Bonington Landscape Complements Turner’s Port Scenes
This article is reprinted from the Winter 2017 issue of the Members’ Magazine.
In 1825, at the Royal Academy in London, Joseph Mallord William Turner exhibited The Harbor of Dieppe, now at The Frick Collection and considered to be one of the artist’s masterpieces. Two years later, at the same venue, Richard Parkes Bonington, a younger painter similarly moved to depict the coastal environs of northern France, exhibited a canvas entitled Scene on the French Coast.
The landscape was purchased the same year by the English aristocrat John Russell, 6th Duke of Bedford, one of Bonington’s great patrons, and still hangs at Woburn Abbey, the Russell family home in Bedfordshire. It has been identified by scholars as the painting today known as On the Côte d’Opale, Picardy.
Another superb work by Bonington of nearly an identical scene and bearing the same title is now on display in the North Hall, the generous loan of Board Chair Margot Bogert and her husband, Jerry. Bonington often repeated the same composition in various media and formats for multiple patrons, and this canvas is possibly an earlier, independent work that the artist repainted in a larger format for exhibition at the Royal Academy. The painting was purchased by one of the United Kingdom’s most impressive collectors, the Scottish landowner Hugh Munro of Novar, who assembled a remarkable collection, including works by Rembrandt, Titian, and Paolo Veronese, as well as a large number of canvases by Turner and at least nine other paintings by Bonington.
The provenance of On the Côte d’Opale, Picardy bespeaks its relevance to The Frick Collection; its subject makes it an especially compelling complement to Turner’s Modern and Ancient Ports: Passages through Time, the current exhibition of Turner’s harbor scenes. The exhibition features paintings, watercolors, sketchbooks, and prints, most produced about the same time that Bonington’s career was flourishing. It could be argued that Turner and Bonington looked at many of the same sites in England, France, and Italy, representing them according to their own individual artistic sensibilities. Turner’s paintings are powerful depictions of the force of nature, shown to theatrical effect, while Bonington’s view of the world is more genteel and lyrical.
Richard Parkes Bonington was nearly thirty years younger than Turner. He was born in 1802, in Arnold, near Nottingham, England, and as a teenager moved to France with his parents, who relocated to Calais for business reasons. From a young age, he demonstrated extraordinary skill at drawing and painting in watercolors. In 1817, he began studying in Calais with the painter François Louis Thomas Francia, and a year later he moved with his family to Paris, where he became acquainted with Eugène Delacroix and later trained with Baron Antoine-Jean Gros. He led a nomadic life, mainly across France, painting the scenery of different areas of the country, never settling for long. In the mid-1820s, he began traveling to other parts of Europe (Italy and Venice, in particular). By 1823, he had started to paint larger works in oil, while still producing watercolors. His career was cut short when he died of tuberculosis, on September 23, 1828, one month shy of his twenty-sixth birthday.
Bonington’s migration from England to France—and the career that followed—coincided with a critical moment in the history of England’s relation to the Continent. The third decade of the nineteenth century was the first time in which France and other areas of Europe were accessible to the English, after decades of conflict during the Napoleonic Wars. Artists like Bonington and Turner seized the opportunity to travel across France and Europe, as did many tourists in those years.
The Côte d’Opale, a coastal stretch of northern France, was easily reached by British visitors from across the English Channel. Named for the opalescent colors of its landscape, the coast extends approximately seventy-five miles between the Belgian border and the Bay of Somme and is marked by two large cliffs between Calais and Boulogne—the Cap Gris Nez and the Cap Blanc Nez (the gray and white nose capes). The historical region known as Picardy encompasses the southern end of the Côte d’Opale and is less than one hundred miles from Dieppe. At some point in the first half of the 1820s, both Turner and Bonington had been inspired by this region, sketching it as a source for paintings of coastal life.
Many of Bonington’s paintings focus on beaches in northern France at low tide. Two thirds of On the Côte d’Opale, Picardy is devoted to a leaden sky, ranging from the intense blue of the uppermost left-hand corner to the large swathes of billowing clouds. The lower portion depicts a sandy beach, still wet from the receding tide. Visible on the horizon is one of the two capes, possibly the Cap Blanc Nez. Along the beach some boats lie forsaken, but a few white sails on the sea as well as distant rooftops suggest an expanse of coast where settlements thrive. A number of the sails are suggested simply by dots of white pigment, others are effectively scratched into the surface. In the foreground is an exquisite still life. Various objects have been discarded on the sandy shore: a wooden door, a saddle, the carcasses of boats. Among these objects, three young women wearing Picardy costumes—possibly a mother and her two daughters—have settled, surrounded by baskets and plates containing the catch of the day, a few translucent fish and rays. The various surfaces are sensitively rendered with brushstrokes that describe the shifting light on the beach and over the sea, revealing the poetry of this quotidian scene, apparently unimportant but beautiful in its clarity.
Although the original patron of this canvas (if there was one) is unknown, most of Bonington’s paintings were created for British and French collectors, and a large number of them are still exhibited in England, most prominently at the Wallace Collection in London, which owns some of his most celebrated pictures. The Frick does not own any by him, but the collection does include five canvases by Turner, acquired by Henry Clay Frick between 1901 and 1904. These and the additional Turners on loan to the exhibition provide an illuminating context for the Bonington, and it is a privilege to present this delicate work in their company
Richard Parkes Bonington (1802–1828), On the Côte d’Opale, Picardy, ca. 1825–26. Oil on canvas. On loan from Mr. and Mrs. Jeremiah M. Bogert