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Richard Parkes Bonington, 1802–1828

Beach Scene

ca. 1825
Watercolor with scraping out on medium, smooth, cream wove paper
Sheet: 5 3/8 x 7 1/8 inches (13.7 x 18.1 cm)
Credit Line:
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Copyright Status:
Public Domain
Accession Number:
Drawings & Watercolors
Prints and Drawings
Subject Terms:
beach | boat | coast | figures | marine art | ship
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IIIF Manifest:

Richard Parkes Bonington’s family moved from England to France while he was still in his teens, settling just across the English Channel in Calais. There he received tuition in watercolor from Louis Francia before going on to the Paris studio of the history painter Baron Antoine-Jean Gros. Returning regularly to the French coast, he painted landscapes in a bravura watercolor technique that was immensely influential on both sides of the Channel. His tragically early death only enhanced his reputation.

Gallery label for Great British Watercolors from the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Center for British Art (Yale Center for British Art, 2008-06-09 - 2008-08-17)
According to legend, Louis Francia (cat. no. 38) stumbled upon Richard Parkes Bonington sketching on Calais beach. It sounds too suspiciously apt to be true, but the two could not have escaped each other's notice for long. Both had just arrived from England: Francia returning home after almost thirty years in England, Bonington emigrating to France, aged just fifteen. Bonington's father, a minor artist, may have given him early instruction in watercolor painting, but Francia tutored Bonington in the medium before sending him to Paris to study in the studio of Baron Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835) between 1819 and 1822. By the time he arrived in Paris, there had been a revolution in the French estimation of the British School. When Joseph Farington visited Paris in 1802, he recorded the current French criticism that British art had "nothing but coloring and effect." J. M. W. Turner (cat. nos. 43-49) was irked by this assessment: "They look with cool indifference at all the matchless power of Titian's glowing tones, because precision of detail in their sole idol," he opined. Twenty years later, Théodore Géricault (179I-1824) could urge a fellow French painter to "be steeped in the English school," since "colour and effect are understood and felt only here." Bonington was an acknowledged master of those values of color and effect that became so admired in the 1820s, and he proved to be a vital link between artists on both sides of the Channel.

Although Bonington began using oil at some stage in the early 1820s, he never abandoned watercolor, and his work in the two mediums is stylistically indistinguishable. Beach Scene was probably painted on one of his regular trips to Calais, where he would sketch the local shipping and fishing community. Aside from the faintest of washes over the granular paper and some patches of dilute blue, Bonington left the sky virtually untouched, giving the watercolor his characteristic pearlescent light. The sea itself has been rendered with a few quick horizontal strokes of the brush, while the sand and boats have been treated with broad and wet washes, taking on the texture of the paper beneath. In order to create a patch of light to contrast to the sky, boats, and sand, Bonington has even scraped off the surface of the paper behind the foreground man's head to suggest a white sail being lowered into the small boat. Nevertheless, Bonington's bravura technique was sometimes subjected to censure. Constable (cat. nos. 50-52), who lacked his natural facility, once complained that "there is a moral feeling in Art as well as everything else - it is not right in a young man to assume great dash - great completion [sic] - without study or pains." His implication that Bonington had nothing but superficial gifts did not prevent his work from exerting a major influence, not only on British watercolor but also on Anglo-French painting as a whole. Camille Corot (1796-1875) once confessed that it was upon seeing a small Bonington watercolor like this that he finally resolved to become a painter.

Matthew Hargraves

Hargraves, Matthew, and Scott Wilcox. Great British Watercolors: from the Paul Mellon collection. New Haven: Yale Center for British Art, 2007, p. 168, no. 73

Great British Watercolors from the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Center for British Art (Yale Center for British Art, 2008-06-09 - 2008-08-17) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Great British Watercolors from the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Center for British Art (The State Hermitage Museum, 2007-10-23 - 2008-01-13) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Great British Watercolors from the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Center for British Art (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 2007-07-11 - 2007-09-30) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Oil on Water - Oil Sketches by British Watercolorists (Yale Center for British Art, 1986-08-26 - 1986-11-09) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Malcolm Cormack, Oil on water, oil sketches by British watercolorists , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 1986, pp. 16-17, fig. 3, ND467 C67 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Yale Center for British Art, Great British watercolors : from the Paul Mellon Collection, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2007, pp. 168-69, no. 73, ND1928 .Y35 2007 (LC)+ Oversize (YCBA) [YCBA]

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