following the rejection of Whistler's first major oil At the Piano y024 (1858; Taft Museum, Cincinnati, OH) at the Salon in 1859, Bonvin had it and La Mère Gérard (1) y026 hung with other rejected works by Alphonse Legros, Henri Fantin-Latour and Theodule Ribot, at his 'Flemish' atelier at 189 rue St-Jacques, where they received the admiration of Courbet.
Whistler's The Kitchen m0235 and La Marchande de Poterie à Cologne m0272 have been likened to contemporary watercolours and drawings by Bonvin and in turn to paintings by Pieter de Hooch. Whistler seems to have bought one of Léon Bonvin's watercolours [GUW #11477] at some point prior to 1865.
Following his half-brother's death in 1866, Bonvin went to the Netherlands to study Dutch painting. He spent a year in London during the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71), returning to France where he settled in the village of Saint-Germain-en-Laye.
Bénézit, E., Dictionnaire des Peintres, Sculpteurs, Dessinateurs et Graveurs, 8 vols, 1956-61; Weisberg, Gabriel P., 'François Bonvin and an Interest in Several Painters of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries', Gazette des Beaux-Arts, vol. 76, 1970, pp. 359–66; Weisberg, G. P., 'The Traditional Realism of François Bonvin', Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art, vol. 65, 1978, pp. 281–98; Weisberg, G. P., Bonvin: La Vie et l'oeuvre, Paris, 1979; Young, Andrew McLaren, Margaret F. MacDonald, Robin Spencer, and Hamish Miles, The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler, New Haven and London, 1980 ; Lochnan, Katharine A., The Etchings of James McNeill Whistler, New Haven and London, 1984 ; Dorment, Richard and Margaret F. MacDonald, James McNeill Whistler, Tate, London, 1994; Weisberg, Gabriel P., 'François Bonvin', The Grove Dictionary of Art Online, ed. L. Macy.