Richard Parkes Bonington
Biography of Landscape Artist, Pioneer of Plein-Air Naturalism.

Pin it

Venice. The Grand Canal (1827)
Private Collection.

Richard Parkes Bonington (1802-28)


Legacy and Importance as a Painter

For an idea of the pigments used
by Richard Parkes Bonington, see:
Colour Palette Nineteenth Century.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.
For the greatest view painters, see:
Best Landcape Artists.
For the top allegorical painting,
see: Best History Painters.

For the best works, see:
Greatest Modern Paintings.


In the school of English Landscape Painting, Richard Parkes Bonington ranks third in importance after JMW Turner (1775-1851) and John Constable (1776-1837), although he stands rather apart from other English painters of his day in that he was trained in France and spent a great part of his life there. The subjects of his landscape painting are mostly French coast and river scenes, characterized by a fresh naturalism, a bright tone and colour, great clarity of atmosphere, and a most delicate handling of paint. Bonington was only 26 years old when he died, compared to Constable who died at 61, and Turner at 76, yet in a career lasting less than a decade he produced work which may reasonably be compared with theirs. By comparison, at the age of 26 Turner had only just begun to find his feet as an oil-painter, while John Constable had only just finished studying at the Royal Academy schools in London.



One of the most talented modern artists of the 19th century, Bonington was born at Arnold, near Nottingham, the son of a drawing master, he moved with his family to the French city of Calais in 1817. There he received training in what would be his great skill, watercolour painting, from the watercolourist Louis Francia. In 1818, he went to Paris and met Eugene Delacroix (1798-63), leader of French Romantic art movement, with whom he forged a friendship that would last the rest of his short life. He studied works by the Old Masters in the Louvre and made watercolour copies of the landscape paintings of the Flemish and Dutch schools. In 1821 and 1822, he worked with Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835) at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and two years later exhibited at the Salon in Paris, winning his first medal. Together with Constable, he was the English artist who awakened the most interest and received the most recognition that year in art circles, and much of his importance lies in the fact that he introduced watercolour landscapes to French art.


In 1824, he created a series of lithographs for a portfolio on Normandy, Picturesque and Romantic Tours of Old France (a collection published from 1820 to 1878). As a result of this enterprise, he decided to make several trips, one to England and Scotland in 1825 with his friend Delacroix, and another to the north of France to paint landscapes featuring the coast and ports of Normandy. Some of his most famous works resulted from this pilgrimage, including At the English Coast (1825) and Normandy Beach Scene (1826), watercolour and oil respectively, reflecting his interest in the atmospheric effects of light and colour. The sky is, thus, an essential and main element in his landscapes, occupying a great deal of space in his compositions.

Bonington was especially interested in colour, always brilliant and luminous and with a certain emphasis on chiaroscuro, a palette with fluid and delicate brush strokes that evidently come from his watercolour techniques. An example of this is The Park at Versailles, which, like all of his works, was painted directly from nature. In 1826, he moved on to Italy, where he saw the great works of the Venetian masters, including Paolo Veronese (1528-88), and most especially the view-paintings of Venice by Canaletto (1697-1768), his nephew Bernardo Bellotto (1720–1780), Francesco Guardi (1712–1793) and other vedute painters, whose technique and colours greatly impressed him. St Mark's Column in Venice (1826-8), one of the many views of the city that he painted, is a departure from the traditional Baroque scheme of the vedute, reflecting not only a panorama but also partial areas.

Legacy and Importance as a Painter

Bonington's life was very short, since he died of tuberculosis at the age of 26. Although he produced a few small-scale figurative history paintings under the influence of Delacroix and the French Romantic school (eg. Henry IV and the Spanish Ambassador, 1827) - his primary importance to the history of art is his naturalistic concept and technique for landscapes, which proved a decisive influence on some members of the Barbizon School of landscape painting, and on later Impressionist painters, including Claude Monet (1840-1926). Curiously, despite his training and his close contact with French painting there are few signs of French inspiration in his style of landscape painting which is quite personal and definitely English in its affinities.

At the time of his death, Bonington was a mature painter, in the vanguard of the plein-air painting movement. It is pointless to speculate on what he might have achieved if he had lived to a normal age, but he accomplished enough in his short life to place him among the giants of the English landscape School, and his death cut short a career as full of brilliant promise as that of Thomas Girtin (1775-1802), who died at the same age. His luminous oil painting is quite as distinguished as his watercolours, and he shares with his countryman John Constable the credit of helping to launch the French plein-air landscape tradition.

Paintings by Richard Parkes Bonington

Famous landscape paintings by Richard Parkes Bonington can be seen in some of the best art museums throughout the world, notably the Wallace Collection in London. In addition to those cited above, Bonington's paintings include:

- Normandy (1823, Tate Britain, London)
- Boats off the Coast of Normandy (1823-4, Hermitage, St Petersburg).
- Corsa Saint'Anastasia, Verona (1826, Victoria & Albert Museum, London).
- View of Venice (c.1826, Louvre, Paris).
- Venetian Campanili (c.1826, Maidstone Museum & Art Gallery)
- Das Parterre d'Eau in Versailles (c.1826, Louvre, Paris).
- Promontory near Saint Valery-sur-Somme (c.1826, Hull City Art Gallery).
- The Undercliff (1828, Nottingham City Museums & Galleries).
- Venice: the Pizza S. Marco (1828, Wallace Collection, London).


• For biographies of other English artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For more details of painting, see: Homepage.

© All rights reserved.