Paintings : François Bonivard’s imprisonment in Chillon Castle.
François Bonivard (1493-1570) came from the lower Savoyard nobility and was the prior of Saint-Victor in Geneva from 1514. He quickly joined forces with the party opposed to the Duke of Savoy’s efforts to control the city. This led to his arrest and incarceration in Chillon Castle in 1530. He was freed six years later by the Bernese army when they invaded Vaud. In 1816, poet Lord Byron made Bonivard the romantic hero of his famous poem "The Prisoner of Chillon".
Genevan painter Joseph Hornung (1792-1870) was the artist behind the diptych depicting Bonivard in Chillon prison. Self-taught and motivated by a great nostalgia for the 16th century, he is known for his historic paintings with a distinctive preference for themes linked to Savoy and the Protestant Reformation.
The two paintings were fairly unknown to specialists: not even Hornung’s own heirs knew when they were painted, or even that they existed. They can most likely be linked to the history painting competition organised by the Geneva Arts Society in 1824. Here, painters Georges Chaix and Jean-Léonard Lugardon embarked on a “clash of the canvases”, each depicting Bonivard’s release by the Bernese army. This major artistic event set Hornung’s name in stone. He would go on to paint his “Autoportrait sous les traits de Bonivard” (self-portrait depicted as Bonivard) in 1845. The diptych probably dates back to the second quarter of the 19th century.
The first painting depicts the prisoner being consoled by the prison guard’s daughter, while the second illustrates Bonivard being freed by the Bernese. Hornung took particular care to transpose architectural details such as the famous castle prison columns, which leads us to believe he had seen them with his own eyes.
The style of these paintings is similar to that of the Netherlands, most notably in the use of chiaroscuro and the contrasting of bright colours on a dark background. The composition itself evokes the school of French Romanticism from the beginning of the 19th century, with the characters giving hints of very expressive movements.
These paintings were acquired in 2013, thanks to generous support from the Friends of Chillon Castle Association. For conservation purposes, they are to be exhibited one at a time over the course of a year in the castle prison.
Episodes of François Bonivard’s captivity in Chillon
Oil on canvas