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Bonvin was born in humble circumstances in Paris, the son of a police officer and a seamstress. When he was four years old his mother died of tuberculosis and young François was left in the care of an old woman who underfed him. Soon his father married another seamstress and brought the child back into the household. Nine additional children were born, putting a strain on the familys resources, and to make matters worse his stepmother took to abusing and undernourishing François.

The young Bonvin started drawing at an early age. His potential was recognized by a friend of the family, who paid for him to attend a school for drawing instruction at age eleven. Bonvin attended the Ecole de Dessin in Paris from 1828 until 1830, when his father apprenticed him to a printer. Bonvin later studied at the Académie Suisse, but was mostly self-taught as an artist. He considered François Granet, to whom he showed some of his drawings in 1843, his only mentor. Bonvin spent his free time at the Louvre where he especially appreciated the Dutch old masters and was welcomed by the collector Louis La Caze.


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