Pierre Bonirote was born in 1811 in Lyon. He trained at the École des Beaux-Arts in the same city, where he was a pupil of Pierre Révoil and Claude Bonnefond, who introduced him to a history painting style imbued with purist elements, which he learned immediately, although he applied them not only to historical subjects but also to genre ones. He made his debut in 1833 in Lyon with Une petite Savoyarde blessée au pied.
Towards the end of the same decade, he travelled to Rome for further training, where he was one of the disciples of Jean-August-Dominique Ingres, during the years when he was director of the French Academy in the Villa Medici. It was Ingres’ contribution that led to a turning point in Pierre Bonirote’s life and career: he was introduced to Sophie de Marbois-Le Brun, Duchess of Plaisance, who had supported the Greek independence movement and moved to Athens, where she became a fervent supporter of public education. Interested in founding a School of Fine Arts, she went to Rome to see Ingres, who recommended a painter who could take on the role of director of the new school. She was immediately recommended to Bonirote who, shortly afterwards, moved to Athens as Director of the Art Department of the Polytechnic School.
The Greek Period and Hellenic Subjects
The artist stayed in Athens for three years, a crucial period for his growth, as he collected a series of sketches and impressions of the ancient classical ruins, as well as a large number of small genre subjects and landscapes of great topographical and folkloric importance. In them, he now developed a marked romantic vein, while always keeping a classical and purist sensibility alive.
At the same time, he kept a diary entitled Gréce Souvenir, in which he offered an unprecedented view of Greek life, closely linked to the works he produced during this brief but intense period, during which he also visited the Balkans and the Middle East, as evidenced by works such as Jeunne fille albanaise and L’Odalisque au narghilé. The numerous philhellenic subjects resulting from this experience are today kept in the Foundation of Archbishop Makarios III in Nicosia, Cyprus.
Forced to give up teaching in Greece in 1843, as a result of a decree forbidding foreigners to work in the Ecole Polytechnique, Pierre Bonirote returned to Lyon, where he was appointed professor at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where he remained for several years until 1875. Even after his return to France, the painter continued to deal with pro-Greek subjects, as can be seen in the 1862 painting Un pêcheur grec raconte ses aventures devant le Cap Sounion. Stylistically, Bonirote’s Orientalism remains faithful to the narration of a serene and real everyday life, far removed from the strained style of some French painters who imagine a fabulous and sensational Orient.