Léon Bonnat began his formal artistic training at the royal academy of art in Madrid, where his family moved around 1846. His primary master was the leading artist in the Spanish capital, Federico de Madrazo, and Bonnat was one of the few foreign artists of the nineteenth century to study Spanish art, largely through the Prado Museum, as part of an official curriculum. After the death of his father in 1853, Bonnat and his family moved to Paris, where he entered the École des Beaux-Arts in 1854 and the independent atelier run by Cogniet (q.v.). During these years, Bonnat received annual scholarships from the municipal council of his hometown of Bayonne, and when he won only a second prize in the Prix de Rome of 1857, Bayonne again provided the funding for him to go to Rome to complete his artistic education from 1858 to 1861.
Bonnat had already begun exhibiting at the Salons in 1857 and continued, with increasing success, during the 1860s. His painting style in this period gener-ally featured powerful, naturalistic forms, often illuminated in dramatic chiaroscuro and modeled in fairly broad, thick paints of a rather limited palette. Critics of the time frequently compared his mode to that of the Spanish Old Masters, especially Ribera, but given his background and the French interest in things Spanish at this time, they were predisposed to see these visual correspondences. Bonnat appealed to more aesthetically conservative critics because of both his evident skills in modeling, anatomy, and composition and his willingness to undertake history and religious painting. Yet he also found support among more liberal art writers who perceived an originality, strength, and virility in his subjects, naturalism, and palette. Both sides hoped that this promising talent would lead French art out of its perceived decline.
During the 1860s the French govern-ment, the cities of Paris and Bayonne, the French emperor and empress, art dealers, and private individuals all purchased or commissioned works of art from Bonnat in a variety of genres: history, religious, mythological, allegorical, portrait, and genre painting. Large easel and mural paintings by Bonnat still exist in situ in Paris in the church of St. Nicolas-des-Champs, the Pantheon, Hôtel-de-Ville, and the Palais de Justice, the latter lacking only the formidable Christ on the Cross (1874, Musée du Petit Palais, Paris).
By 1867 Bonnat was named to the Legion of Honor, and in 1869 he won the gold medal, the highest award, at the Salon. With the 1870s he became internationally esteemed as a portraitist and could demand extremely high prices for these works. He modified his mode into a more exaggerated, harsher realism with even stronger light-dark contrasts. His financial success enabled him to indulge his great passion for collecting art, and by the 1890s he had acquired objects of great value, particularly drawings. The Académie and École des Beaux-Arts only brought him within their ranks in the 1880s, even though he had run a well-attended atelier since the late 1860s. With these duties came additional administrative positions that left him less and less time for his own painting. In 1890 Bonnat initiated a project to build a museum in Bayonne and bequeath his art collections to it, a plan that was finally realized with the opening of the Musée Bonnat in 1902. By the end of his long life, his reputation as a collector and administrator had eclipsed the esteem his painting had once enjoyed.